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Communicating public value: If a young person develops in the woods, does anyone hear it?

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgWe know that youth programs have public value. But does the greater community know? Recipients of public funds must defend their use of public resources by demonstrating the value to the community, not just the value gained by the individuals who participate. Can you articulate what that is? Have you been doing so?

My Extension colleague Laura Kalambokidis works with educators in youth development and other fields across the nation on how to demonstrate the public value of their programs. Laura did a survey of educators that shows that of those who do not infuse a public value approach in their work, the primary reason is that they do not have enough time. To me, this suggests we view this approach as something "extra" to tack onto our plan of work. I would argue that demonstrating public value helps us to prioritize our work and involves changing how we talk about what we do and how we measure the impact of our work.

Youth programs have societal impact. Here are a couple of ways in which they do that:

They build trust among community members

To take a negative example, the "What's Up?" study youth-service-learning.jpgshowed that young people spend a large amount of time isolating themselves with computer games and television viewing. This is a threat to their personal development, but more than that, social isolation among young people is linked to social ailments such as criminal activity and drugs use -- a societal problem (Rankin & Quane, 2000). On the other hand, as one of my favorite authors, Robert Putnam says, trustworthiness "lubricates social life." Relationships among unlike peers and diverse community members, fostered by youth programs, generate social trust (Flanagan, 2003).

I am currently working on the Pathways Project, which is finding that youth in the programs studied have affinity and trust across race, ethnic background and socioeconomic background, embracing the philosophy, "all equal; all different." In their programs, they unpack stereotypes, cross social boundaries and develop trust in people outside of their family.
Social trust is the root of democracy and is linked to publicly valued outcomes such as a strong economy, well functioning political institutions, and better performing schools (Rahn and Transue,1998; Social Capital Blog, 2012).

Youth become agents of change

In programs, youth develop agentic capacities-- the ability to improve the quality of life for themselves and their community. So, while leadership skills, education plans, and civic values fuel young people to achieve private success, youth agency is also a resource that can be released into the community, making it a ready asset to the public. Youth programs position young people to be community partners, prepared to work with others to collectively improve the well being of the communities they share. For example, young people in the the Big Urban Woods CYFAR club recently partnered with their school, community organizations and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to restore a neglected 5-acre parcel of forestland. A place that was once a spot of unsightly neighborhood activity is now a vibrant outdoor learning environment and place of pride for the CYFAR youth and others in the community. Young people acted as partners for community improvement.

These are just two examples from my own work. What do you see as the public value of youth programs? Are you letting the public know about the value they receive?

-- Joanna Tzenis, community program specialist

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  1. You are doing some really important work Joanna! I love hearing stories of young people taking it upon themselves to create positive community change. It gives me hope. Your sentence "Social trust is the root of democracy and is linked to publicly valued outcomes such as a strong economy, well functioning political institutions, and better performing schools" is so powerful. We just need to do a better job in helping more of our fellow adults understand how to create social trust with young people within the context of our communities. Thank you Joanna! Cece

  2. Thank you for your comments, CeCe. I certainly agree; developing the ability to facilitate that trust within a program or context is an invaluable skill set for a youth worker or any caring adult to have. Furthermore, I think a great challenge before us is to demonstrate why that trust matters! That "link" between the abstract concept of social trust and those aforementioned publicly valued outcomes is not glaringly apparent and is definitely not an immediate benefit accrued by community members. It's difficult to push for the creation of trust when it all seems so hypothetical. I recommend viewing Dr. Flanagan's 2008 presentation (linked above), as she plainly lays out not only how to develop trust, why social trust is important, but also describes the social mechanisms at play that lead to a thriving democracy (i.e. public value).

  3. Great choice of topic, Joanna! It's so easy to overlook the far-reaching impact of youth programs on the larger community. Another public value example from a Pathways Project research site is a program serving Latino youth in Central Illinois. There, the youth have produced multiple "College is Possible" events aimed at local Latino families who may not have considered college or who may have believed their kids could not attend college. Anecdotally, several teenagers from that town who attended the event gained information and contacts that have since led to them going to community college. What greater impact could there be then increasing local kids' access to higher eduation?! However, I agree that we have a long way to go in communicating the public value of these programs. Thanks for a thoughtful article!

  4. Oh Joanna, excellent blog!
    From a Rings of Engagement perspective, we call the type of youth program or opportunity you're talking about as "collective action" which has a long history in social change movements and often involved both young people and older people--these days sometimes called youth adult partnerships.
    There is an important developmental reason to encourage this type of programming and opportunity. Konopka and the youth development field agree that adolescents need multiple, ongoing, opportunities to exercise increasing levels of voice and autonomy, they really begin to see broader social issues, they need to explore new identities and new ideas and ways of thinking, they want to effect change--these are the things young people need to be healthy, happy, and, yes, productive people (and citizens, workers, neighbors too).
    Therefore, it is not surprising that these are the type of programs to which young people, especially during adolescence, are attracted. So, I would argue, that incorporating multiple opportunities for varying levels of voice and youth-adult partnership not only benefits the young people, and the community, but may make it more likely that teenagers will visit and stay engaged.
    Over the last three years, I've been working on a youth-adult partnership collective action project to address youth violence. For me one of the many distinctions that became very apparent between a "youth program" or a collective action project was the extent to which the primary purpose of the project was to impact the youth in the group, or was it's purpose to address an issue or a need or an opportunity to benefit others in the community.
    Certainly it's not an either/or. In fact even though our project was designed to impact a community outcome (i.e., youth violence in targeted neighborhoods), our strategies had to start and be implemented by the youth and adult collective because they were chosen because of their expertise, regardless of age. To further complicate things, community outcomes are often very hard to document change, and so while our purpose was to change a community outcome, the best we could get in terms of documenting benefits were nearer term outputs and some pretty amazing stories of individual change both within the membership and anecdotally, in the community.
    Okay, enough Beki Babbles. Thanks so much Joanna for the opportunity. I hope we get to work together in the future! best, beki

  5. Thanks for writing, Jessie, and for sharing an impressive Pathways Project account from Central Illinois. I think that is a fantastic example of the public value of youth programs. I am not an economist, but one of many ways to communicate the value of the accomplishment you just described could be in terms of financial return of attending an institution of higher education--to both the young people attending college and to society. E.g. Some of the private value for young people are: Higher earnings and higher health and pension benefits. Some quantifiable benefits to society are increased tax revenue to local, state and federal governments and lower spending on social support programs. This report ( does an excellent job of quantifying the benefit of higher education. The accomplishment of increasing access to higher education is an incredible feat and is a true testament to the public value of youth programs.

  6. Wow, Beki. Thank you so much for your insight and the lucid example from your work with the Rings of Engagement. First of all, your point about collective action beautifully demonstrates that positive youth development and (what Kretzmann and McKnight call) Asset-Based Community Development (i.e. community improvement, social change) go hand in hand. Young people not only want to “make a difference,” but most youth are at the developmental stage where being able to do so is crucial to forming their identity (Nagda, McCoy, Barrett, & Holme, 2006). Young citizens chomping at the bit to contribute to the common good? What an ASSET to the public! Your work demonstrates how crucial youth programs are in ensuring that that community asset is not squandered.
    Of course, as you point out, measuring, or documenting the value of that asset is a challenge; it is certainly my challenge. I know I could tout social theories until I am blue in the face about the social significance of youth development, but when it comes to receiving public funds, or even investments in human capital (e.g. volunteers, program development partners) a measurable, quantifiable benefit is more effective. Perhaps that is an area in which we, professionals in the field of youth development, invest some energy: measuring social change/public value.

  7. Hi Joanna -
    Thanks for your compelling blog. I too enjoy reading Robert Putnam's work. I am interested in your take on "trustworthiness" as a lubricant for social life. How do you see that point playing out in real life?
    Thanks again.

  8. Thank you for your comment and question, Jennifer. I feel the most straightforward way of looking at “social trust” is seeing it as giving others, particularly those you do not know well, the benefit of the doubt. I.e., “I don’t know you, but I trust you are committed to the common good of our shared community—or our club.”
    So to respond to your question, let’s take for example, the CYFAR Big Urban Woods club. Imagine if the DNR were suspicious of the young people’s motives. Or imagine the reverse, that the young people felt that they could not trust the DNR. Perhaps, they suspected that these adults were going to view them as “just kids” with little to offer. The mutual trust in each other’s good intentions is what allowed them to work together to save the woods. Without the trust, it might have been an unnecessarily combative relationship. To tie this hypothetical situation into Beki’s comments, trust facilitates collective action. This action does not always have to be as groundbreaking as saving the big urban woods, but being able to rely on others greases up the wheels a bit and makes things—big and small-- easier! I would love to hear other examples about the role trust (or the lack thereof) among youth in their programs and the surrounding communities.

  9. Hi Joanna -
    Thanks for expanding on your interpretation of trust. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt is so important in any relationship. It is a critical starting place but it is also key to nurturing the relationship as it matures. People can get tripped up on others' intentions without even knowing what the intentions are - and this can happen at any point in a relationship.
    I really appreciate your textured view on community building.

  10. Paul Meunier, Director of ServicesMay 4, 2012 at 8:44 AM

    The members of Minnesota Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA) have been working to educate the broader community on the value of youth intervention programs. We are using quantitative data on both programmatic outcomes being achieved and financial savings. We also incorporate in diverse ways the qualitative impact of youth serving organizations. Our message is that: 1) youth are our assets and should be valued; and 2) youth intervention programs with their positive outcomes are solid financial investments for both the public and private sector. YIPA members are educating and engaging the community at the grassroots level with a parallel and supportive effort spearheaded by YIPA itself at the state level. This multiple level effort is critical-it is at the state level where the laws and regulations are established but implementation is at the local community level. YIPA itself over the years has been emphasizing this need to communicate the value of the work being done by youth serving organizations. For example, with Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota, Paul Anton (chief economist at Wilder Foundation) and Judy Temple (associate professor at the University of Minnesota) a Social Return On Investment study was completed. Educating the community will result in greater investment in our youth.

  11. Thank you for your post, Paul. I am interested in learning more about how you communicate your message to the public about your youth program being a financial investment. So I suppose my question is twofold: 1) Which methods do you use to communicate your message and 2) how do you quantify the outcomes in terms of the financial return?
    Thanks, again.

  12. Joanna, you are so wonderful - thanks for sharing your blog with me.
    I personally haven't done much with youth, but I would encourage you to learn about the work of what I believe is one of the most successful youth development models ever: Urban Roots here in Austin ( It's a youth development program housed within an urban gardening/food security initiative. What makes them unique is that the youth themselves are their primary spokespeople, which promotes public speaking skills, confidence, and gives youth a sense of real ownership over the program. They do incredible work and I'd be happy to put you in touch with their staff if you want to talk with them about their philosophy.
    Great to hear from you, Jo!

  13. Laura KalambokidisMay 9, 2012 at 6:10 AM

    Joanna--and commenters--I am pleased to see this discussion about pushing beyond participant benefits to the longer-term, community-level impacts of YD programs. I am sympathetic to the challenge Beki mentioned above, "To further complicate things, community outcomes are often very hard to document change." Community Vitality programs often face this same challenge, and may are working to develop ways to document, measure and even monetize social changes. Is there much coordination between CV and YD programs on these issues?

  14. Thank you for your response, Laura. Your comment perfectly highlights the imperativeness of working across our centers. I look forward to opportunities to further be a part of the University of Minnesota Extension's increased emphasis on cross-center work, because, as you have identified, centers face similar challenges and more perhaps more importantly, we strive for the same goal of having a societal impact through education. Therefore, "Documenting community change" is a perfect opportunity for the Center for Community Vitality and the Center for Youth Development to mutually bolster our ability to communicate and create value for our stakeholders and a greater community! Coordination among centers is current reality, but will be even more so as we move more vigorously to becoming "one Extension." Dialogues such as this one sure helps remind us of the importance of this collaboration!

  15. Thank you for this blog, Joanna. I also like the Urban Roots example that Kate speaks about--having youth be the spokespeople for their programs is something we are hoping to do more of in our own Twin Cities-based Urban 4-H programs!


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