Summer is on the horizon and with it comes summer vacations with young people involved in numerous activities, from family reunions to summer employment. Or perhaps it will be spent on idle time, which most think can be bad, but alternatively it can be good. Summertime is a great time to reflect and recharge. Why not use idle time at home or riding in the car or train to learn something and begin making changes in your life? This is in part the idea behind the Youth With a Future App (YWAF), developed in conjunction with app developer Subsplash.   

Apps on our smartphones are of course not new. But isn’t it time we ask ourselves whether all the time spent on these apps is beneficial. Ironically a number of us seem to be disconnected. During my last trip to the barbershop, all eight young men waiting in the chairs had eyes trained on their phones. Last weekend when my wife and I dropped in for breakfast at a Village Inn we observed an intimate table of four, a mix of men and women, all with their heads in their phones, seemingly not involved in any conversation.

Youth with a Future Executive Director Dr. Robert Fomer sees an opportunity to leverage the pervasive nature of smartphone use and has developed an app to teach leadership skills based on the successful summer program. Fomer is broadening the reach of Youth With a Future, which he has been facilitating for urban youth for several years.  His eye is on the next generation and its development, and the app is available for free in the Apple Store and on Google Play.

Initially, users are introduced to Youth With a Future and its spiritual foundations in the eight Core Values previously discussed in the Spectrum. But there are also sections challenging and encouraging further exploration like 1) leadership and character development, 2) social issues and 3) remembering known and less well-known historical figures, like Carter G. Woodson, Maggie Lena Walker, and Louis David Armstrong.  

This generation, following Millennials, born between 1995 and 2017 and designated as ‘Generation Z’, will be better prepared to handle the issues of the day in their lives if they know about those who have gone before them, in the distant past as well as today. Fomer’s aim is to pique their interest and encourage them to position themselves to face the issues of the day, namely 1) violence, 2) discrimination, 3) education, 4) bullying, 5) clean drinking water, 6) immigration, 7) healthcare, 8) trafficking, 9) incarceration and 10) substance abuse.

Fomer challenges the young users of the app to become transformational leaders.  “Transformational leaders are those young men and women who see the issues of the day and seek to make a difference. Are you seeking to make a difference? Look at the issues facing our world today,” Fomer said.  

Now more than ever it is possible to engage with the world, broaden the community on these issues, and do something to resolve them. Congressman John Lewis was barely an adult when he began his activism, and he only had a telephone and telegraphs. He had to craft his own playbook to make a difference. The YWAF app is a guide to making a difference, and the tools available for engagement are far beyond the telephone.

There is a blog, discussions about finding purpose and a leadership workbook and videos. Research has shown African Americans are avid consumers of media.  According to Nielsen, we watch more television than any other group, and our smartphone penetration is over 80 percent and we still listen to the radio and read print magazines. Each month they spend 56 hours a month using apps or mobile internet browsers on their smartphones. This media consumption is perhaps reflective of a thirst for entertainment or better yet knowledge. Nielsen and Pew Research provide these studies so that media and marketers can reach certain demographics. The Denver Urban Spectrum (DUS) launched an app three years ago.  It makes the publication accessible from everywhere.  

If the next generation is to be reached, it is prudent to leverage African American media usage for a greater purpose. If we don’t know where we have been we don’t know where we are going. The odds of making a career in athletics or entertainment are probably in the single digits. Our capabilities are much more than that, yet we are a society obsessed with celebrity and its visible trappings, whether that is physical possessions or the latest meme. What matters is what we can contribute to making our lives, our families’ lives and the lives of those in our communities better.

Leaders are needed not only in STEM or STEAM fields but also in law and other professions, and the path must start at a young age. But young people must know that it is possible for them, and the YWAF app aims to do that by challenging them to explore their purpose and other alternatives. There is a marketplace of ideas out there, and the YWAF app facilitates and allows those better concepts of ourselves to come to fruition.   

Young people often need assistance in forging their own path. Questionable situations and bad decisions have consequences. Black people, in general, are searching for answers to their issues, and Pew’s research bears this out. In an analysis of a November 2016 study published in November 2017, 77 percent of Blacks believed an unlimited data plan for their cell phone would help them with important decisions, and 81 percent thought that more reliable home internet service would be helpful. The study further found that some sort of training is highly desirable. Seventy-seven percent of African Americans wanted training on using online resources to find trustworthy information and 66 percent believed training to build confidence in using, computers, smartphones, and the internet would be helpful.   

African Americans are heavy users of social media, and more than 40 percent aged 18 to 39 are on Twitter. The impact of Black Twitter in addressing the death of Michael Brown is well-known. This builds community, and social media is valuable for more than the latest rant or trolling someone you don’t agree with. Technology use and sharing insights can be constructive as well. The YWAF app aims to stay ahead of this as it is crafted for Generation Z and a new group of young leaders.
Generation Z is the first totally digital generation, and it is Fomer’s opinion that for them, smartphones have become an extension of themselves. In a 2017 survey conducted by LivePerson, encompassing 18-34-year-olds in the US, UK, Australia, Germany, France and Japan, it was found that 65 percent of the 4013 consumers surveyed, interacted with each other more online than in the real world.  They preferred texting to calling and conversation. In the US the percentages were even higher at 73 percent.

“Technology is transforming the life of Generation Z but at the same time, it is deteriorating the real-life interactions. Smartphones were meant to be consumed by the younger generation but unfortunately, in a way, they are consuming the younger generation,” said Fomer.  With the YWAF app, he is looking to turn this around.  

“Our vision at TLF/Youth With A Future is driven by the belief that Generation Z can be nurtured and developed into future and potential leaders through goal oriented and customized use of the technology. Something YWAF has labeled as digital mentoring, which also provides opportunities for character and faith development utilizing blogs, social media, and leadership activities.”

The Youth With A Future leadership programs has impacted small numbers, usually no more than 20 inner-city youth in the summer. This app will reach so many more. A significant characteristic of Generation Z is that they are self-learners through technology like YouTube and Google. They multi-task digitally, but they also don’t let media overwhelm them, and will quickly leave it if it is not of interest. They gain their knowledge of the world and pertinent issues through social media like Facebook and Twitter.  

The strategy for the app focuses in these areas:
•Blending information and entertainment
•Incentivize youth
•Empowering youth
•Career oriented mentoring
•Diversified discussion topics
•Closing generation gaps

Fomer believes that mentorship is a key component of leadership development, but he is aware that this is a generation that wants to find their answers rather than be dictated to.  
“We believe that a friendly environment can be produced by closing generation gaps.  When Generation Z is mentored by Generation Y, Generation Z will feel more comfortable and will be more likely to join and participate actively in the leadership and character development apps. Unlike dictating terms, the opinion of Generation Z should be heard in a friendly environment where the mentor and mentee interact in a knowledgeable productive and friendly environment,” said Fomer.
Mentorship can occur through many mediums, particularly online and through technology. Messages are everywhere, and media and film are not just for entertainment. Lately, there is excitement about the success of Black Panther, and Fomer has long seen the value in films such as the Queen of Katwe and Hidden Figures in facilitating discussions about leadership. The intent behind the YWAF app is to spark these discussions online to begin developing knowledge and empathy and other soft skills of leadership so that Generation Z can feel more comfortable in offline discussions with mentors in finding purpose and direction for their energies.

This next generation has tremendous potential. It is the most ethnically diverse and characteristically believes in gender and racial equality. New tools are needed to support gaining self-knowledge and preparation for the future. Info graphics and videos are the new languages of this generation. These are carefully curated throughout the app. They will also have a chance to see themselves in the app through the publication of successes within their peer group.  

“Today’s youth does not want to be a part of any unyielding activity. They should be provided with the news about the success of individuals who have been schooled and nurtured through the leadership Apps. When a youth comes to know about the success of individuals who actively participated in the leadership apps, they will follow their footsteps and will join and actively participate in Youth Leadership Apps,” said Fomer.

Time is free but of the essence. How will the young person near and dear to you spend their summer vacation? For a new look at what is possible, download the Youth With a Future App, available in the Apple Store and Google Play, and follow them on Facebook for future events involving youth and technology.