Summer is here! Young people are out and about in the community to enjoy a few months of summer vacation or finding summertime employment. For service providers, summer can mean increased youth engagement. Many service providers ramp up their youth-focused activities during the summer to address social problems and respond to disparities in community services. Children and young adults engage with multiple systems in our communities, ranging from community service providers, schools, neighborhoods, peers, and families. Each of these systems has a strong influence on young people as they approach adulthood. Summer is a great time to engage young people and for service providers to ask themselves: How can we bring together and use multi-systems in our communities to ensure young people have the resources they need to make healthy and safe choices?
It is important to look at how youth programs focused on intervention services such as drug/alcohol use, gang activity, bullying, dating violence, etc. are developed. Too often these programs are designed without the input of young people. Adults in the community will observe a problem, apply for funding or financial support, and move forward with developing a new youth program. When the program is not as successful as was hoped, service providers and organizations are left wondering what happened. Young people are experts in their experience and add value to every step of the process of program development. Youth understand what activities and initiatives will resonate with their peers. They know what messaging will push youth away from a program and what will draw them in.
Often when providers apply for funding to increase youth services or intervention resources, they identify young people as “delinquent” or “at-risk.” It is common to see a project statement such as, “our new program will deter delinquency and build positive behaviors.” Programs that center on labeling and stigmatizing youth behavior can have a negative result. Young people are labeled and stigmatized every day in the media and by adults in their community. Some folks state that because some young people behave in a way characterized as “delinquent,” they should be labeled as such. How we approach multiple systems to address and help youth issues is much more likely to succeed when we use positive language. Including young people in building program messaging is an excellent way to build a more positive vocabulary about youth issues.
Multi-system involvement in community youth programs has the advantage of creating capacity building programs that assist in collaborative efforts and coordination of services or activities to give young people the resources they need to make healthy and safe choices. As young people enter their summer vacation, it is important to invite their feedback on existing and developing programs. Successful programs will have a clear focus and goal for the activities offered. What will young people involved in your program have gained by the end of the summer? Will their new skills help them meet their goals for the future?
As adults, we see the world, and its problems differently than young people, no matter how well-intentioned we might be. When building youth programs, it is important to assess the problems you seek to address from a service provider perspective and compare your assessments to that of the youth most impacted. As service providers, it is important to keep in mind that:
– Some youth exhibit negative behavior as a result of personal problems at home or with challenging social systems outside of the home.
– Remember to distinguish between personal issues and a problem with youth social systems. This distinction can help you identify if there is a need for broad outreach or more individualized intervention programs.
As you work on building or reassessing your capacity building youth program, here are some steps to keep in mind:
1.Community Assessment: Start a conversation with young people, their families, and others invested in their well-being. As a service provider, you must first identify what is perceived to be the youth issues to be addressed and then collaborate with multiple agencies to determine if there is a consensus about the problem. After performing a community assessment, consider a community planning approach.
2. Community Planning: Once you have worked with young people and the people invested in their wellbeing to identify the problem, a community planning approach can be used to decide what types of resources are needed to reach the goals set by the community. Involving the community in planning the project allows for community ownership. Throughout the process, it is critical that you be respectful to your community’s socio-cultural background. As service providers, we have access to the latest evidence-based techniques and new research, but just because something is new and exciting doesn’t mean it will work for your community. Keeping a constant feedback loop open throughout the planning process will ensure that the approaches used in your program are what the community needs and wants. A community planning approach leads to community education.
3. Community Education: Community education involves increasing the level of awareness of the problem and the potential solutions. Community education focuses on specific objectives that invite dialogue within the community. Community education is a great place to begin the process of reframing the way youth behavior is discussed to be more positive. Peer to peer education is vital and builds youth leadership skills.
4. Advocacy: It is crucial for young people to see, hear, and experience advocacy. Being involved in advocacy initiatives leaves a lasting impression on young people and shows them that they can be change agents. We label young people as the “leaders of tomorrow,” but they have everything they need to be leaders today. As a service provider, your role is to connect them to the resources and skills they need to develop their leadership.
Listed below are a few best practices for developing youth programs utilizing multiple systems in your communities.
1.Issues divide/ tasks unite: Clear goals and objectives created by and for young people will result in a positive outcome. Working together in a multi-systemic approach can yield new alliances and cooperation vital to capacity building youth programs.
2. Don’t use a shotgun approach: Use your time and resources wisely. Be patient and take the time to build relationships with youth and other service providers. Planning for feedback sessions will help to refocus your work toward the goal.
3. Engage only as many people as needed to accomplish the goals of capacity building strategy: It is strategically important to make sure that collaborations will move the project toward its goal. Have a large number of service providers and resources at the table doesn’t equate to a better outcome.
We hope that these tips will help you as you kick off your youth-focused summer programs. If you are interested in chatting more about anything addressed here or would like to learn more about how Native Community Development Associates can help you build strategic youth-lead programs, please contact us. We would love to help!