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Why youth programs matter for Somali American youth

By Joanna Tzenis 

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 identity

Somali 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 her or 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 are

Somali 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 be

First-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.

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Joanna, great blog post. Identity development is such an important and complex topic. I think youth programs are a wonderful and over-looked resource for families, but I have found that once parents understand them, the easily see the value. But it does take that initial interaction. That's why it's so important to get buy-in first from those Somali gate-keepers--those people already immersed in the community who have the relationships with families to be able to invite them in and encourage them to try it out.

    1. You've just underlined the importance of building a strong community partnership. We at Extension have the program resources, but without strong partners (Ka Joog in this case) our resources would have limited reach. We spent nearly a year both designing the program and building those relationships with our partners and the community before programming started. It laid the foundation for success.

  2. Hi Joanna, what a great post that shows the complexity of identity development and the importance of safe spaces like effective youth development programs in helping youth navigate these complex issues.Families must trust the youth development programs they allow their young people to attend. Building trust with families and communities is a complex process. One that youth development organizations must not shy away from. This post does a great job of demonstrating the importance of building the bridges of trust for Somali American youth.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Betsy. Trust/relationship building is indeed a complex. We have not only worked to build trust in our Extension/Community partnership, but also trust in the program design. We have found that families sometimes question the value of building engineering projects, because it does not directly relate (in their minds) to grades at school. Families prioritize their children's educational futures above anything else, but non-formal education is a new experience for most. That's why I found it important to be explicit about the benefits of youth programs. Thanks again for your comment.

  3. I too appreciate your post, Joanna, as well as the posts from others. I am very interested in hearing more about how we find, invite, and develop the skills of adults working with youth within and across cultures. Do you have any tips for meeting and establishing relationships with those gatekeepers and potential volunteers with programs that serve Somali American youth?

    1. Hi Heidi,
      Thanks for you comment! The main tip I offer is to prioritize the relationship above "getting things done." As professionals, it is natural to want to have tangible accomplishments, such as making sure the youth are doing certain activities as planned. But first and foremost, trust and reciprocity must be established. What that relationship looks like and how it develops, of course varies depending on the parties involved.


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