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

By Cecilia Gran

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, former associate program director, Youth Work Institute

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  1. Cece, this is a great point and a perfect time to bring it up.
    At Pillsbury United Communities, our focus is on creating partnerships with youth and communities. In these times of financial struggle, I know we at Brian Coyle Center have been challenged by the intensity and passion for creating positive community change that the youth have brought to us as adults. This is a radical shift from the traditional project-based "community service" that many impose on the youth in their programs.
    Here, our youth are constantly aware of public needs, of youth and adults, and strategize with adults at our center to attack the causes of these problems. Our greatest struggle as leaders is actually managing to support all the positive action they want to take on- and how to do it from an activism standpoint, when for most of us, our activism is the daily work we do with youth.
    I find it an interesting and exciting shift in focus for youth workers and advocates to see ourselves becoming activists and standing behind the youth in the communities that struggle the most, instead of dragging them along in our own agenda for change.
    Thanks Cece.

  2. You are absolutely right Angel! You all at Brian Coyle live authentic youth and adult partnership and youth leadership in community change. You meet young people where they are and help them get to where they want to go in ways that raise us all up. The Coyle Coffee Shop is a great example of this. For those of you reading this post - head on down to the West Bank and get a cup of some of the best Ethiopean coffee from a youth-run, youth-led coffee shop that benefits the whole community.
    What I love most about what you do there is that you know that young people are ready to go now. That they are resources to all now. They aren't expected to wait on "grown up things" until they are older. They have a new kind of power and wisdom that we older folks do not have and we need their help now. Thank you Angel for being an activist for change!

  3. Cece,
    Great comments and perspective. I have been reading David Brook's new book, The Social Animal (see a New Yorker article on same subject at ). Part of his point is that so much of our social relationships from birth on tend to create very different cultural environments for those in poverty and those in the middle class. Differences in vocabulary, trust, hope, and assumptions about learning. When I think of educational disparities and the achievement gap, which is a major issue especially in Minnesota, I am worried that our primary approaches to solving it are schools - which are both too late and too little on their own to do the full job. Instead I think about the very separate and unequal experience of non-formal and informal learning opportunities that help create, mainatin, and even grow that gap over the life of our children and youth. It is like trying to win a battle with only the army and not using air and navel forces -- it just won't happen in this day and age. Especially when the community contexts and access to opportunities surrounding youth in these different groups are so very different. If we do not begin to focus on the access issue for non-formal and informal learning opportunities -- in our communities, our organizatiosn, and in our families, we are doomed to continue the gaps and the unfortunate consequences they bring for the lives of so many. When are these types of separate and unequal learning opportunities going to be declared illegal? They are surely already both unconscionable and counterproductive in modern society.
    Dale Blyth , Associate Dean and Director - University of Minnesota Center for Youth Development

  4. Thank you for your good thoughts on this complex issue Dale. I too am concerned about the unequal quality of and access to nonformal and informal opportunities offered to our young people and how that absolutely contributes to the widening of the gap between the "haves and have-nots." All the brain research being conducted today can be looked at to support that concern. You are right, schools can not and should not be the only answer to alleviating the disparities young people and their families face today and there is no easy fix. But to do nothing or to try to use the same old strategies that don't work is cowardly as well.
    Now more than ever we need to start making decisions in terms of the welfare and well-being of what my friends who belong to the Native American community call the "Seventh Generation." What impact will the decisions we make now have on the our children seven generations from now? This way of thinking and behaving truly requires that we care not only about and for our children, but for other people's children as well. Do you think that collectively, we have the courage and the will to make these kinds of decisions that will benefit future generations of all of our children?

  5. When is equal access to nonformal and informal opportunities to engage and participate going to be a legal "right" and an expected norm and responsibility for young people in this country? Other countries are far ahead of us in this arena. Europe especially, but in recent months we have witnessed a youth revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and other central Asia countries. What will it take to spur young people to demand their human rights? When will older people recognize their prejudice and discrimination, and make room for younger people at their "tables" of power, not just because it's the right thing to do but because we'll all be better off for it?

  6. Thank you Beki!! You are asking good questions that I hope do not go away when this blog post goes away. You are right, youth are ready to go now. The idea of the "common good" is lost when we don't make room at the table right now. How might we make this happen now?