By Franklin Tate
As Director of TU’s Headwaters Youth program, I am forever being offered a panacea for the organization’s aging membership.
Many a TU member or staffer has a blueprint for how to attract and recruit young folks into the organization. Some say we need to hook kids in elementary school and lead them through a battery of inquiry-based watershed education experiences; still others advocate for the instruction fly casting to youth at the high school level. A host of TU vols strongly believe in the merits of partnering with colleges, while others would not give up their fifth-grade Trout in the Classroom program for a million bucks.
In fact, I may have the most advice-ridden position at TU. But I wouldn’t have it any other way: some of our best youth outreach efforts to date have come directly out of the TU Suggestion Box!
But with the good comes the bad. When it comes to characterizing the youths themselves, I get a lot of hearsay. Tales abound concerning what young folks like and don’t like, and what kind of programs will and won’t attract and hold their attention. Plus, how many times have we heard that every last kid in America is imprisoned by monitors and screens and indoor pursuits?
One potential downside of hearsay is that it can lead to inaction. Our sleeves never get rolled up. We never get down to work. We trust one errant opinion or another and miss a chance to find out the truth.
Which is why the recent TU Teen Summit was such a breath of fresh air. It was time for the youth leaders themselves to take the floor. For three days these teens held forth on all subjects TU, fished their hearts out on Pennsylvania’s Spring Creek, and, well, got along like they had been boon compani0ns for years.
Believe me, the amount of energy these young anglers can bring to a room is encouraging, impressive, and more than a little overwhelming. They are articulate, smart, energetic, and full of ideas that will bring TU into the 21st century. You start to see that, with enough direction and support, these nine young men and five young women are the highly capable stewards of tomorrow’s TU.
I left the Summit wondering how many within TU see our youth not only as the future of the organization but as valid, card-carrying members? How many chapter leaders have embraced the $12 youth membership as a crucial building block toward the adult membership?
We hover just above 1,000 youth members in the organization, and with 377 active chapters, that averages 2.65 youth members per chapter. Less than three young folks in each TU community are learning to take care of streams and become the coldwater conservationists of tomorrow. And of the 2.65 per chapter, few of these young members can take over the reins of leadership: TU’s Annual Meeting is held when they are all busy in school, and the many committees, groups, and boards that meet during that time have no youth member voices on them.
One thing that came out of the TU Teen Summit is a National Youth Leadership Council. This group is already organizing itself and lining out the ways to attract more young folks into the organization. They have a Facebook page, have formed themselves into work groups, and are taking very seriously the challenge to figure out the future of TU.
But they can’t do it alone. They need the help of chapters and councils to help spread the word about TU to schools and youth organizations. They could use more TU-sponsored stream projects and fishing trips during the weekends and not weekdays when they’re in school. Also, to create solidarity within this particular age group, a TU council could organize projects and trips for just their state’s teen members.
It’s time to quit guessing what these teens like and don’t like. Let’s set aside opinions that the next generation is nothing but game players, technoheads, and lovers of the great indoors.
If you had been on Spring Creek with these young fly fishers, you would have seen the passion and commitment that led to the founding of this great organization. The TU Teen Summit was a great reminder that, out on the stream, everyone becomes ageless.