When Olivia Allen was in fourth grade, she attended her first powwow. On its own, that event would be memorable for most young people. For Olivia, it was life changing. “As someone who identifies as white-Native American, I used to constantly feel like I was less connected to my community than others,” says Olivia, who is currently a junior from Duluth. “I grew up in a town with very little Indigenous influence, which made me feel disconnected from the Indigenous heritage. At the powwow, I was awestruck by the dances, music and overall energy of the event. At one point, a girl about my age asked if I wanted to dance with her. In that moment, I realized she didn’t see me as an intruder, which was how I felt before. After that experience, I began to embrace my heritage and educate others about my culture. I hope to one day make a positive impact on the Native American community.” 

In mid-February, Olivia took a big step toward this goal when she spent three days in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation and being a voice for the Native American community. “Tribes across the country are suffering from poverty, violence against women, and are still fighting for adequate federal support,” Olivia says. “National Advocacy Days provided an amazing opportunity to highlight these issues with the people who are making decisions about these issues.”

What is the Youth Advocate Program?

Sponsored by YMCA of the USA, the Youth Advocate Program invites high school students nationwide to participate in a four-month experience that culminates with National Advocacy Days in D.C. As part of the program, Youth Advocates participate in virtual training sessions and network with peers from around the country; collaborate with their local Y and YMCA State Alliances to craft an advocacy plan; and learn how to talk and work with local, state, and federal officials to advance policy solutions. Students in grades 9-12 who are current YMCA members or Youth in Government program participants are eligible to apply, and two students from each state are selected by a committee.

Wesley Friberg, a sophomore from Bloomington, had once planned on a career in STEM. "It was my dream to work at Google and be some successful computer programmer. My course load and extracurriculars were based on that dream." Then he encountered the Center for Youth Voice (CYV) booth at the Minnesota State Fair in the summer of 2019. “I saw all these young people making change and thought, ‘I want to do that,’” he said. In 2022, he attended his first Youth in Government conference. "My world changed. The energy, the culture, all these young people working together to improve the world – I knew my future lay in advocacy." Since then, Wesley has been an avid participant in CYV programs and has worked with legislators and advocacy groups outside the YMCA on topics including school start times and addressing youth political apathy.
The YMCA of the USA receives philanthropic support to cover registration for National Advocacy Days, meals, hotel accommodations, and travel to/from Washington, D.C., for all Youth Advocates. In addition to meeting with member of Congress, the Youth Advocates attend a Congressional breakfast on their last day and have the chance to meet elected officials from across the country.

“The Youth Advocate Program and my involvement in Center for Youth Voice programs has compounded my passion for change,” says Wesley. “I learned more about the path policy follows in our Capitol through meetings with federal officials. It was great to share my ideas and also to hear their Y stories and talk about ways we can continue to make our communities stronger.”