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Ways to make youth programs more inclusive

By Kathryn Sharpe

“I have a group of Muslim youth who won trips to the state fair—what kind of religious accommodations will they need?”  This is a question that I asked myself last summer. It’s an example of the kind of question all youth workers must ask themselves if they want to make their programs more welcoming to non-traditional audiences.

For me, this intercultural communication meant talking with families not only about prayer times and dietary restrictions, but also listening carefully about what it meant for them to trust a chaperone; about their beliefs regarding youth supervision versus freedom; and about what behavior is understood as respectful.  Gradually, we were able to understand one another’s expectations and values.  The result was a joyful group of young people who thrived in their first-ever experience of being 4-H’ers at the Minnesota State Fair. There remains much to learn, but step by step we are forging new common ground within 4-H.

I’m part of the Diversity and Inclusion Shared Learning Cohort in our center. Last year, we produced a series of videos to highlight strategies for inclusion that have been pioneered across Minnesota so that we can better learn from one another’s experiences. The videos share the questions, successes, challenges, and best practices that have emerged as 4-H works to more effectively include youth and volunteers from across our diverse communities.

The Center for Youth Development has set a strategic target of increasing the diversity of 4-H so that it reflects the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity of the state. Reaching this goal means reflecting on ourselves and analyzing our program to understand what value 4-H programs could bring to new audiences, and the ways in which we inadvertently exclude families.

How can we do this? In her book Working with Differences in Communities, Ann C. Schauber identifies four essential principles for successfully engaging with difference:
  • I must believe that each person has a special talent or gift to share.
  • The only person I can change is myself.
  • By opening myself to thinking, feeling, and acting in a way that allows others’ gifts to be shared, I create more possibilities for resolving community problems.
  • Dominant-culture structures that are in place must be examined and possibly changed to create accessibility for non-dominant members.
As this final point illuminates, youth development programs that strive to be more inclusive need to be asking not only, “How can we invite more diverse youth and families into our existing programs?”, but also, “How do our programs and policies need to evolve in order to truly welcome diverse members?”  In order to answer this question effectively, it requires engaging with the families we want to reach--engaging in intercultural communication by navigating the often invisible differences in cultural values and communication styles in order to try to make them visible and to arrive at common understanding.

What questions do you find yourself grappling with as you work to make your programs more inclusive?  What are some of the “often invisible differences” that you have discovered as you seek to arrive at common understanding with new audiences?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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  1. Thanks for your thoughtful blog. I was especially drawn to your point:
    Dominant-culture structures that are in place must be examined and possibly changed to
    create accessibility for non-dominant members.

    Structures that have been in place for a long time can create ways of doing things that may likely also need to be examined. This way structures and practices can get looked at together. I have been in many program-related meetings over the years where this question inevitably comes up – why are we doing it this way? I think it is a good question because it begs for reflection and examination and often leads to some kind of positive change. Thanks for sharing your experience and resources.

    1. Thank you so much for your reflection, Jennifer. I agree with you that it is essential for us to consider the confluence of both structures and practices in a holistic way. One of the real benefits of this is that they tend to have quite different timeframes for change--whereas a structure might require a much longer horizon for meaningful change, our practices can often be transformed in a much shorter period of time. I see our colleagues discovering this on a regular basis (and many of these examples are highlighted in the videos). These changes in practice then being evolving the overall organizational culture, and they can help to illuminate the ways in which the structures could or should evolve, as well.

  2. I REALLY struggle with how we, as a system, accommodate religious beliefs in our programming. As our funding comes from government sources, and because we want to be inclusionary, how are we ensuring we are not seen as endorsing or favoring a particular religion? Many of our 4-H traditions incorporate a Christian prayer before meals. As I have tried to offer this option using a “Moment of Gratitude” as an alternative, I have been criticized for infringing on people’s right to express their religion. And as I’ve had informal educational dialogues, I have been in communities that are dominated by Christianity where some (albeit a minority, but a vocal minority) are adamant about maintaining their ability to practice their religion. It is such a personal and emotional issue; it’s not been a battle I’ve picked.

    Did you hear comments, or did you have conversations, as to how we are accommodating to other religious beliefs in our youth programming? What is our responsibility to accommodate religious beliefs?

    1. Thank you, Margo, for raising these very important questions. You are so right that as we embark on asking questions of existing structures and practices in order to be accommodating, we run up against questions about preferential treatment, whether for religion or other issues. We definitely need to be aware as we make changes that in our efforts to be welcoming to new audiences, we are conscious of the impact those changes will have on our existing participants, as well. And yet the resistance to change in any organization often comes from people liking the comfort of traditions, and also sometimes from the position of someone in a place of privilege resenting when they feel they are losing their privilege.

      As part of the U of M and with our equal opportunity commitment, we do have a responsibility to make sure our activities are accessible to all. I like to look for ways that we can adapt our programs that will benefit many different participants, often in unexpected ways. Your idea of a "Moment of Gratitude" or a moment of silence would allow each person to practice their own person tradition (whether a prayer of their own religion or a moment of quiet reflection for those who do not practice a religion and who otherwise might feel alienated by a prayer). Similarly, a quiet room or space at the State Fair, for example, can serve as a prayer space, a place for non-religious reflection and rest, or a haven of sanity for a young person with autism who may feel overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation of the fair.

      What experiences have others had in addressing the diversity of religious beliefs and practices, while maintaining a program that is welcoming to non-religious youth, as well?

    2. Thank you, Kathryn, for sharing your experiences and research on such a powerful and profound topic.

      In my experience in the northeast part of the state, I have noticed that many of our program staff members and volunteers will not (or are at least very hesitant to) schedule any activities and events on Wednesday nights for fear of competing with religious educational activities sometimes scheduled by (some) Christians at that time.

      I understand the importance of accommodating schedules of our communities' young people. At the same time, I often wonder if, by doing it this way (totally avoiding Wednesday nights), we may be missing another group of youth that may be very open to programming at this time - and may find a richer sense of belonging with other youth who are not engaging in religious education at that time (whether they be from a different religion, not religious, or etc.). It's a wonder that, when uttered, is often met with a sigh and a comment such as "Well, it just won't work in THIS community." Do we really know until we reach out past our usual audiences?

  3. Heidi, thank you so much for sharing this experience and the important questions that it raises. It is an interesting observation that in the very effort to be respectful of one group's religious activities, we might be missing an opportunity to serve people who are not part of that group. I think this raises a few issues. First of all, if we continue doing what we have always done, we will get the same people participating, since they are the ones this schedule works for. While we want to be sure to continue serving them, your post also highlights the opportunities we have to ask ourselves, “Who is not here? Who else could get involved? What changes would we need to make to reach them?” These questions are at the heart of working to become more inclusive.

  4. Wonderful blog. I really enjoyed reading it and also enjoyed reading the intriguing comments that bring up so many great points and issues. I am part of a development program and I am looking to gain more diversity in one of our youth programs. Do you have any suggestions on how I can include these groups that often get excluded?

  5. Thank you so much for your response, and I am so glad that you are interested in making your programs more inclusive. If you give me a bit more context about your program (where it is, what communities is it seeking to engage, etc) I would be happy to share some resources.


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