Zachary Brown wants to come back to the North Country.
But before he leaves for college, he wants to do what he can to help make the place where he grew up “into the place where I want to come back to, and raise a family.”
One of the ways he and some of his peers are helping do that is by joining a new committee that is giving young people a say in grant-making in the region.
The Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program of the Charitable Foundation’s Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund is giving high school students the opportunity to help strengthen their communities, support local programming for youth, deepen their connection to place and develop leadership skills.
“We know that young people are the North Country’s future, and need them to become our future leaders,” said Kirsten Scobie, director of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Funds. “We wanted them to own their own potential to understand the complexities and to make a long-lasting difference in their communities. It is their opportunity to define and act on their priorities for this place we all love,” Scobie said.
The Tillotson Fund makes significant investment in nonprofits and systems that aim to increase opportunities and improve outcomes for the region’s young people. In all, it makes about $3 million in grants per year in Coös County and surrounding communities.
The students will recommend $25,000 in grants that will be distributed to nonprofits in the spring of 2019. They have been meeting over a period of months, following a curriculum that includes everything from ethical decision-making to human rights and diversity, equity and inclusion to group development theory. They have learned some of the complexities of philanthropy and the explored data about trends in the region. They have hammered out priorities for grant-making, crafted a grant application specific to the program — and did some big dreaming in the process.
Amira Robertson appreciates the chance for young people to set some of their own priorities for the region — especially when it comes to support for programs targeting young people.
“I think adults often think they know what we need,” Robertson said. Here, young people are in a position to make a compelling statement about their own needs and priorities.
And, she said, being in a position to direct grant dollars gives her a way to focus her passion for making positive change.
These dozen young people — from seven towns in Coös County and across the river in Vermont — are clearly committed to the process. On a recent weeknight, after dark and with a snowstorm coming, they prioritized homework and sports and honor society duties to drive to Colebrook and discuss grantmaking priorities. The group is mentored and facilitated by Tillotson Fund staff and advisors.
The group has decided that grants will be made to support environmental initiatives and programs that focus on reducing carbon emissions; increase extracurricular activities for youth; and strengthen community engagement through events and public gatherings that enhance connection and togetherness. They are seeking out programs that specifically engage young people in design, implementation, and decision-making and that reduce barriers to participation for groups and individuals that have faced barriers.
Those priorities were based on lived experience, regional knowledge, aspirations — and on some serious geeking out on data about young people in the North Country. The committee reviewed the findings of the 10-year Coös Youth Study, conducted by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
For Jonah Cote, those data were an eye-opener — and a call to action.
“I’ve learned about the reasons youth choose to stay in the region or leave the region — and about how we can make more ‘stay’ reasons,” he said.
The deadline for grant applications is January 17, and the first grants will go out in spring of 2019.
“A lot of times, as a kid, it feels like you really kind of can’t do anything,” Cote said. “This is where we can make a long-lasting change.”