High schooler Ethan Shiell landed $400 to make a film about domestic violence. Another teen group won a grant to teach peers to grow fresh food hydroponically and a third secured funding to host “Queer Prom.”

These are not your typical grants. And the people who give them out are not a typical board of established professionals and well-heeled community members. They are high school students, who, after intense debate, recently divvied up $15,000 between nine groups of St. Paul youths with big ideas.

Minnesota is the first and only state in the country to try YouthBank, an international program that puts money and decisionmaking power in teens’ hands.

“It basically eliminates the whole idea that adults need to be there to make change,” said Dominic Enriquez, a junior at Twin Cities Academy who helped select the winners as a member of the Saint Paul Youth Commission.

The Youth Commission is one of eight Minnesota organizations to establish a YouthBank over the past couple years. Youthprise, an offshoot of the McKnight Foundation, brought the program to the United States and pays for most of it.

“It’s more than just giving away somebody’s money,” Youthprise President Wokie Weah said. The program makes young people think about what problems need to be addressed.

YouthBank is building the next generation of philanthropists, she said.

The program originated in Northern Ireland and exists in more than 200 countries. Minnesota teens get to learn what their peers in other parts of the world prioritize, said Libby Rau, Youthprise’s chief innovation officer.

As many Minnesota communities enter their second year of the program, Youthprise is talking with organizations in California and on the East Coast about adding their own YouthBanks, Weah said.

Giving youth a voice

Adults talk about the importance of listening to the “youth voice,” Saint Paul Youth Commissioner Karimah Tongrit-Green said, but YouthBank gives them a direct say in what they want to see in the community. It also forced youth commissioners to understand other perspectives, Tongrit-Green said.

Teens said the projects they chose for grants might not have been selected if adults were in charge.

Shiell is making a five-minute film called “Silent Song Birds” to raise awareness of domestic violence. He said YouthBank gave him a rare opportunity.

“It’s great for people who, like me, don’t have a whole lot of money or who don’t have a lot of people they know who are involved in media in general, that can help support our ideas and creativity,” he said, noting that the $400 will pay for equipment and a makeup artist.

Last year, the St. Paul commission supported a project where youth built a kayak through the nonprofit Urban Boatbuilders and attended social justice workshops, and another teen’s effort to give chest binders to transgender and gender nonconforming youth who wanted to bind their breasts but were not comfortable asking family for them or financially able to buy binders themselves. That’s a need many people don’t understand, Tongrit-Green said, noting that when they told the City Council about it, they had to explain that they didn’t mean binders for papers.

Nine groups submitted proposals to the Saint Paul Youth Commission that first year. They opted to fund two. Word spread this year, and 22 teams sent in ideas.

The program is changing perceptions of what young people can do for their neighborhood, Enriquez said.

“They are not only a part of a community that wants to help others,” he said. “They can help people themselves.”