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Help young people to see their infinite possibilities

By Joanna Tzenis

Identity Project Handout: Multi-color pie chart wheel
Marwa’s hopes to see more people with her
identity in the future as leaders.

“You can’t be what you can’t see” -- Children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman

These words are a rallying cry for those of us who are fighting to build equitable opportunities for people of all races, genders, abilities, sexual orientation and identities.

What does research say about representation and its impact on youths’ aspirations? How can youth programs incorporate what research says to support youth in the pursuit of their aspirations? 

Young people's aspirations are influenced by what they see and experience in their world, but this process often happens subconsciously. The main characters of storybooks, movies, and curricula, political leaders, and those in high-powered careers are most frequently white males. So young people subconsciously associate those roles with specific identities. It can make those who don't fit this description feel inferior, and without them evening knowing it, youth strive for future “possibilities-within-limits.”

In my own research, I met with Marwa, a high-achieving ninth grader with dreams of going to a top university. Marwa observed her peers aspiring and acting within limits:

If you look at who's in the enriched classes in our school system, there’s not many Somali people or other people that aren’t white in the classes. I think it was just like something people thought. They were like “Other people before us didn’t do it, so it’s probably not for us.

Marwa imagined a future different than what came before her. She wanted to be “the first person to be where I am”. She also told me she worked hard at school to “prove them wrong”—referring to those who believe Somali youth are not smart. Her aspiration for a better future was not just about her personal success; it entailed countering stereotypes and breaking barriers. 

Experiencing and countering discriminatory stereotypes in order to achieve aspirations requires enormous strength of character. It can also be a major stressor to youths’ overall well-being and can make it harder (but still so very possible) to continually strive and achieve valued futures. 

What can we do in youth development to help youth see their infinite possibilities?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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