Blog by New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI).

As a statewide partner working to impact and transform communities across the Garden State, we invited NJ Health Initiatives to talk about their Next Generation Community Leaders (NGCL) Program. This program aims to provide communities the resources and tools to engage teams of youth and build their skills and capacity to become future community leaders. In this blog NJHI shares with us the main highlights of their most recent NGCL youth retreat at the YMCA Camp Ockanickon in Medford, where more than 100 youth from 11 communities statewide learned how to build a healthier community for their families, friends and neighbors. This periodic blog exchange allows Creative New Jersey and NJHI to continually focus on how we can align our work to achieve meaningful outcomes in New Jersey’s communities.


“Let’s make sure we hear from every voice. We know some people have softer voices, but if we don’t hear from them, we’re missing out.”

An adult coach from Trenton was overheard saying this to her youth team during New Jersey Health Initiatives’ Next Generation Community Leaders (NGCL) recent youth retreat. What she articulated to her team of youth, who are focused on building a healthier community for their families, friends and neighbors, echoes the aim of the NGCL initiative. As the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NJHI is dedicated to supporting innovations and driving conversations to build healthier New Jersey communities. The NGCL program recognizes that youth are an underutilized community asset – a softer voice that is often missing from the health conversation. NJHI: Next Generation Community Leaders pairs their time, talent and idealism with the resources to create meaningful change that improves health outcomes in their communities.

More than 100 youth from 11 communities supported by the NGCL initiative arrived at YMCA Camp Ockanickon in Medford for two days of training that included an introduction to population health and the social determinants of health, the community impact of the political decision-making process and activities to strengthen communication and build trust.

Through dirt streaks and tumbles into brackish water, the youth learned perseverance. In meeting fellow attendees from across the state, they displaced preconceived ideas and grasped the value of collaboration. For some of the youth, and their coaches, the retreat brought their first canoeing experience–a challenge emphasizing the need for strategy, teamwork and commitment–with a partner they had only met on the bus to Medford.

This early foundation will serve these youth as they meet the partners addressing their communities’ health needs, and design and lead summer projects that will contribute to the work of building a healthier New Jersey. As each community’s youth team develops their summer project, the adult coaches who are guiding them through this work are connecting with other community stakeholders, ensuring the youth are engaged as partners in affecting sustainable change. The youth are actively acquiring the skills and developing relationships to design and implement projects that inform and support the health conversations happening among adult community stakeholders.

A key principle of all of NJHI’s work is partnership. In this initiative, we promote every opportunity for community leaders to consult with the youth as well as inform them. As NJHI Director Bob Atkins says, a key tenet of the three-year NGCL initiative is a focus on working “with youth,” rather than “for youth” or doing “to youth.” This initiative requires adult coaches and leaders to form relationships with youth as health partners, creating a two-way transfer of knowledge that benefits the community.

We will continue to share what we learn as this work progresses, and we will amplify the youth participants’ voices as they tell their own stories. Follow the conversation and ask questions that could impact your work or community: #NJLeaders2030

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