Young Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti activists gear up for International Congress of Youth Voices

During the inaugural International Congress of Youth Voices in 2018, delegates met one of the founders of Twitter and went on a dinner cruise with legendary civil rights figure and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. But the highlight for many of the young delegates from Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti was networking with others from around the world who are already making a difference at a young age.


"Even though there were all these impressive adults who came to speak with us, the most impressive thing was the young people there and what they've been able to accomplish," says Cory Williams, a 16-year-old delegate from Ypsilanti who attended the 2018 congress and will return for the 2019 congress Aug. 7 to 11.

Youth delegate Cory Williams.

Williams, a student at Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy, heard about the youth congress through the 826michigan tutoring center in the Ypsilanti District Library's downtown branch. He says it was amazing to see what many of the other delegates have been able to accomplish while still in their teens.


"There was one girl from a sub-Saharan country who got kicked out of her country for writing an article on rape being used as a weapon," Williams says. "She had to flee the country and ended up talking to the United Nations. There was also a 14-year-old who protested the Israeli draft, and a guy who helped get generators and water pumps to people in need in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It was really inspiring."


Looking back at San Francisco 2018


The congress was founded by author Dave Eggers and Ann Arbor resident Amanda Uhle, who for more than 11 years served as executive director of 826michigan, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center for school-aged students in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti.


The first event brought together 100 youth, ages 16 to 20, from around the world to learn from and network with accomplished writers, activists, elected officials, and other youth delegates during a three-day conference in San Francisco.

International Congress of Youth Voices organizer Amanda Uhle.

"We find that young people care so much about the world around them and what's happening," Uhle says. "Adults in policy-making positions aren't always acting with young people at the top of mind, and it's important for young people to not only be knowledgeable about the world around them but take an active role."


Aliya Hall, 17, of Grand Rapids attended in 2018 and will serve as a youth delegate a second time during the 2019 congress. Hall, who will begin her junior year at Godwin Heights High School in the fall, found out about the opportunity through the Creative Youth Center. She calls the 2018 congress "an amazing experience" and says she felt "very emotional" on the trip to San Francisco.


"My dream is to travel the world and write about it, and I was thinking how I was really traveling and going to this congress with other young writers and activists and would get to write about it," she says. "It was overwhelming, but in a good way. I felt very blessed to be in the presence of all the people I met, but especially John Lewis. I got to take a photo with him and hug him."

Youth delegate Aliya Hall.

Interactions with other youth were also a highlight for Hall. During an icebreaker on the first day, she met two other girls and spent much of her free time with them during the conference.


"I learned about them, and they learned about me, and we still have that friendship to this day," she says.


Maeve Wilbourn, an 18-year-old from Grand Rapids who will be a freshman at St. Louis University in the fall, attended the congress in 2018 and will return in 2019. She found out about the congress through the Creative Youth Center, located three blocks from her home.


She says one of the best parts of the congress is "being able to share experiences and hear from each other," whether that was from adult speakers or other youth delegates.

"I met delegates from Syria and Israel and all these places where they've gone through experiences very different from what my life has been like," she says.


Calvin Sears, a 17-year-old returning delegate from Ypsilanti, recently graduated from Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy and will attend Washtenaw Community College in the fall. He says last year's conference made a lasting impact on him. He was active with 826michigan programs and interested in writing already, but last year's congress changed how he felt about the topics he chooses to write about.


"Meeting published authors in the same range as me made me want to take a different look at how I write things," he says. He's always written on light and humorous topics, he says, but the congress inspired him to dig a little deeper.

Youth delegate Calvin Sears.

"Just because I'm an awkward teenager who likes to write humorous things doesn't mean I can't branch out more and write something serious, and now I feel more comfortable doing that," Sears says.


Another highlight for many of the delegates was writing a manifesto on the last day of the 2018 congress, establishing how the congress would operate moving forward. The delegates broke into smaller groups and each wrote a portion of it.


"We barely had to say anything or guide it in any way, because the young people just took it and made it their own," Uhle says. "They wrote the manifesto together in a matter of hours, super efficiently, and it was incredibly inspiring to watch them work together."


Williams says his group's portion of the manifesto came out somewhat like a slam poem or a spoken word piece.


"In the part I helped develop, we talked about how none of us have rights and none of us are free until we all experience the same rights and freedoms," he says. "We talked about working toward helping people who can't help themselves, and being a voice for the voiceless."


Looking forward to San Juan


This year's congress will take place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and more than the location has changed. Organizers have expanded the event from three days to five, added a couple of service projects to help with rebuilding after Hurricane Maria, and are increasing youth involvement in shaping the congress going forward.


"Our long-term vision and hope is that this congress is run by the young people … now that we've kicked it off," Uhle says. "We want them to create a structure for the organization and lead it into the future."


Freshta Tori Jan, a 19-year-old from Grand Rapids, is looking forward to attending the congress for the first time, but she already has some experience talking and writing about big issues. In 2018, she attended a World Bank Youth Summit to talk about a project she and her sister are working on to help imprisoned Afghan women gain skills and support their children after their sentences are completed.

Youth delegate Freshta Tori Jan.

"I think the biggest thing I'm looking forward to is meeting with different youth that are such great leaders in their communities," she says.


She says she's also excited about service projects planned for this year's congress. Youth can sign up to build and repair homes or do outdoor ecological work.


Tori Jan says she has been learning more about the impact of natural disasters on Puerto Rico over the last few years.


"I'm interested in seeing what I can learn, and (to) then take those learning experiences and contribute to my own leadership practices," she says. "I want to see how I can take that into whatever I do next to benefit the world."


Uhle says the range of projects young people are undertaking in communities around the world is "deeply inspiring."


"Dave and I feel like they need room and space and resources and time to do it, and they need us to listen," she says.


She draws parallels between activism and writing, saying that "activism starts with thoughtful articulation of ideas, and it's also about creativity and being your authentic self."


"Young people and the ideas they generate and their perspectives are important," she says. "Young people, as a rule, are braver than any of us and more true to their beliefs and priorities than any of us could hope to be, and this congress is about honoring that."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti photos by Doug Coombe. Grand Rapids photos by Adam Bird.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.