Last Updated: November 21, 2013
This article appeared in the November 2013 Rural Policy Matters.
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“Sign me up!” is what Dominque Kearney said the day she heard about New Generation Leaders. At the time, Kearney was a senior at Warren County High School and thought that New Generation Leaders was a jobs program.
Like many small communities, Warrenton, North Carolina does not have a lot of employment opportunities, especially for young people. “It’s very hard to get a job,” says Kearney of her initial enthusiasm. “You pretty much have to know someone or go somewhere else.”
Kearney is now President of New Generation Leaders (NGL), which recently launched New Generation Beverages, a youth-led and youth-run micro business based in Warrenton.
But when Kearney “signed up,” there was no job. New Generation Leaders is not a jobs project. Rather, it is a collaboration in Warrenton designed to bring together local partners to build supports for children and young people. It emphasizes genuine opportunities for young people to express opinion and take action in ways that are meaningful from their perspective.
Kearney, together with other NGL students, have, in fact, begun to launch their own business out of NGL -- a testament to the success of the collaboration and its emphasis on youth-led initiatives.
Young people: creating the community in which they live
“One of the questions we are always exploring is ‘how can young people create the community in which they live?” says Jereann King Johnson. Johnson is Project Coordinator/Trainer at the Rural Trust, which is spearheading the collaboration.
The collaboration received funding through the North Carolina Rural Center and currently includes the Warren County schools system, the Warren County Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program, Warren FoodWorks/Working Landscapes, and the County Extension Office/Food Corps volunteer among others.
Ernie Conner is Director of Career Technical Education for the school system. “This was a real opportunity for out students,” he says. “For young adults to be able to serve as leaders, to take an active role to improve the community based on what the new generation wants, that’s really important in a small place.”
Kearney went to the kick-off event for New Generation Leaders because she wanted a job, but she stayed because she liked the idea that she and other young people could make a difference in their own community.
That idea is what drew in Tavis Dunston as well. He was in the 10th grade at Warren Early College High School when he first heard about NGL. “There aren’t a lot of activities for young people here and I thought this would be a good thing for me to do; it would look good on my transcript,” he says.
But Dunston, who is now Vice President of NGL, soon realized this project was different. “We really have a voice in New Generation Leaders,” he emphasizes. “Usually the adults control things. They want you to get involved, but they stay in control. This is different. The adults and mentors won’t let us put anything off on them. We have to make the decisions and do the work. They guide us, but it’s our ideas and our work.”
Connecting youth to community
One of the first steps in supporting young people to create the community in which they live is to help them understand where they live. “We’re specifically talking about this place, its history, the possibilities here,” says Johnson. “It has to be connected to reality.”
In order to help students get more connected to community and begin connecting ideas to place, community partners arranged a series of activities and visits around the county. For example, the students visited the Warren Free Clinic, where they learned that many local people face challenges getting enough high-quality food. They also learned that food and nutrition are at the root of many health conditions in the county.
The students also conducted oral histories with their grandparents and discovered dramatic changes in the ways that residents produce and consume food. These conversations further raised the students' awareness of food systems within the broader context of the local economy.
Conner says these activities were not only beneficial to students but helped establish the young people as serious and positive members of the community. “People in the community really took notice, especially when the students got out and started doing interviews,” he says. “Businesses have been more than happy to have the young people come in.”
As the students gained more firsthand knowledge of their community, they began to do research, especially on food and agriculture issues. (See a presentation of some of their research here.) They partnered with another youth group GenZ, which had begun a school garden in conjunction with the Extension Service and Food Corps volunteer, to interview fellow students about where their food came from.
They visited North Carolina A & T State University, where they gained perspective on agricultural trends in emerging fields like biofuels and in traditional sustainable approaches like crop rotation and raising animals in natural conditions.
Growing a business
Dominque Kearney says she wasn’t particularly interested in food when she first got involved with NGL, but as the group learned more about the circumstances and history of the county, they began to pay more attention to food and its connections to other issues.
Chris Ford joined the group last winter as a high school sophomore at Warren Early College High. At his first meeting, students were looking at the results of the student food survey and mapping where food came from. Ford took on the job of analyzing the survey results. “People used to grow their own food or get it from their neighbors or from a store ten minutes away. Now it comes in on a truck and most people have to drive to the big store,” he says.
When the group began to talk about a possible entrepreneurial project the conversation naturally turned to food. “That’s what we were always talking about,” observes Ford. “Everyone was just popping out ideas of things we could do, things we didn’t have in Warren County. Then the idea of smoothies came up.”
Conner says the students’ entrepreneurial thinking was nuanced and community-minded. “It wasn’t just how to make some quick and easy money, but how to make the place better and healthier,” he says. “The students were seeing ways to be productive and involved in agriculture without having to own a lot of land.”
As the New Generation Leaders began to look at their options, they decided to sell smoothies at the local Ridgeway Cantaloupe Festival in July. Ridgeway cantaloupes have long been considered among the finest in the eastern U.S.
FoodWorks/Working Landscapes, a Warrenton business emphasizing local foods and a related non-profit focused on sustainable local livelihoods are key partners. “They let us use their commercial kitchen and advise us on the business aspects,” says Ford. New Generation students began to test smoothie recipes and plan for the Cantaloupe Festival.
NGL settled on two recipes, cantaloupe-peach and cantaloupe-blackberry and purchased produce from local farmers. At the Festival, they surveyed customers for feedback.
“People loved the smoothies,” says Dunston. “But we found out that some people didn’t like the texture of the blackberry seeds. So we re-worked that recipe. Now it’s even more popular.”
Spurred on by their success, New Generation purchased more local produce and began freezing it at FoodWorks so they could sell smoothies at other community events. They worked on a business plan and purchased equipment. New Generation Beverages was born.
Kearney says the whole experience has been interesting. “We’ve done business plans at schools,” she explains. “But this was different. At school the plans were on paper. These are the same steps, but it’s for real, and we’re doing it together. It’s not just in your own mind, you have to figure it out together.”
After serious deliberation, the students decided to incorporate New Generation Beverages as an LLC. They are in the process of opening the business’s bank account. And next month the new food cart will arrive. That will enable the business to sell at more kinds of community events and activities.
“People love smoothies, especially the ones we make,” says Kearney.
New Generation Beverages is currently working on hot drinks. “Right now we’re developing a hot cider with local apples that we can serve at winter events like the Christmas Parade. We have ideas for foods, too,” says Dunston. “Local foods,” he adds.
New circles of collaboration
New Generation Leaders is a means to give young people authentic voice in their communities. It is also a vehicle through which adults learn how to build the collaborative supports that help young people flourish in place, a condition necessary for communities to flourish.
“This kind of collaboration takes real persistence,” says Johnson. “When several entities are collaborating, you always have to keep the well-being of young people at the center.”
That means that teachers, schools, community-based organizations that are working together must create a seamless holistic approach. “Collaborating entities must be open rather than fixed about their program boundaries,” says Johnson. “Each entity must be willing to unravel its edges, almost like a piece of fabric, so the programs can be interwoven to form multiple circles around the kids. Instead of working in the small areas where their programs intersect, collaborators have to think about creating a new bigger circle, one with multiple layers rather than lots of boundaries.”
Johnson says that kind of flexibility for the purposes of collaboration proves essential when it comes to doing something innovative like working with young people to launch a business. “The students have good exposure at school to business planning, so they know a lot about how to set one up. But there’s a real difference between doing that in theory or in virtual reality and doing it in a real community,” she says.
Conner agrees. “We can have course projects in school, but when you make it real and relevant in the community, it has a lot more impact — on the students and the community. It has made a real difference when people can see the student’s product.”
Collaborating in ways that hold to the principles of youth-led initiatives is an adult balancing act that students recognize and appreciate. “Our mentors are great,” says Ford. “They really want us to become independent.”
Johnson adds that innovation takes a lot of persistence from students and from their adult mentors. “Those mentors have to stay with the young people as they move through the process and honor principles like questioning, mental agility, and ability to live with failure.”
Creating the community we want
Kearney says the most surprising thing to her about the experience of New Generation Beverages is that “people know about us.”
Dunston elaborates. “People can see the changes we’ve made in our community. We are leaders here already.”
Kearney says that even though New Generation Beverages is just getting started, it has changed the way she thinks. “This is a job you can do of your own free will. You begin to realize that you could open a business. You could hire people.”
That sense of possibility is one powerful outcome of the New Generation Leaders collaboration. “You can use your local place, what’s here, to do something good. There’s no limit if you really think out a process and put your mind to it,” says Dunston.
In the end it is the collaboration that matters. “You have to get ideas from everyone,” says Ford. “We all need to help each other out to make this work. We buy fruit from local farmers and make something new and more people buy it. People tell us they’re happy to see young people doing something like this. They say they hope to see us in the future.”
Warren County School’s Career and Technical website:
Warren County Cooperative Extension website:
Warren FoodWorks and Working Landscapes
Read more from the November 2013 Rural Policy Matters.