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Youth work and the art of hosting

By Amber Shanahan

Meeting group seated in circle outside near large treeWe define our roles in many ways. We are educators, mentors, facilitators, volunteers and coordinators, to name a few. How about adding "host" to the list?

When you think of hosting, you may think of entertaining and feeding guests and making sure they're comfortable. You might think of a TV show host -- someone who makes sure that contestants follow game rules or entice guests to tell about their lives. An interactive host would spend time getting to know each guest, connect people with common interests, and make sure everyone is happy. An effective host always makes certain that every guest feels welcome and has a seat at the table.

Do these activities sound familiar? Do they sound exactly like what you do in your youth program? I think you'll say the answer is "yes."

The Art of Hosting (AoH) is a program development model that builds on this idea. Communities and organizations use it to improve decision making, build capacity and responsiveness to opportunity, challenge and change. AoH uses the word "host," rather than facilitator or moderator, because hosting gives attention and care to all aspects of people’s work together. Hosts encourage participants to succeed, and modify the program as they go to ensure that all participants' needs are being met. This may mean that the agenda or curriculum veers off track.

Isn’t that what out-of-school youth programming sets out to do? While the learning goal may be around a specific project area or topic, the most basic goal of any high-quality youth program is to ensure that needs are being met, youth participants are welcomed, and participants develop a sense of belonging. Hosting is the primary role of the adult leader.

Research shows that the art of hosting is effective. AoH trainings are offered throughout the year across the globe, and are also offered by University of Minnesota Extension colleagues annually.

When I host programs for youth or adults, I put on my party-planner hat. I consider details that will show my guests that I am dedicated to their comfort. I do my research to prepare for their arrival. Water and snacks are always available, the room set-up is primed for participatory engagement, and music plays to liven the space as participants arrive. These gestures always show up as positive session feedback.

You still hold the title of educator or mentor, but consider how you can simultaneously be a host while leading youth programs. AoH provides a number of methods that have proven to be effective in building teams, creating a sense of belonging, and ensuring equal power among participants.

For example, consider the ineffective host who “hogs the mic,” or otherwise monopolizes the conversation or the agenda. They may serve their own goals well -- but not necessarily anyone else's. Effective youth/adult partnerships are an essential element of hosting and will help lead to the creation of a welcoming environment, a sense of belonging for all youth participants, and a learning experience where youth are engaged, excited and eager to return.

How can you shift your role to intertwine hosting characteristics? What are some ways you’ve used AoH processes with youth?

-- Amber Shanahan, Extension educator

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