Building a bridge to leadership and life skills for youth through hands-on experiential education.

Rebecca Levine has been the Winchester Youth Coordinator for 17 years. She recently established the Winchester Youth Alliance, bringing together youth leaders from across the community to form a network of support for each other and for the town’s youth. She lives in Salem with her wife and two children.

Interview with Rebecca Levine

Tell me a little bit about yourself. What called you to this work?

I did both my undergraduate and graduate studies in social work. My first job was in a women’s health clinic and I became a youth specialist there. I’ve always been interested in doing youth development work. When I went back for my Masters degree I had a choice of focusing on the clinical side or the macro side. I chose to focus on community organizing, programming and planning. My internships were always with youth programs and service learning.

What did you see as the need in our community that you might fill?

I saw the ad for this position in the Boston Globe. I had the opportunity to develop the program in the way I wanted. I like the idea of really working with students to help them develop their own ideas—ideas and programs that meet their needs.

Tell us how you see this calling of yours enriching our common life.

I think that a lot of programs that have developed over time in the community have had their roots, or been inspired by—grew out of—ideas generated in the Youth Center. There are new clubs and activities available to kids at the middle school and high school, for example, that have been established to respond to interest from the students. The Youth Center has helped identify needs. I believe that more kids will get involved and feel connected to others if there are more opportunities.

The Lantern Walk is an example of a community response to hearing kids’ needs and concerns.Several years ago, in a youth group at the Youth Center, I asked students to identify the biggest issues that they were seeing amongst their peers. Everything they identified was a negative result of stress. For a long time the stresses they were under didn’t get acknowledged and their feelings weren’t valued. We developed the Lantern Walk as an opportunity to raise awareness about these issues and to help kids see that they were not alone in the struggles they were dealing with. Since then, numerous school and community initiatives have been developed to address these issues.

The Relay for Life is another example. I know that countless people in our community have battled and lost loved ones to cancer and saw this as an opportunity to do something in our town about an issue that has affected so many. Relay a worldwide event and I thought it would be a great learning opportunity, especially since it is part of a much larger, organized effort. Everything we do at the Youth Center is planned, organized, and implemented by the the high school peer leaders. In the case of the Relay for Life, students work collaboratively with adults on our Event Leadership Team, there are set ceremonies and tasks but plenty of room to tailor things to our community and for leadership development.

When one teaches, two learn is a known adage. What have been the highlights of your experience so far?

I get to have a relationship with kids that is different and unique from most of the other adults in their lives, and I really try to respect that. I don’t take it lightly. I’m not a parent or a teacher or a coach. I’m not expecting results of any kind. I just want them to be good people. I always come back to the idea that each kid has an opportunity to make him/herself proud, to know what they are capable of and what they want to be.

I really value the fact that I get to be that person—that I get to have those relationships. I believe that every kid needs someone—another outlet and supportive adult in their lives in addition to their parent(s).

There are so many different ways to teach and so many different ways to learn. I believe that experiential education is especially important. Traditional academics are important, of course, but there are life skills: communication skills, leadership skills, flexibility, thinking outside the box, teamwork skills that students gain through hands-on experiential education. These skills all translate into every aspect of life. Each year I take my students on a service trip to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Through these service-learning experiences they learn so much about themselves and each other and what they are capable of accomplishing and more about their place in the world.

Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean being the captain of a team or telling someone else what to do. I want kids to learn about what kind of leader they are, and that can look different for every single student.

So many of my kids have gone on, in college and in their careers, to do amazing things. I have former students working in the social services and on social justice issues all over the country and they all make me so proud. I’m still in touch with many of them—some even in their thirties now. I learn things from them when they come back to visit—about innovative programs they’ve started and experiences they’ve had that are learnings for me.

Since this is the month honoring women, who is one woman who has inspired you and why?

Of course Hillary (Clinton). I’m a proud member of the Pantsuit Nation. I admire the hard work she has done for so many years, and that every time she got pushed down, she got back up and kept fighting. And Elizabeth Warren. She really does the hard work and does not back down. I want to teach girls and women how to speak with confidence and not allow anyone to brush them aside. Elizabeth Warren is such a role model. Sexism is so pervasive. I want to teach girls and boys to treat women with the same deference as they treat men. There is still a lack of acceptance and appreciation with women being strong and powerful and as knowledgeable as men. I talk with boys about their responsibility to be aware of their privilege and the opportunities they have to extend that privilege to women and people of color.

I admire the people doing the hard work every day. They find the thing that’s important to them and just go to work. The women who organized the Women’s March and all the coordinated ongoing efforts across the country—those are the people who truly inspire me.

Any advice to share?

I think you have to find your passion—to get involved, get connected, make sure your voice is heard. Along with that, listen! Critical thinking and active listening are two of the most important skills that I wish everyone would have.