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Culturally relevant youth programs: An example from the field

By Joanna Tzenis

In a recent research brief, I synthesized research that highlights the importance of ensuring that youth programs are culturally responsive--meaning that youths’ cultural experiences and perspectives are represented and included in program structure and staffing.

One programmatic tip I offered for pulling this off was to be flexible with program structures and policies that might not align with participants’ culture of origin. I thought I’d share one specific experience that helped me practice flexibility in programming. This practice was as simple as making space for homework help for Somali immigrant-origin youth during their 4-H program.

Rising Impact (formally Ka Joog)  and 4-H collaborated on a Take-off STEAM model, with the support of funding from the CYFAR program. We had shared goals of helping Somali youth thrive in their education and worked together to achieve this through youth programming. I learned quickly that Somali families’ culture and faith prioritized academic excellence and discouraged youths’ involvement in activities that they might view as distractions to excellence. They did not consider nonformal learning a resource to help their children.

From my experience as a white, European American youth development professional, it felt counterintuitive to prioritize academic tutoring in a youth program. The hallmark of Minnesota 4-H is our hands-on, experiential approach to learning. I felt like I wasn’t doing my job well at the beginning of our partnership when the majority of youths’ time was spent on academic coursework. Club leaders would tell me they ran out of time to “do 4-H” because “parents would not be happy if… their homework was not completed.” 

But by being flexible with my worldview, I learned from mothers that they felt the need to push their children toward excellence because so many doubted their abilities in school simply because of stereotypes unfairly placed on Somali youth. Hearing youth discuss their homework with their peers, I learned about the subjects that interested them. These understandings helped the club leaders and I infuse nonformal learning in a way that was culturally relevant, such as prioritizing connections to expert adults. We created field experiences that included hands-on learning with 3M scientists or University of Minnesota faculty and students. These experiences in turn expanded youths’ view about their futures and parents’ views on how to support their children’s education. One mother told me:
Before 4-H, I was not motivated as I am today. Before we think they can get everything from just in schooling, but not the leadership. I would never picture this before 4-H. They going to the U of M, meeting with the leaders who are telling them they can be anything they want to be. They feel so hopeful and before 4-H or Ka Joog I don’t think I would now know this.
By being flexible in what I, from my cultural vantage point, viewed as an effective youth program, my views were expanded and my practice improved. In what ways have you been flexible in your programming? How have you considered youths’ cultural backgrounds in co-designing youth programs?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. This is great. So often it's hard to rethink our methods, many times because we're using those that apply to how we see things.


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