Group shot of dozens of YES! Foundation program participants (photo courtesy of YES! Foundation)

Our Future Matters: N2N Grant Helps Build Capacity for Youth Leadership

by Kamna Shastri

Pulemau Savusa was a high school student when she co-founded the “Our Future Matters” program as a part of YES! Foundation, a community nonprofit based in White Center. Years later, she is the program’s director, inspiring youth to advocate for their education and enrichment to gain opportunities much like she did. Savusa went on to pursue a degree in Education Studies at UW Bothell because of her work with youth.

Founded in 2000, YES! Foundation itself is dedicated to working with children and creating opportunities for youth in the White Center neighborhood. Their website states that “in doing so, we share resources and social capital with our community’s children and youth because we believe that having access to powerful life experiences and solid relationships is a good foundation for the development of strong, healthy, equipped leaders.”

YES! Foundation is rooted in the concept of collaborative partnerships. One central partnership has been with Cascade Middle School in the Highline Public School District, where they have been operating after-school programming for more than two years. Other community partnerships have involved the White Center Community Development Association, Cascade Bicycle Club, World Vision, and A.I.G.A Link, among others.

When it comes to the Our Future Matters program, Savusa created a niche specifically for Pacific Islander youth in White Center, hoping to give youth access to a space where they could learn to advocate for their educational and future needs. “Our mission is really to empower Pacific Islander youth to advocate for equity in education, to be engaged in their learning experiences, and [to] cultivate leadership in their community,” said Savusa.

The program was founded by young adults from White Center’s Pacific Islander community including Savusa. Its main areas of focus include advocating for equity in education, being engaged in youth learning experience, and cultivating community leadership. Until the pandemic, Our Future Matters did this through an after-school club at Cascade Middle School, where students could come in for homework help, mentoring, relationship-building, and to learn about the history of the Pacific Islands.

“The Throwin’ Samoan,” Jack Thompson, WSU graduate and former NFL player, speaks to program participants at his yearly YES! Foundation sports camp. (Photo courtesy of YES! Foundation)

Every year in the fall, Our Future Matters organizes the Uprise Pacific Islander Education Summit. While the summit had to take place virtually last year, Savusa says it has grown. What began as a meeting of 200 Pacific Islander youth grew to be 500, 600, and eventually 700 youth, parents, and educators. Savusa considers it one of their most “powerful” spaces. 

Another important part of Our Future Matters is the summer youth program, which began as a casual drop-in style place where youth could come for support, mentoring, guidance, and connecting with one another. “Now it’s an actual summer leadership academy that young people can apply to and be a part of.”

Savusa says the Seattle Foundation’s Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) grant allowed for the program to expand and meet the needs of a larger set of youth. What was once a casual, drop-in summer program has become a full-fledged summer leadership academy complete with structure, teachers, and prepared curriculum. Students have to apply to be part of the program now.

“Neighbor to Neighbor was a big part in helping us to be able to build capacity in our programming,” said Savusa.

After co- founding Our Future Matters, Savusa started working for the program, first as a volunteer right after high school. Eventually she was able to work there part time. But the support of Seattle Foundation’s N2N grant is what allowed her to become the full time program director.

Savusa says the measure of success for the program has been seeing a whole class of students finish and graduate high school and move on to college. What is most rewarding though is to see that young people who have gone through the program stay involved. They remain plugged in through college, sharing skills and experiences with younger students in the program.

YES! Foundation program participants work on art projects. (Photo courtesy of YES! Foundation)
YES! Foundation program participants work on art projects. (Photo courtesy of YES! Foundation)

“I think that this cycle of leadership is what we want to continue to foster with our young people. We’ve been able to do that through our work in the past few years,” said Savusa.

Savusa was born and raised in White Center and is intimately tied to the community and neighborhood. There’s a special feeling in being able to give back to the same community where she grew up. Working at Our Future Matters, a program she was part of as a young person herself, has even more significance. Savusa knows exactly the kinds of relationships that need to be fostered because she has the lived knowledge of the community and having been a young person herself in White Center.

“What I’ve learned ultimately is that the community really does have what it needs to move the work along but oftentimes aren’t given the resources to do so,” said Savusa. She added that sometimes it’s even harder for community members and organizations to see themselves as potential grantees because of doubts as to whether the orgs have capacity. 

“Neighbor to Neighbor shows that the community and the people who are doing the work on the ground definitely do have what it takes to get the ball rolling,” said Savusa.

The Our Futures Matter program has been around for eight years, and Savusa says sometimes it is tiring and discouraging to go through the same conversations about how our education system has failed youth — and Pacific Islander youth more specifically.

“We know that the education system isn’t fit for a lot of our young people, especially young People of Color, and so really figuring out where it is that we want to make sure that the system is addressing the needs of our young people and [that] those changes are made,” she said.

Savusa wants this program to assure that all youth have the tools, resources, and support to have a fair shot at the future and crafting the lives they want. She says the organization wants to create a world where all youth feel like they can do what they set their hearts and minds to. 

“Ultimately,” Savusa said, “we want all of our young people to be able to see themselves as leaders in their community and be able to make the change that they want to see.” 

This is the seventh of a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center, and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured Image: YES! Foundation program participants (photo courtesy of YES! Foundation)

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