BRIDGES USA youth leaders make space for teens in the midst of protests and a pandemic

Feature Image: Bridges USA is located on 477 North 5th Street in Uptown. (Submitted)

Originally published July 2, By Ashley Davis, for High Ground News

BRIDGES USA youth leaders in Memphis are creating virtual space for students to express their concerns and frustrations around schools closing early, the global health crisis, and civil unrest. 

“The things that help them form their identity, like school and extracurriculars, have just been pulled away from them,” said BRIDGES’ CEO, Dana Wilson. “This time is really hard.”

BRIDGES’ signature youth leadership program is Bridge Builders.

The program usually kicks off with an in-person summer event and continues with year long programming at The BRIDGES Center in Uptown.

Bridge Builders brings together youth from different backgrounds to the Uptown area of North Memphis to participate in a series of leadership and diversity trainings, community action projects, and other events.

Covid-19 forced students and staff to quickly adapt to a new reality.

Dana Wilson, chief executive officer of BRIDGES USA. (Submitted)

“We just had to redo everything,” Wilson said. “The summer conferences are going to be totally different than normal but the outcomes of what our students will learn will be the same.”

On June 8, they host their first-ever virtual summer conference via Zoom.

Wilson said student leaders like 17-year-old Mikayla Higgins provided valuable insight on the redesign.

Higgins is a member of BRIDGES’ Youth Advisory Board, a small group of dedicated Bridge Builders that function like a board of directors. They provide insight, share in decision making, and increase youth voice throughout the organization. 

She said that for weeks students brainstormed ways to engage their peers in online alternatives—from leadership training to online music lounges to wellness workshops.

“We were going to be the ones most affected by decisions made. So for this to be a
program serving the youth, we need to have a voice,” Higgins said.

“Bridge Builders has really given me a voice. I’m not afraid to speak up,” she added.


Higgins said that young people wanted to ensure their voices were heard during the pandemic and that they could be a part of the solution.

Bridge Builders CHANGE and Shelby County Youth Council created It’s a COVID-19 resource hub specifically for adolescents and where youth can respond to the needs of the community.

Students in CHANGE embark on a yearlong fellowship where they research, design and implement their own community-wide campaigns. 

The Shelby County Youth Council includes high school students from every district across Memphis. Youth leaders partner with the Shelby County Mayor’s Office and the Board of Commissioners to ensure youth have a voice in the decisions that impact their communities. 

BRIDGES USA youth leaders are creating virtual spaces where students can connect during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted)

On April 22, the BRIDGES youth leaders hosted a Virtual Youth Action Summit to spur the #901stayhome social media campaign. The campaign aims to educate youth on the importance of social distancing.

Wilson said students also advocated for a space where they could process the events in 2020.

She believes students are processing multiple layers of trauma, including school closures, inequity caused by the pandemic, and protests in response to police brutality.

On June 4, BRIDGES partnered with Facing History and Ourselves to host a virtual event to help youth learn new methods of identifying and combating systematic racism.

“The social inequalities of this moment that are being raised to the surface are not lost on teenagers,” said Wilson.

Wilson said several youth leaders raised concerns about mental health, wellness, and self-care.

BRIDGES youth leaders will continue working alongside BRIDGES program staff to develop virtual opportunities for youth to access mental health and wellness resources during these times of unrest. Wilson believes it’s especially important for students to stay connected now.

“The most important thing we can do as a community for youth right now is include them authentically, engage them, trust what they have to say and get out of their way so they can make great things happen.”

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