USING MY PRIVILEGE TO PROVIDE A SAFE PLACE FOR YOUTH BY LONI NEILSON-KATTELL
Ten years ago, I stepped off a bus onto camp Paxson in Seeley Lake, MT. The leadership camp held by the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) now EmpowerMT changed my life. We learned about mistreatment and how to make connections with people I wouldn’t have otherwise invested in. We saw how oppression and violence affect all of us and what we can do to break the vicious cycle. We learned how leadership has no age limits and most of all we learned about ourselves. Ten plus years ago I attended Big Sky-High School as a leader. Now I have the opportunity to return to my alma mater and provide a safe space for youth.
Last year I started studying at Walla Walla University to pursue a master’s degree in social work. I was seeking a way to impact the world beyond myself. My undergraduate degree is in technical theatre with an emphasis in stage management and lighting design with a minor in psychology. I guess you could say that it has always been vital for me to let people be seen and heard. Fostering a safe space for creative expression to occur is therapy for many, but I needed to do something more. My studies have shown me that as a social worker we are here to serve others. I needed a practicum placement for school, and EmpowerMT was the first place that came to my heart. I befriended the AmeriCorps Leader, Kayla Szatkiewicz. She was such a bright light in the EmpowerMT organization. Her enthusiasm showed me the opportunities for service in EmpowerMT and Big Sky High School through AmeriCorps.
Working with others, especially youth, has always been a passion of mine. As an AmeriCorps leader at EmpowerMT and Big Sky, I have no shortage of working with youth groups. Whether it is Big Sky’s Student Action Committee (SAC), or their Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), or EmpowerMT’s Afterschool program Empowering People Inspiring Change (EPIC) I have found that my investment in my future is well spent with the youth who are in fact my greatest teachers. They all continue to surprise and inspire my work with their ideas and values.
Serving youth as a privileged white, straight, cisgender, and woman has been the most humbling experience. Working with middle and high schoolers surprisingly puts you in a very vulnerable place. I am continuing to learn and live in discomfort, and that is okay. By acknowledging who I am, my many identities, I am modeling to the youth how vulnerability and conversation put us on the right path to serve for the betterment of humanity. Due to my many identities and privileges, I am able to provide a safe space that fosters positivity, validation, processes, collaboration, and awareness. I am here to serve the youth so that we can create a better future and its an honor for me as an AmeriCorps leader to be with them so they can be seen and heard.