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What is "urban" youth development?

Race has shaped the definition of the word "urban." This provokes a question for us in the Minnesota 4-H Urban Youth Development Office: what exactly is "urban" youth development?

We have developed the following strategies, or ways of working, in our effort to serve the most marginalized (but not necessarily urban) youth.

  • We "partner with" rather than "bring programming or information to" the youth and adults we serve. The best way to engage any audience is build opportunities together. An even exchange of ideas allows both parties to recognize and work from their own expertise, while gaining new knowledge and experiences from what their partner has to offer.
  • We use a youth engagement approach that helps us promote from within. Our youth have opportunities to lead and engage with adults in developing and improving our programs. They build on and see their own growing expertise, and many have come to work with us as paid staff, thus adding to the varied experiences of the Urban 4-H team.
  • We help young people transform hope into expectation. As our 4-H'ers discover their interests, we help them connect those interests to future opportunity by learning to overcome barriers and see as real what seem like mere possibilities.
  • We help youth see themselves as lifelong learners. Continual reflection, opportunity to showcase learning, receive feedback, and make improvements based on this feedback, offer a chance for youth to see learning as continual.
In working to girls-with-microphone2.jpgmeet the needs of the most impoverished youth, we actually learn to conduct high-quality programming for all young people. The emphasis of our practice (as should be any method of positive youth development) is on seeing all young people, whether black or white, urban or rural, poor or well-off, as assets rather than problems to be fixed.
So for Urban 4-H, "urban" youth development is not just about tweaking our programming to meet the needs of urban youth. Urban youth development is about helping youth and adults to cross the mental boundaries that cause the racialization of the word urban to begin with. We're helping people navigate cultural clashes by providing them with authentic and meaningful opportunity to connect with one another, such as:
  • County and regional 4-H events that intentionally recruit from across different types of 4-H communities
  • Short, intensive experiences, such as overnight retreats and cultural exchange trips, for youth from varying backgrounds to get to know one another by having fun, learning from one another, and talking about common issues
  • Training adult facilitators (interns, volunteers, and staff from partner agencies) to use specific resources to help them and young people navigate cultural differences
  • Identifying leaders from each 4-H role (volunteer, intern, partner, youth) who can act as "bridges" to inclusion. As bridges, they encourage fellow participants to consider ways of welcoming and engaging with new audiences
How has your experience with the word "urban" shaped your view of youth development? What are successful ways that you have found to help combat the prejudice that sometimes exists towards urban youth?
-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director

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  1. Jessica,
    Thanks for sharing this important information on this blog! I knew as soon as I saw the title, that you were the author. I appreciate how you outline the strategies and show ways to connect with others.
    I believe that relationship building is so important in working with all audiences, as we need to get to know each other in order to develop trust. I have been able to connect with others who have served as the bridge to working with new audiences.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Nancy. I agree--I think that relationships are actually THE most important aspect of what we do in youth development. This includes building positive relationships with our youth and adult partners, and it includes teaching and guiding them towards healthy relationships with all people. Without the emphasis on relationships first, our efforts on other facets (such as helping youth build mastery, or connecting them to higher education) can fall apart.

  3. I agree with that the word “urban” creates images and ideas about programming that is not truly reflective of what happens. To dig beyond that surface level analysis requires asking questions, exploring, and possibly re-framing your mind-set about your own programming and where appropriate, your own self. I especially like how you create programs that aren't different in nature and look for ways to train staff in best practices for all – not just for one audience. Everything you have said is applicable to all proactive reflective practitioners and youth.
    I think one way that I have tried to combat racial prejudice against urban youth is just asking a follow-up question like “what do you mean by that comment?,” or “when you say ‘urban’ whom are you referring too?” Those questions are specific and cause the person to think and may cause a shift in intention. I don’t think it is about being politically correct – it’s about being correct.

  4. Joshua, I like the idea of following up prejudice with a question. It holds the mirror up to the person making the comment and causes them to want to change what they see reflected there.
    I think it's also important not to react to prejudice with more prejudice. What do you think of this? Because in a way, your following up with those questions seems like a very loving thing to do. It shows them what they intuitively know--that what they said is wrong--though admittedly, some people take a while to really internalize this.
    Sometimes it's tempting to feel a sense of superiority over a person making a comment that we recognize as biased, and I like to try my best to combat it with love (not usually very easy). I know it sounds corny, but I think when people see love and compassion shown towards them (not towards the hate or ignorance itself) and towards the people they are either purposefully or inadvertently insulting, they are more likely to respond in kind and realize their mistake. What do you think?

  5. It is so interesting to hear of the meaning that people will assign to words. Unpacking these words is part of a positive youth development experience as people learn what "belonging" and identity mean to them and to others.
    Perhaps we can also explore with youth non-racialized unpacking as well. How many people see "urban" as hip, sophisticated, and progressive? For some, "rural" may connote backward, slow, and stubborn--or wholesome, hard-working, and patriotic?
    Lots of unpacking to do!

  6. "The emphasis of our practice (as should be any method of positive youth development) is on seeing all young people, whether black or white, urban or rural, poor or well-off, as assets rather than problems to be fixed."
    Jessica, this was my favorite quote! So happy that 4-H is having conversations like these.

  7. Identifying "bridges to inclusion" is such a great way to look at creating an environment among those we serve that recognizes the importance of interactions among and between all those at the program. What a great way to involve everyone in setting an inclusive tone and a useful way to speak with youth and adults about how they can participate in program growth and inclusion. Thanks Jessica!

  8. Heidi--that's a really good point. In my research, I discovered just as many negative perceptions out there about the word "urban" as positive. One article I read said that the image of "urban America" for some people over-seas is more of a positive influence than the general perception of the U.S. because of pop-cultural influences. (Here's the url for that article: And for sure, the word "rural" has its own connotations.
    Michelle--thanks, I'm glad that line resonated with you about all youth being assets rather than problems. It's really what "positive" youth development is all about.
    Betsy--these "bridges to inclusion" are a new focus for us, so I hope I can share more learning about this as we continue to try it out intentionally. Anyone out there tried this before as an intentional approach?

  9. Thanks for the url for that article, Jessica - very interesting read!

  10. Jess,
    Thank you so much for such a great post and discussion. I loved reading the comments that followed the blog and I have to say that for me "urban youth development" is fun, expressive, messy at times, responsive to communities, data-driven, and personal!
    As it was stated in other comments; it's hard to not think in a binary way in which is either urban or rural. I think our approach in the Urban Office to 4-H youth development is an approach applicable to programs in various communities, including urban, suburban, and rural.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post!

  11. Josey, I love your way of describing urban youth development. It is fun! Youth development in general is a bit like finger painting in that the mess is part of what makes it so fun (except for those who don't like getting their hands dirty!). And I agree, it's personal too, partly because we learn so much by striving to do our best with it. Kids bring out the best in us.

  12. This is a very interesting fluid discussion topic that evolves based on the people participating in it. Just as urban youth development programs should be fluid and evolutionary dependent upon the composition of program participants, so should this conversation.
    As a white male, I must acknowledge (especially when first initiatiing urban youth programs with new program partners) that I may not be the best person to recruit urban program participants. Urban youth respond best to participating in programs when asked by people they know and trust. Perhaps those people are of the same race, but they assuredly are of the common culture.
    I need to approach urban youth development as an open, authentic, consistent, and fluid programmer. As the relationship builds over time with partners and their youth program participants, I am seen as much more than a white male. I am seen as a person who cares deeply about equality of program opportunities. I believe in doing whatever is necessary to remove barriers to participation among our urban youth, and the overall 4-H Youth Development Program is enriched as a result of that pointed work.
    Although I agree race is the most noticeable characteristic of urban youth, it has been my experience over many years that socio-economic status is the largest hurdle we must overcome to engage and involve urban youth in our programs. Their sustained participation, long term growth, and greatest chance for positive youth development in informal educational programs depends on it.
    Thank you for the chance to participate in this blog. It is so important and essential to share ideas with like-minded urban youth enthusiasts!

  13. Steve, thanks for for your comments, especially about the importance of open, authentic, consistent communication. And I love the word "fluid" in describing this approach, because it brings out the necessity of adaptability in building lasting, trusting relationships.
    I completely agree that socio-economic background is one of the biggest hurdles to be overcome in youth programming, and also a barrier to participation. But I also think that race compounds the problem, because that socio-economic status is so tied up with race. And race also tends to be a stickier topic because most people (perhaps more so in the mid-west?) are so reluctant to bring it up as a point of discussion. This reluctance makes race a more difficult issue to tackle, in my opinion.


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