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Inspiration from a pioneer of youth development

By Karen Beranek

Karen Pittman
"Fully prepared does not mean problem-free - just resilient."
Karen Pittman, youth development researcher

While researching for my thesis two decades ago, I found myself drawn to the work of Karen Pittman. Her education as a sociologist and lived experiences, combined with her leadership and ability positioned her to create movement in the world of positive youth development. She co-founded the Forum for Youth Investment and KP Catalysts. She coined the phrase "Problem-free is not fully prepared" as she describes how we work with youth. 

This fall, I had the privilege of listening to her speak in person! She expanded on the research and the history of positive youth development that she has advanced in her 30+ year career. It was more than a little humbling to pause and contemplate the evolution of youth development. Karen was able to walk us through the journey of youth work. As youth development professionals, we now recognize that youth being problem-free does not mean they are fully prepared. Through the pandemic we have expanded our focus to include helping youth become resilient and develop skills as they make their journey into adulthood. I encourage you to watch this ten-minute video of her summary on positive youth development. 

In a Rooted in Relationships podcast, she shares more about how she was fully prepared as a young person to transition into adulthood. She talks about the adults in her life, and why developing relationships with young people is much more than just caring about them. Karen fully recognizes the role adults play in creating a place for youth to reach their optimal development using a positive youth development approach.

I vividly remember my thesis advisor challenging me to define positive youth development and identify what theory it was based on. With so many theories deeply rooted in years of study, the idea that this term wasn’t based on just one theory was revolutionary. 

Positive youth development is an approach to working with youth, where adults recognize the youth’s skills, strengths, and passions, and how these lead to their optimal development within their support system. A youth’s support system includes all aspects of their life - adults, school, home, environment, and youth organizations - youth do not develop in a snow globe but rather in the contexts of their daily lives.

While we have come so far, we know positive youth development is a journey - for the young people as they develop within their environment, but also for us as growing professionals. As youth development professionals, what professional development experiences do you invest in? What people have shaped the way you work with young people?

-- Karen Beranek, Extension educator

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