Photos courtesy of Teens Grow Greens, Milwaukee, WI

Inline with this year's theme for National Farm to School Month, Our Food, Our Future: Youth Leadership for a Racially Just Food System, we are highlighting the innovative work of Teens Grow Greens in Milwaukee, WI. Mikaela DuPont is a science teacher and the Southside Educator of Teens Grow Greens. As a member of the Teens Grow Greens organization, she strives to provide a safe learning environment and sound mentorship for teens as they become healthy leaders in their community. We asked her to share with us what makes their program unique and effective.

What is Teens Grow Greens?

Teens Grow Greens (TGG) is a 501c3 non-profit organization serving Milwaukee youth. TGG employs teenagers through three leadership internships and four pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. All programming is designed to develop teens through transformative experiences that cultivate belonging, life and career skill building, and connections to opportunities that grow leadership. In providing these opportunities, TGG hopes to accomplish its vision of healed and healthy teens, leading change in their communities.

In the first internship, teens learn to lead themselves by developing a foundation of healthy lifestyle habits, such as cooking and money management.

In the second internship, teenagers focus on leadership in the community. Teens learn about the history of food apartheid and the lack of food access occurring in many Milwaukee communities, while receiving agricultural and outdoor culinary training. The third and final internship focuses on preparing teens to lead in future innovation and act as change makers. In this internship, teens receive mentorship from local entrepreneurs to develop a product, lean business model, and a pitch that meets the triple bottom line: a product that is good for the planet, profit, and people. Teens with the best products win cash prizes, and all teens leave with a developed resume, personal branding skills, and interview preparedness training. 

Teens who graduate from all three internships are able to participate in one of five pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, which provide paid, on-the-job training in education, greenhouses, gardens, entrepreneurial, or food and beverage/hospitality settings. 

What are the biggest takeaway lessons from the internship model that other orgs might learn from?

An important lesson other organizations can learn from TGG’S internship model is providing incentives to encourage program participation. All TGG interns and apprentices are compensated with hourly pay that is above minimum wage. Teens need money and money management skills, and TGG meets this need by partnering with funders and seeking grants that are in alignment with our values. TGG believes that career readiness skills and leadership training should be provided to all teens, but we also feel strongly that teens should be paid to receive this training. Paying our participants teaches them that their time is valuable, and that TGG is an organization invested in the growth and development of strong youth leaders.  

In addition, other organizations can look at TGG’s model and learn that adaptation and flexibility are important. Based on teen input and participation trends, the internship model we utilize has shifted from a single nine-month internship, to three separate internships that align with the general start and end times of local Milwaukee schools. Structuring the internships this way allows TGG to set clear expectations regarding internship participation and attendance; teens should plan to avoid any extracurricular activities that could interfere with TGG during their three month internship. 

This strategy also helps us to serve more teens. TGG strives to serve 25-30 interns in each of our two cohorts, so if an intern decides to end their internship experience, we are able to rehire more teens as we enter the next internship period. Teens also appreciate this flexibility because it gives them freedom to end or continue their internships with TGG at transition times that blend smoothly with their academic calendars. Organizations serving students with year-round programming need to adapt and be flexible around school schedules and typical teen commitments (sports, clubs, part-time jobs, etc) in order to retain and serve the desired number of youth for their organization.

 Guidance to other organizations seeking to work more intentionally with young people. 

Serving youth with intentionality is a complex task, requiring many different moving parts coming together to create impactful experiences with long lasting success. A few concepts that have become indispensable to TGG’s intentionality are a clear value system, a vision statement, and a method to measure the success of youth programming. 

Beginning with a list of hundreds of different “values,” TGG staff came together to determine the values we each found essential to our work: love, learning, and integrity. Defining and agreeing on the meaning of each term allowed us to develop a vision statement for the organization that aligns with our values and shapes our programming, while also communicating TGG’s goals to the community. The vision of TGG is “Healed and Healthy Teens, Leading Change in Their Community.” This vision statement guides all that we do, and we are constantly examining the ways that we can support teens on their path to healing, health, and leadership. 

Additionally, after programming is developed and provided for your youth participants, it is important to measure the success of the program. Measuring the success of the program can be a simple evaluation form youth complete right after the program. At TGG, we follow up with all of our program graduates at six-month intervals for years to come, examining the ways they are healed, healthy, and leading in their communities long after receiving our programming. Based on the trends we receive in participant feedback, the organization engages in reflection, reinforcement, revision, and/or elimination to refine the program for success. 


What advice would you give for supporting young people into becoming leaders in their communities? 

In general, teens need a “why” that motivates them to act. In our leadership internships, the motivating forces behind participation vary from teen to teen. The greatest motivator for some TGG interns might be the paycheck every two weeks. On the other hand, we can try to create a sense of belonging among the teens, and amongst the community, that can hopefully become the “why” behind their leadership, long after they stop receiving TGG paychecks. 

By bringing teens into a community and creating that sense of belonging, the interns recognize the importance of investment in the wellbeing of their communities. Not only because they live or work there, but because they value that community’s inhabitants, infrastructure, and environmental features. If a teen feels invested in their community, they will want it to thrive and flourish, which requires courage to lead and, if necessary, create change. Intentionally creating motivation based on community belonging, along with lots of encouragement and guidance for young people, goes a long way towards ensuring they are genuinely and authentically pursuing leadership.