The benefits youth reap in youth programs are well understood. High-quality programs provide enriching experiences that broaden their perspectives, improve their socialization, enhance their skills and support healthy identity development -- especially during adolescence. The specific benefit to Somali American youth is less well understood, because they are less likely than their peers to participate in organized youth programs. I would argue that it's important to engage them in youth programs, particularly here in Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.
Somali American youth identitySomali Americans have a distinct presence in Minnesota – there are about 40,000 of them in the state. The Twin Cities in particular is a place where Somali refugees have made their home in order to escape the violence and unrest of the Somali civil war that began in the early 1990s. Each of these young people has his own story -- some have only recently moved to the U.S. after spending years in refugee camps in places like Kenya,or Ethiopia; about one-third were born here. Some speak English at home, others Speak Somali, some speak both. They share a sense of belonging to the Somali diaspora, as well as the challenge of negotiating complex identities marked by race, religion, and ethnicity. They must regularly navigate the perceptions of who people think they are and who others hope for them to be.
In her book, Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, Racialized Identity, and Education in a New Land, Martha Bigelow explores language and identity development in the Twin Cities Somali Community:
“[Somali American] Youth are hybridizing and negotiating new identities that have very much to do with who they are, who their families are, and who they are hoping to become."
Identity development is a challenging life stage for any adolescent but it’s uniquely complex for Somali American youth. Somali American youth are either working to meet or to contest other people’s expectations of who they should be and become, which makes it difficult to develop a more fluid, complex and authentic identity -- a marker of positive youth development.
Who others think they areSomali American youth have the challenge of trying to fend off Western perceptions and stereotypes of their identity. For example, in schools, they are often feared as threats. According to the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, one in three Somali high school students reported harassment because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion (Minnesota Department of Education, 2013). Somali American youth are also labeled as different and viewed as people who choose to resist mainstream norms – because the girls wear hijabs even when they play sports, because they don’t eat pork, or because they don’t date during adolescence. Somali American youth often find themselves defending or explaining who they are, a process that can isolate them from their peers and confuse their sense of self.
Who families want to them beFirst-generation Somali parents and elders worry when they see their children adopting social, linguistic and cultural norms of other groups at school. There are instances where parents actually take their children out of school and return to Somalia to relearn their culture because they are distressed when they see their children becoming Americanized. Preserving Somali and Muslim identity is paramount to parents in particular, and youth find themselves trying to do so, even though the U.S. is a gravely different social context than that which their elders experienced.
How might youth programs help?Youth programs promote opportunities and conditions for young people to thrive and reach their potential, including the promotion of positive identity development in diverse social contexts. They are places for youth to safely explore their views of the world and of themselves through interactions with others. Youth programs are therefore primed to help Somali American youth foster a more fluid identity that enables them to flourish in a complex social word. Unfortunately, Somali American youth are less likely to participate in youth programs than their peers, partially because it is viewed by families as detached from their Somali identity, and in part because it is not a well known resource.
There is a need to support the development of a healthy identity for Somali American youth, and youth programs in Minnesota have a great opportunity to deliver this programming. Here at the Extension Center for Youth Development and our partnership with KaJoog, we have designed and implemented a program model that is having great success, but there is much more work to be done.
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