What makes an advocate?

What does it mean to be an advocate?

Dictionary.com defines advocate as "a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc." For me, that definition feels impersonal. The 120 young people in Washington, D.C., this week for World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) summit bring personalization and breathe life into advocacy.

Friday was Capitol Hill day for the fifth annual YEP Summit. Teenagers came from urban centers or rural hamlets across the United States. Many live in poverty or in areas plagued by violence and drug or alcohol abuse. Despite their troubles, they refuse to give up. They refuse to be beaten down. They stand up for their communities. They advocate.

They’re determined to create a better life -- if not today, then for those who will come after them.

For the Seattle delegation of YEP teens, the urgency increased as they got news from home about four people shot and one young woman killed in the Skyway neighborhood of South Seattle. “It leaves you wordless,” Youth Development Associate Steve Polzin told me after he heard the news. “Your heart just sinks.”

Emotions ran high. Steve rallied the team and urged them to use the news of the shootings to drive and motivate them during the day. They were urging their congressional leaders to support the Youth PROMISE Act, which calls for preventive measures -- like after-school programs and mentoring -- to reduce youth incarceration.

The YEP Seattle delegaton visit Sen. Maria Cantwell's office on Capitol Hill before presenting their policy proposal on youth incarceration. ©2011 Abby Metty/World Vision

When they met with Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, they didn’t mention the shootings. But their energy was palpable. Steve told me later that day that the senator engaged with them in a way he's never witnessed in the previous five years of YEP.

“This was a meeting that felt right,” Steve also said. “I don’t think [they even] know the effect they had.”

For the past five years, the Seattle delegation has been advocating for the Youth PROMISE Act to be passed. On this day, Sen. Cantwell agreed to support the bill.

Outside, Mike Kaukini, a Seattle team member who was close to the murdered girl, and Laura Wright, a community partner, broke down in tears. They told the senator the reason for their emotion. She said that they were here doing just what they needed to be doing.

That’s the case for the rest of the YEP teams here this week ,too. They are doing what they need to be doing -- being a voice for the voiceless in their communities.

And to me, that’s the best definition of an advocate -- one that speaks much louder than words in a dictionary.

For the past five years, Laura Reinhardt has photographed and written stories from World Vision's annual Youth Empowerment Program summit in Washington, D.C., an effort of World Vision U.S. Programs that trains youth to be agents of positive change in struggling U.S. communities.

Read a related post, "Your role in changing our world," by Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S.

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