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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is your youth program keeping up with technology?

Kari-Robideau.jpgYoung people in our programs do not remember a time without computers. They are adept at interpreting face-to-face interactions and web-based experiences. As social networking becomes the number-one activity on the web and teens increasingly own cell phones, young people expect to communicate instantly. For them, e-mail is sooo yesterday.

Is your program keeping up with the pace?

Over the past year, my 4-H colleague Karyn Santl and I have worked on a project to answer that question for eight northwest Minnesota 4-H county programs. We set three objectives:
  1. To determine communication needs for county 4-H programs.
  2. To increase knowledge and skill levels of 4-H staff, volunteers and members youth-smart-phone.jpgto use communications technology. We are working with counties that demonstrate interest, infrastructure capability and staff capacity. In February I facilitated a team of youth and adult leaders from Clearwater County through the POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology) Method to create a prototype county 4-H program Facebook Page. That team will reconvene in the fall to review the POST strategy, evaluate impact of this page and make any necessary changes.

  3. We are in this phase now, beginning to train and support teams of youth, adults and staff to develop communication plans.

We are focusing on 4-H program staff, youth, adult volunteers and parents. Through focus groups and an online survey, we have made three key common-sense discoveries:
  • "Jumping in" to social media communication tools, such as Facebook, without established interest and a strategy is not a good idea. The audience must have interest in and ability to use the technology. That includes program staff.

  • Mail and email are the top two ways county programs currently communicate with 4-H families. They are also the preferred delivery modes for the recipients overall. However, youth were more likely to prefer social media. Your communication strategy should consider using different modes for different age groups.

  • Lack of technology infrastructure in rural areas can pose a barrier to web-based communication in youth programs. Limited access to high-speed Internet and the quality of cell phone coverage are two of the barriers noted in northwest Minnesota

Karyn Santl and I will present the process and findings of this project so far in a webinar at 11:30 am-1 pm (US CST) on Wednesday, May 11, "Communicating with the Net Generation."

Work on the third objective will focus on training and implementation. But we continue to ask questions. Have you used technology to communicate about or within your youth program? Which ones?

What barriers do you see to keeping up with the pace of change in communications technology? Tell me what you are seeing where you are. 

-- Kari Robideau, Extension educator, educational design & development

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Are we building a workforce, a profession, or a field?

By Dale Blyth

What is our vision of ourselves? What do we in the youth development, out-of-school-time, non-formal learning field want to become?

During discussions at the National Afterschool Association Annual Convention in Orlando, Fla., a weekend of great sessions and discussions about the future of the youth worker workforce sponsored by the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, part of a series of critical conversations that started back last fall at the History of Youth and Community Work Conference I was struck by these most basic questions.

Do we want to be a workforce with multiple job categories and a checklist of the skills each should possess? Something that systems can support but also control, as Joyce discussed last week? Is that enough?

Do we want to be a profession with a defined body of knowledge and a set of values and ethics driven by both practice wisdom and research wisdom on what works and how? If so, are we professional front-line youth workers? Or are we professionals at many levels from part-time to full-time, from doers to managers and from program designers to system intermediaries?

Or do we really want to be a field -- a field with a set of workers of many different types in allied professions with various levels of competence and expertise, and who work together for the learning and development of our nation's children and youth?

Perhaps the real answer is D) all of the above. I believe that what we are really talking about is the breadth, depth, and differentiation of who we really are:
  • Breadth: We must include everyone in the community workforce who supports the development of our children and youth. Our field is broad and varied and we should claim that breadth.
  • Depth: What are the core competencies that bring us together and which we can begin to assess authentically, not as items to be checked off but as knowledge to be understood and a frame of mind about the very heart and nature of this work. A profession whose values and ethics unite us even as some of our skills and expertise varies in the content and context in which they are practiced.
  • Differentiation: We must recognize that we are a set of differentiated professions that share a common set of core competencies, values and ethics that drive our work and differing perspectives and skills. Perhaps we are a field of researchers, evaluators, educational designers, content translators, bridgers of research, practice and policy, organizational leaders, recreation workers, child and youth care workers, and afterschool professionals who enrich the developmental diet of young people in our communities and our nation, and work to ensure they have choices in how they exercise their learning muscles growing up.
Perhaps we are already a broad workforce with deep professional competence and expertise in an allied set of professions who make up a field that needs to understand itself -- to build an identity that is as broad, deep and differentiated as our reality.

What vision do you have for our field? What types of debates, decision, tools, and other actions will help us build our identity?
-- Dale Blyth, associate dean and director

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What's shaping youth work today: Systems or programs?

Joyce Walker, Youth Development Insight blogWhat is the best way to make sure the after-school and youth development workforce is stable, prepared, supported and committed? For youth workers gathering at the National Afterschool Association conference this week, lots of ideas are on the table.

In light of today's tough budget times, where should we put our energy -- into system-building or into improving the quality of youth work practice?

In this country, we have focused on strengthening programs and activities. Leaders in US youth work have long admired the system in the United Kingdom, which has focused on creating systems that support nonformal learning and the professional workforce.

I recently discussed this question with Nicole Yohalem. Nicole and I serve on the board of the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition and she is special projects director for the Forum for Youth Investment. She observes that we can learn a lot from the British system, and makes three important points.

1. The UK's youth work profession, which includes standards, competencies and multiple pathways to credentials, is defined as distinct from, but equal to teaching, counseling, social work and what they call "play work" -- work with children primarily 11 and under. At the core of that system is a cadre of well-trained, organized youth work professionals.

Nicole Yohalem

2. Relationships and interactions are the defining features of youth work -- not activities or places. Activities are the medium for personal and social development. And in terms of infrastructure, until severe budget cuts began, local governments were mandated to develop youth service plans for coordinating public and private efforts to support the personal, social and civic development of all young people.

3. Youth work professionals are organized, vocal advocates for work that has helped generations of working class young people find themselves, find a path, find their passion.

This year, the picture is changing in the UK. The new government is slashing spending, including spending on local youth services. In response, these passionate young people have launched an impressive opposition, together with the Community and Youth Workers Union. A recent rally in London attracted half a million protesters.

The US has some great youth programs, but not much of a youth development system. Many of us here have striven for the development of a systemic approach. And some US communities do follow the UK model of adopting standards, inventorying programs and services, expanding professional development opportunities, and aligning investments around a shared vision. Ironically though, with budget reductions, the British are becoming more like us -- moving toward the provision of very short-term, activity-focused programming that we in the United States are trying hard to move away from.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the British system. But what about here at home? As we move to support the workforce in our non-system, what can we learn from the UK and others? What degree of government regulation is desirable? In the debates about youth worker certification, competency requirements and measures to support the field, where is the balance point that pushes quality and retains flexibility?

What focus do you find compelling enough to work on in the coming year? Given certain budget cuts and undesirable policy choices, where will you spend your valuable time and energy? Will you work to build the system, or focus on the quality of your programs and practice?

-- Joyce Walker, professor and youth development educator

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How can we build community when youth, families, and programs are under stress?

Megan Gunnar, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, recently spoke on Minnesota Public Radio about the damaging long-term effects of the stress of poverty on brain development in infants, children, and youth. This illustrates to me the insidiousness of our economic policies and beliefs about who deserves what and how much they deserve. Poor children and youth do not have equal opportunities for healthy growth and positive development. We are ignoring the data of the best youth development thinking of the past 75 years.

Dr. Gunnar's talk reminded me of the work of influential American educator John Dewey and his drive to create equity and community with and around youth to improve their learning and their lives. Dewey said that "what the best parent wants for his own child, so much we all want for all children and young people."

Sadly, in the 75 years since Dewey, not much has improved for many American youth and their families. In Minnesota, between 2000 and 2009, the number of poor children grew 53%, and the number of children living in extreme poverty doubled, an increase of 105% (Read more at Kids Count). Nationally, 20 percent of all children are living in poverty. These figures are expected to increase when the effects of our current recession are factored into the equation.

Back in 1973, Gisela Konopka, the University of Minnesota's renowned and revered professor of social work, testified to the US Congress about the requirements for healthy youth development. We use an adapted version of the treatise she developed in 1973 in the Youth Work Institute. It helps us think about how we build community with and around young people. I believe these basic youth needs are basic human needs. All humans will attempt to meet these needs positively or negatively depending on the situation at hand.

Basic Youth Needs

  • Feel a sense of safety and structure
  • Experience active participation, group membership, and belonging
  • Develop self-worth through meaningful contribution
  • Experiment to discover self, gain independence, and gain control over one's life
  • Develop significant quality relationships with peers and at least one adult
  • Discuss conflicting values and form their own
  • Feel pride of competence and mastery
  • Expand their capacity to enjoy life and know that success is possible

What do these principles mean for you in your work with or on behalf of children, youth, and families? How do we go about building community with others in this time of economic austerity, budget cuts, children and youth programs downsizing or disappearing, and the general sense of community isolation?

I don't have solid answers to these questions. I do think that bringing about a renewed sense of community will require minimally that we see all of us as belonging to each other. We all matter. We need to start focusing on our strengths and stop seeing and framing others in terms of weaknesses or problems. The same is true for the children, youth, and families we serve. This idea of using an asset-based or strength-based approach to working with children, youth and families is not new. It is ancient and it is intuitive.

-- Cecilia Gran, associate program director, Youth Work Institute
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