Davanti Gross, right, and Michael Trevino play "human bingo," an icebreaker at the start of the YouthBuild rural caucus. (Photos by Shawn Poynter)

YouthBuild USA’s 28th annual Conference of Young Leaders is in full swing this week, on the heels of a meeting of rural young people who met to discuss their common issues.

More than 100 young people from across the country have gathered in Arlington, Virginia, to represent their local chapters of YouthBuild, USA, a non-profit organization that provides training and leadership opportunities for low-income young people across the United States.  Over the past three days, participants have been sharing skills and struggles, meeting fellow YouthBuild participants, and participating in workshops on topics as diverse as financial literacy and leadership development.

Before the Conference of Young Leaders kicked off on Monday, March 7, 21 rural YouthBuild participants arrived early for the National Rural Youth Caucus.

On the first day of the rural caucus, the young people were asked what rural means to them.  The conversations frequently began with what was missing in some rural areas: public transportation, ample opportunities for employment, recreational opportunities for young people.  But as the discussion continued, participants began to identify the strengths of their hometowns and ways they might improve their communities.  Plans for expanded recycling stations and community gardens at their individual YouthBuild centers began to form.  Several participants said they could picture future careers in their hometown managing these projects.

As the rural caucus came to a close and participants prepared to head into the larger conference that includes urban youth, Kim Phinney, director of  YouthBuild USA’s Rural and Tribal initiative, addressed the group.

“We all know what it’s like to have a job because we need to pay the bills,” Phinney said.  “But when you have a job like mine, when you get to work with people like you and build something meaningful –  that’s when life becomes really special. Each and every one of you has the ability to do that for yourselves.”

We sat down with several rural youth caucus participants to learn more about what they were thinking about as the caucus came to a close.  Below are selected excerpts from these conversations.

Jonathan Swafford of Kincaid, West Virginia, and Tiffany Boone of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, spoke to each other about the work ethic and concern for others that they possessed even as children, and how these values are connected to YouthBuild’s mission.  They agreed that generosity and service has the potential to set off a chain reaction across communities.

Davanti Gross and Katrisa Buggage live only an hour from one another in Louisiana, but when they sat down to talk, they realized that their communities were unique. Katrisa told Davanti about the abandoned houses that she’d like to see rehabilitated in her hometown of Hammond, as well as her YouthBuild’s community garden. Davanti spoke about the recent tornado in his hometown, Convent, and how the community offered help to those who were hardest hit by the storm. In this excerpt, Davanti and Katrisa talk about the challenges and advantages of living in a small town where everyone knows everyone.

Lena Wilkes from Redding, California, and Krystal Doughty from Hammond, Louisiana, discuss the differences and similarities in their rural communities. Commonalities included their desire for more recreational activities for youth, more employment opportunities, and more community projects like gardens and parks. In this excerpt, Lena and Krystal discuss their experiences riding the Washington, D.C., metro and how their communities might benefit from more access to public transportation.

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