Our Voices

A Community For Change: The 2024 John Lewis Young Leaders Retreat

“The purpose of the John Lewis Young Leaders (JLYL) fellowship program is not just to empower youth, but also to allow youth to get their foot in the door in terms of understanding what human rights work entails,” explained Jonathan Lam, part of the 2024-2025 cohort of JLYL fellows. For these young leaders, the year-long JLYL fellowship, which culminates in a capstone project, provides mentorship, funding, and access to an extensive human rights network so fellows can work with their communities to galvanize effective and sustainable change. To kick off the new cohort’s fellowship and honor the work of the outgoing fellows, the group gathered together in person for the first time at a three day retreat in Chicago in mid June. 

The retreat featured networking opportunities, grassroots organizing workshops, professional development, and service learning. On Friday, after opening remarks by Kerry Kennedy and an inspiring keynote by Tom Wilson, President and CEO of AllState and a 2024 RFK Ripple of Hope Laureate, the 30 fellows participated in a student-led World Cafe. During the World Cafe, organized by 2023-2024 cohort members Josh Palackal and Madison Miller, students discussed what human rights are and what they mean to them, identified their leadership styles, and shared their capstone experiences and ideas. 

Rami Daham, one of the 2023-2024 fellows, was able to offer mentorship and advice to incoming fellows as he reflected on his successful capstone and the impact of the JLYL program. For his capstone, Daham created a nine session financial literacy series for underserved youth in Buffalo. As a way to begin addressing lack of access to upward income mobility, Daham partnered with M&T bank to provide seed money for students so they could start their own bank accounts. “Your actions are going to impact the next generation,” he advised the new fellows. “The future is ours. It’s our time to show up.” This retreat provided the spaces, networks, and skills to help these fellows do just that. 

Over the course of the retreat, students had the opportunity to engage in a variety of professional development sessions led by a combination of RFKHR staff and community partners, including workshops on resume building and interview skills, and grassroots organizing strategies such as partnership building. This kind of professional development and organizing insight really helped “us to grow as professionals” and is “integral to helping us build up our future careers,” remarked Palackal. Area leaders such as Drake Materre, the Associate Director of Natural Path Nutrition, and Alyson Godbolt, a Restorative Justice Specialist at Alternatives Youth, taught fellows how to effectively navigate movement building on college campuses. Through these workshops, “I was able to get a clear understanding of what the theory of change is,” said Connor Marrott, an incoming fellow, and “different perspectives about how change is made.” 

Eight community leaders in Chicago including Sherman Wright, Managing Partner and COO of Ten35 who supported the team in getting the retreat space, and former RFKHR intern Tynisha George who is now the Coordinating Planner at the Chicago Department of Public Health, attended a networking lunch with the fellows on Saturday. The lunch was specially designed to encourage informal conversations with experts who could provide insight into the fellows’ areas of interest. “What I loved about [the lunch],” recalled Allison Gilmore, Program Manager of John Lewis Young Leaders, “was that students were able to have a more intimate, more genuine conversation” tailored to them and hear more about how these leaders got into their fields. Jonathan Lam, an incoming fellow, agreed. “What’s so important,” he asserted, “is not just the conversations that we have but also providing us the platform and the opportunities and resources we need to really make a difference. This space is really important for that, especially for students with a first generation background.”

As a way to give back to Chicago and underscore the importance of active service as part of human rights organizing and community work, the fellows participated in a park clean up in the historic Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Their work helped prepare for the Become Center’s Third Annual Light and Liberation Festival in celebration of Juneteenth. Afterwards, the fellows learned about community engagement at the relationship, research, and restoration levels from the center.

After three days together, the fellows agreed that they had formed a rich sense of community and a better understanding of human rights work. Many of the outgoing fellows advised the new cohort to “lean on their community” and to take advantage of the plentiful resources and contacts that Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights offers. As Sanaia Meneses, an incoming fellow, noted, “This program will make you think. This program will make you get creative. . . It  is my wildest dream to [make my capstone] happen and I know that I will because of the support from this program.” Marrott added, “Though our capstone projects are in different areas, we are all forwarding human rights. We can all work together to create change.”