Kids in school learn the basics — math, reading and science. For 22 years, the Points of Light Youth Leadership Institute, or PYLI, has worked to add in another important skill set: leadership. This year, the program had Anchorage students participate in a week-long course — during Spring Break — designed to get them excited and involved in activism and taking prominent roles in their communities.
Beau Bassett has led the program since it began in Anchorage. A former lawyer and longtime educator, Bassett told Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early that he’s focused on teaching students how to be better citizens.
BASSETT: So, PYLI embraces the idea that all young people in their teenage years have the potential to be positive points of light doing service leadership in their communities, making a difference. So when we first launched the Points of Light Youth Leadership Institute here in Alaska, we wanted to make sure that every young person, all the diverse young people in Alaska, had the opportunity to have world class leadership. We also know that our community is incredibly diverse. Therefore, if you’re gonna learn leadership, you should learn it with a very wide variety of young people — age-wise, school, race culture and socioeconomic difference.
EARLY: What do you think is the age to start teaching young people leadership skills?
BASSETT: Well, I think there’s a misunderstanding that leadership is to be delayed somehow to older years, possibly college and post-college, when in fact, the traits of leadership — good character and competence, teaching decision-making, goal-setting, team communication, how to be creative and solving and planning projects that solve communities — I think the earlier we do that for young people, the more they adopt and practice those skills. So we believe that in 7th and 8th grade, students are ready to embrace the skills. By the time they’re in 9th or 10th grade, they’re practicing the skills. And by the time they leave high school in junior in senior year, they’re leading their schools ad ready to lead their colleges and communities.
EARLY: Tell me a little bit about this year’s batch of students. What were the leadership qualities that you were teaching and what projects were they working on?
BASSETT: This year, we focused on a simulation where Easter is coming up, and we wanted young people to realize that by taking a significant day like Easter and thinking about young children ion Head Start programs and in elementary schools, who oftentimes don’t have interactions with upper-class students, and who may have real needs learning and other kinds of needs. We came up with an Easter bag project around which they could create a basket of stimulating interesting learning tools, different things that students could do, and young people could come in to the classroom and work with those young people. Just recently, we had the youth walkout for climate change, and that was led by a [16-year-old] student in Sweden. What we find is that young people can inspire other young people. We want our PYLI graduates to do that in the Anchorage School District and across the state.
EARLY: So this is your last year leading and facilitating. What do you hope for the future of a program like this, both for the students and the program itself?
BASSETT: Well, we worked hard to leave a legacy for this particular training. Oftentimes, youth programs go away, and that’s because there hasn’t been the foresight to think about what the program might need in the future. Most importantly, we’ve created an alumni network of over 250 young people, who are now in their 20s and 30s. Many of them live in Anchorage, and we feel that those young adults want to keep the leadership training going and be mentors and possibly be trainers and inspirations for the high school students that will attend PYLI.
This year’s class of PYLI graduates will be recognized at the March 19th Anchorage Assembly meeting.