I can remember my first time trying to understand my own power to change the world around me. I had just returned from a summer program of backpacking in Western Pennsylavania.  A month of showering under waterfalls and sleeping under a full sky of stars transformed my experience in the suburbs into one of frustration. I yearned for open space and parks and started to ask myself and my teachers: Who decides where things are built?  Who has the power to create the landscape around me?  Why does everyone drive even though most places that we go are only a few miles away from each other?  Why is there an apartment being built where my favorite park used to be? To these questions, most adults answered me: “I don’t know”.   Overwhelmed and angry, I felt like a fly trapped in a web of complicated systems with no information and no way to make a difference.


Twenty three years later, as an empowered citizen and adult,  I am experimenting with creating leadership and empowerment programs for youth,to find ways to affect the next generation in this new global and technological landscape.   What are the transformational conversations, experiences and relationships that will both help a student shine into their own potential but also use that potential to change the world for the better?  What experiences can convince youth that they can be a changemaker AND that it is worth the effort?  What does it mean to make a difference and how to do we make this now contrite sentence meaningful in our ever interconnected but somehow increasingly disconnected world?   Though I have read many books and still focus on keeping informed of best practices,  my experience points me to three tips for engaging tweens and teens in programming designed to inspire action and care for the world.


  1. Tweens and teens developmentally crave mentors and adults upon which they place their authority.  Authority has to be earned by an adult who inspires the child with their authenticity, their knowledge, their striving and their true desire to relate.  In the relationship between inspired, authentic adult activist and teen, the younger person automatically is inspired to question and strive through their admiration and love for their mentor.
  2. Find ways to present information that catches their attention and then be authentically curious about their responses. (ie: try not to browbeat them with your opinion.)  For those educators that are techonologically savvy, this should be a fun challenge! Try to find ways to use personal narrative and story to connect students with people affected by issues rather than focus on facts.
  3. Create classrooms and programs embedded in ritual  that creates a culture of non violence and trust.  The leaders of tomorrow must be able to communicate in ways that model the world in which they would like to live.  Leaders must learn to speak from a balanced voice that gives power to the truths in their minds, spirits and hearts.  Set your intention, prepare and then have fun and learn from the students.
by Melanie Kessler

About the author: Melanie Kessler  has 15 years experience teaching and founding new programs for community organizations, including the Safe Routes to Schools programs in Alameda and Marin Counties, CA. She has also led professional trail crews and worked at four commercial and experimental farms across the country.  As a counselor for youth summer programs: Student Conservation Association, Youth Empowered Action (YEA) camp and Kids4Peace Vermont, she has picked up  tools, stories, activities and inspiration to engage middle school students in team building, leadership development and personal reflection.  She is leading a middle school leadership camp (RoutedYouth camp)  this summer through Willowell foundation www.willowell.org and directing a family based spiritual education program for 6th and 7th grade families called Makom L’Mishpacha at Ohavi Zedek synagogue next year www.ohavizedek.org. She holds a M.Ed with Waldorf and Elementary Education Certification from Antioch University.