Helping Peers Be Seen and Heard on Climate and Social Justice
Devon Patterson (he/him/his) is a young youth organizer with Open Buffalo, a nonprofit civic initiative in Buffalo, New York. Its mission is to advance racial, economic, and ecological justice through skill-building, network connecting, and activating leadership opportunities for young people. Devon shared his reflections on being both a young adult and a leader working with younger peers.
Devon is currently working on a master’s degree in Transnational Studies with hopes to advance his knowledge of the intersectionality of hardships that different cultures face.
Tell us about your work as a youth organizer.
As a youth organizer, I don't create agendas for the young people I support. I let them tell me what they want to work on. And I think that's crucial, because in my experience, adults in general kind of make decisions for us. And they advocate for us, which is not a bad thing all the time—but it’s start to feel like a trend that instead of asking the youth what their opinion is or what benefits they need, there’s an assumption that it's already known.
For example, growing up, I hated hearing the expression, “Children should be seen and not heard.” How can you know if someone truly feels safe, if you are not listening to them.
I've been only in that position for seven months, but I've learned that one person cannot do the job of a hundred people. It takes everyone. Although our organization may be small numbers, the impact that we've created through the community is monumental… because we talk to everyone… and make sure we know what anyone’s opinions are on a certain issue or topic that affects the entire community.
I also have a strong passion for understanding socialization and difference, and how whatever you characterize yourself as shouldn't be seen as different, but instead should be seen as a unique characteristic that makes us all human at the end of the day.
How did you get started in this space?
I graduated from college with a Bachelor's in African-American Studies. I actually changed my major a couple of times. I tried to be an accountant while being a student athlete, which wasn't the best idea. They say that you're supposed to be a student first and an athlete second, but I was definitely an athlete first. Then, I took African American art, and Intro to African-American Studies 101 and I kind of fell in love with it because growing up in grammar school and high school, I really didn’t learn anything about my own history, my ancestors’ history. I fell in love with actually learning about the history of kids who look like me.
I started to excel beyond my own belief. I was always an okay student, but when you find joy and passion in what you're learning, you try to do more learning outside of your school curriculum and you excel in different capacities than you're used to.
In college, I found a passion for understanding how people from different backgrounds and characteristics and identities all intersect and thrive. That's what really got me started on this track.
In my work with young people, I focus on building understanding about how we can give a strong sense of hope and, for lack of a better term, humanity to the Black community, and help us all be seen as human.
What is your vision for our future?
I think young people need to know that they have power and agency to speak out for themselves and for what they believe is correct. And I feel that they need the support to feel empowered by adults and their peers.
My passion now growing more towards climate justice and how it intersects with social and justice. The term that I'm fixating on is how we make a "just transition" – understanding that climate justice can't be achieved without fixing racial injustice. It means, in part, that when we think about climate justice, we have to think about how it affects marginalized communities so strongly. We have to understand historical impact and make sure communities are part of all future solutions.
What advice do you have for young people in these challenging times?
There’s a huge stigma among Black men and Latino men that we are told not to show emotion, but I find that writing down, journaling, or even a hobby—I lift weights—can be utilized by any gender as a way to express yourself and feel the burden lifted off your shoulders. I have learned that you need to have a certain time of the day, or period in your week where you're able to release the pressure and the tension, to get ready to go back into the work.
The term Opportunity Youth refers to young people ages 16-24 who are disconnected from school and the workforce. What does Opportunity Youth and access to opportunity mean to you?
When I hear the term Opportunity Youth, the first thing that comes to mind is being offered something that isn't right in front of you. I think it's a chance to expand your horizon and reach beyond your visible limits of status. To me, opportunity is defined as having the accessibility to be who you are, be empowered the way you are, and to make a difference in what you want to do.
More Inspiring Stories
HAVE AN INSPIRING STORY TO SHARE?