Western Washington FOR Youth Program: Gathers Strength Online

by Bruce Pruitt-Hamm, reprinted from Fellowship, summer 2021 (the national FOR magazine)

…our elders have lots of wisdom and experience to share with us, and to make changes to the world, our movements must be intergenerational. … But young people? We are yet to be broken and burned out. We are still closer than adults to that part of ourselves that is full of questions, challenges, and a refusal to accept the state of the world around us. We have fresh energy, insight, and a unique power to create change in our world.

Jamie Margolin, 2017 Mike Yarrow Peace Fellow
Youth to Power, p. xiv. Hachette Books. Kindle Edition (2020)

The Mike Yarrow Peace Fellowship is a unique long-term training program in nonviolent organizing for youth ages 14 to 23. Young people accepted to the program get trained, get paid, and get ongoing support to work on a social change project of their choice for a one-year term. In 2021, a record 22 youth were accepted into this program, with a 40-hour Core Training conducted by video conference over ten sessions from mid-July to mid-August.

Founded by the Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation (WWFOR) in the year 2000 as the Peace Activist Training Program, the venture was originally conceived as a small one-month summer training with a set stipend of $500. The number of youths participating grew from two (in 2000) to 14 (in 2014), totaling over a hundred in the 14-year history of the program up to that point.

The program was renamed and redesigned in 2015 to honor Mike Yarrow, the WWFOR staffer who originated it.

Mike died of cancer in 2014. Mike’s death coincided with the loss of WWFOR’s staff person of 10 years, Ellen Finkelstein; in the late summer of 2014, this double blow threatened the continued viability of the program. A handful of WWFOR activists gathered on the evening of October 7, 2014, at the home of Mike’s widow, Ruth Yarrow, to consider the fate of the PAT youth training program. Could we continue? If so, who and how?

It was the parents of youth who had been transformed by the PAT program who persisted. They were willing to provide volunteer leadership but couldn’t run a month-long summer training program while working full time. The youth themselves provided the innovation to resolve the dilemma. A 2005 PAT alum, 24-year-old Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm, re-conceived the program as a year-long fellowship. She envisioned a one-week, intensive training, folloed by ongoing support for the youth to work on a social change project of their own choosing while receiving a financial stipend. Continuing the PAT program as it had been seemed impossible. This idea was feasible. In fact, in hindsight, it was genius.

The Mike Yarrow Peace Fellowship has faced nearly annual challenges to its continued viability…and we have overcome. In 2017 we lost our historical funding sources of 15 years altogether. We responded by cutting the stipend from $1000 to $6o and opening participation to youth outside of Washington State. We were rewarded with a record 15 participants, including Jamie Margolin, a 15-year-old whose project of organizing a Youth Climate March on Washington was the inspiration for Greta Thunberg to begin her “Fridays for the Future” climate strikes. Greta and Jamie testified to Congress together, and Greta was later named Person of the Year by Time magazine. Greta wrote the forward for Jamie’s book, quoted at the start of this article in the box.

Of course, our plans for the 2020 MYPF program were suddenly uprooted by the Covid-19 pandemic. We rose to the challenge of transforming the 40 to 50 hours of training we had planned into a series of online video workshops. From July 18 to August 18, 2020 we held ten of them. Our Core Training comprised three parts: NV Leadership Development, Kingian Nonviolence, and Strategic Planning and Campaigns. We were delighted with the record number of applications and welcomed 22 young organizers into the program, more than had ever been accepted before. Their projects now cover a wide range of issues like racial justice, climate changes, nuclear weapons abolition, food justice, a documentary on Palestinian rights, and fighting discrimination against those suffering mental illnesses.

The primary goal of the MYPF program is to inspire youth to identify as nonviolent activists, empowered enough to act bravely while thoughtful enough to act strategically. We have been remarkably successful. For more information, please visit the WWFOR website (wwfor.org) or YouTube channel.