One of the higher compliments anyone can pay me for my work is something along the lines of “I would love to take that workshop myself!” or “My high school- / college-aged kid could use that program!” or better yet, “Everyone could use a program like that.” Technically, I design programs for so-called “at-risk” youth, but all that really means is being sensitive to certain needs and understanding the institutional context of their lives. What I am actually striving to create are programs with a much wider appeal—wider because in the end they aren’t aimed at “troubled youth,” but at our shared humanity.
As human beings we all unfold in our own time, and that process is never smooth or evenly-paced. Some of us encounter great challenges very early on. This may appear to “set us back,” but only if we succumb to the bad habit of measuring ourselves against others, or—more accurately—against some kind of social norm that demands we be self-sufficient and clearly on our way to some narrow, preconceived notion of success by our mid-twenties. Another view is to approach these challenges as tests. And if we have the tools and the space to reflect on those significant life experiences, we can use them as learning opportunities and even a source of strength.
Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities?
Let’s spell this out: We might agree that serving young people is not about setting them up for subsistence. But let’s push that further to declare that neither is it about turning “at-risk” youth into “productive citizens” that support rather than drain the tax system. Nor should our end be “securing our country’s economic future” by funneling bodies into the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math) in order to fill labor demands. Our young people are not fodder for the corporate machine. They are emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings, and we should treat them as such.
This means asking young people directly what they hope for themselves and what they have to give the world. We need to challenge and equip them to reflect deeply on these questions because if they aren’t used to being asked, they probably don’t know how to set purpose-driven goals and devise a plan for reaching them. When they do speak up, we must listen—reserve our judgments and really listen—and be as resourceful and supportive as possible. We need to open their eyes to a world of options, make them feel welcome in places they’ve never been, and share with them the unwritten rules that will enable them to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
The prerequisite to being able to take this approach is possessing an unwavering conviction that all young people, whatever their personal history, are capable of realizing their dreams and contributing to their communities. When individuals realize their potential, the benefits ripple out. This belief drives me to be inspired and inspiring in my program design.
Now I urge you to consider and share the ethical push behind your work. What are your hidden or not-so-hidden assumptions about young people and social change? And how does all this affect your approach to youth development?