I believe you cannot learn youth development without experiencing it.
What I mean by “youth development” is distinct from “education.” Reflecting on nearly 19 years in our field of many names, I embrace Expanded Learning here in California as it embodies the heart of our work. When I hear Michael Funk, Director of the Expanded Learning Division at the California Department of Education, talk about the importance of love, I feel at home. It inspires me to reach out to those of you who can relate to my story. My goal with this blog is to inspire others, who have experienced youth development, to continue to speak on what we do.
It all began when I started working at Bitter Lake Community Center, in the neighborhood where I grew up. This is where my life changed as a 19 year old, back in 1998, when I started working in a summer day camp and then in after school programs. The community center is owned and operated by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Seattle, but it is attached to Broadview Thomson Elementary, a Seattle Public School. This set-up presented a special opportunity like many Expanded Learning providers working within schools. As program staff, we worked very closely with the school-day staff and teachers. Sure, there were politics, changes in leadership and a lot of the usual dynamics within such partnerships. However, we cared most about creating a sense of belonging, empowering the kids to find themselves, their interests and passions. We worked to create developmental experiences that allowed us all (staff, kids and families) to learn and grow together. We were building and strengthening our community by leveraging the hopes and perspectives of the young people we served.
Before I learned the terminology of youth development, I experienced it first-hand.
After many years of direct-service, I went to work for an intermediary organization. There, I learned about the great Karen Pittman. She helped me bring precision to my passion. Organizations like the Forum for Youth Investment put the work I lived and breathed for over 10 years into a context that made so much sense and pushed me to think about what else we can do.
As youth workers, from front line staff all the way up the chain to administrators, we know what it’s like to make connections in our communities. We make these connections with the young people we serve, their families, our peers/teammates, and the many stakeholders we engage. We know what it is to experience youth development in action.
In youth development, we sit on the floor in circles. We know what it’s like to chill and listen. We know what it’s like to learn from young people. We know what it’s like to serve the community. We know what it means to expand horizons. We know how to develop and promote skills that support navigating our world. We know what it’s like to learn from young people! Legitimate concerns arise, when it starts to feel like the prominent voices are not representative of the young people we serve and first-hand experiences we have in common. At LA’s BEST, we have over 25,000 students that we learn from and respond to. That’s our priority; that’s our focus. The answers we seek are truly right in front of us all.
I’m all for us supporting academic growth, through the creative ways we do. I’m all for the formal education folks recognizing and embracing the value of social and emotional development. But can we please not get this ish twisted? I genuinely welcome anyone who wants to see good things for young people and their community. I’ve learned a great deal from others with very different experiences than my own. And at the same time, we should question the experience and evidence behind the perspectives. For example, there are common practices that support ‘behavior management’ and are ‘evidence-based’. These practices may lead to fewer physical restraints and fewer expulsions – the evidence. But at what cost? Even if the language is phrased in “positive” terms, sometimes this approach uses fear, pain, and shame as leverage points, much like the old-fashioned punitive approach – an old tactic dressed up in new words. In your questioning, you may realize that the perspective is not grounded in experiences or evidence of youth development. It may solely be based on something read about youth development. Or it may be based on a PhD in education. Or it may be based on 20+ years of experience as a school-day staff or teacher. All I’m saying is don’t let these other experiences take away from what you’ve offered young people in your programs, in our field. These youth development experiences are invaluable, more than ever. Please don’t let someone with a ‘better’ degree or someone who has tons of classroom experience solely represent what we should do.
Please speak up and louder than ever before to share what we do!
For breakfast, I’ll be having a hard boiled egg, celery sticks with peanut butter, a bowl of granola and two large glasses of water.