Amplifying young voices

Brattleboro gets certified as Quality Youth Development Community; local all-youth steering committee selects youth-friendly businesses

BRATTLEBORO — The town has become just the third community in the country to be certified as a Quality Youth Development (QYD) Community, and adults and young people alike are enjoying a newfound bond.

A steering committee, made up of mostly local youth, spearheaded the project through Building a Positive Community (BAPC) to improve their community and make it more accessible and welcoming for kids and teens of all backgrounds.

Businesses deemed welcoming to young people receive special signs that read “Youth Are Welcome!”

“What a great feeling to know the downtown community is succeeding at welcoming the youth of our towns,” said Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA). “We need and want [youth] to be part of the success of Brattleboro, and so I look forward to seeing more stickers go up in windows!”

“I am listening, and DBA programming will continue to ask the question of how can we give the younger generation a voice at the table, how can we ensure we are inviting participation?” Bonin said. “Lead away!”

Making the grade

A community must meet seven of 10 benchmarks to receive the QYD Community certification, which is based on its commitment to local young people.

“It's important because Brattleboro has a lot of businesses that are geared towards younger people,” says QYD youth member and eighth-grade student Mariam Diallo. “I think it's important for those businesses to be recognized and for other people to maybe strive to be more like those businesses and help make this place a more welcoming and safe place for kids and teens.”

“My favorite part is doing the work for it, like designing posters and drawing stickers,” she said. “It's really cool to see your art in the windows of stores and things.”

Classmate Maeve Bald agrees.

“I think QYD is fun,” she said. “You can go around town, talk to people, hang out. And also you can also see how you're impacting others and how it sometimes makes their day and they smile and they light up when you tell them that their business has been chosen or that they have made an impact on the community for better views.”

There are several criteria to meet for a business to be designated youth-friendly:

• It must not sell or promote products geared solely toward adults, such as alcohol or tobacco/vape products, although food markets and restaurants are exempted from that caveat.

• It must be inclusive and welcoming to young people from all backgrounds.

• It must be a place where it's not necessary for minors to be accompanied by adults.

• It must have friendly staff members that young people feel comfortable talking to.

• It must be a place where young folks would want to spend their time and money.

Not a requirement, but a bonus, is if the business hires young people.

The QYD project has received money from the town of Brattleboro's Human Services Fund, the Vermont Children's Trust Foundation, and the Vermont Department of Health.

The young people have chosen about 20 businesses to date and are looking for more youth to nominate more businesses that meet the criteria. Businesses are also encouraged to nominate themselves.

The QYD Steering Committee meets biweekly, and young members review all nominations and determine whether businesses meet their criteria. If a business is chosen, one or more QYD youth take a sign and letter of certification to the business, and they take photos to add to the Building a Positive Community website.

The project is ongoing with annual recertification.

“We are excited to know that folks of every generation feel safe and happy to shop at Experienced Goods,” said store manager Karen Zamojski.

“I think that it's always good to help the community and make it better,” said eighth-grade QYD member Jamel Smith. “By doing all the things that we've been doing to make the community better for youth and adults, I feel like the community will be able to get along better and will have more of a sense of connectivity.”

Raising their voices

BAPC Director Cassandra Holloway noted the organization is also in the formative stages of developing an elected community youth council.

One of the QYD benchmarks, the group would consist of young people who will advise the community directly and indirectly on youth-related issues, she said.

“In addition, the Council will promote more community service opportunities for youth. The scope of the work will be determined by the youth membership.”

The youth council will be looking to gain a commitment from area decision-making bodies to hear and act on any recommendations or requests coming from them. They will also be working to inform and advise the state youth council, pending that body's eventual formation after the current legislative session.

The first phase is to create a design team made up of young people who will receive stipends for their participation. An intentional process will ensure diversity in the team and membership, including but not limited to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), LBGTQ+, and financially-challenged young people.

The council will be developed during the school year with the goal of having an active group by summer.

To involve kids, listen to them

Adult QYD member Kevin O'Brien said he joined as another way to be involved in the community, remembering opportunities for doing so when he was growing up.

“What I've been enjoying most is just listening to the different youth that have lots of new and great ideas,” he said. “I think Brattleboro will benefit from the QYD process and getting certified with the benchmarks by having even more emphasis on youth voices, especially in Vermont, as we're a bit older of a state.”

“And there's been a lot of focus through many generations that the youth are the future, that they're going to fix everything,” O'Brien said. “But then the youth are never asked or listened to when they talk.”

“So I think this is a great opportunity for voices to be amplified and to ask those questions about how to improve things now rather than waiting and seeing what happens next,” he said.