Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Increasing Youth Participation

Hey everyone! I just wanted to write a bit today about an issue we've been dealing with here at Cabrini Connections and that is the issue of youth participation and how to get our youth to take more ownership of the program. I'm certain this is a common problem that youth workers are faced with and thus am reaching out here to try to share some ideas for potential solutions and ask for suggestions from you all. Basically we feel sometimes that we are offering an abundance of opportunities for our youth that they are failing to take advantage of. For instance, I have been spearheading a college prep support program that has involved campus visits to various colleges in the region as well as encouraging youth to take advantage of on-site college counselors and test-prep materials. Additionally we are coordinating weekend application workshops that will bring our seniors together with volunteers who will help them craft admissions essays, personal statements and otherwise help the students put together top-notch college applications. However, the interest student's expressed beforehand has not converted into attendance and involvement with our various offerings.

We also have not had the levels of participation we would like to see in a recent Halloween essay contest or in some of our clubs such as Art, Tech and Writing clubs. Since kids already earn incentives for participating in our programs, including points redeemable for cash upon graduation from our program, snacks and assorted prizes, we were thinking that perhaps we need to make these incentives more salient or emphasize them more, particularly the points. However, being a non-profit with limited resources, upping the ante for incentives seems like a mis-allocation of resources in the short-term and may lead us down a slippery-slope where the kids expect to be rewarded for their participation, which doesn't benefit anyone, particularly when their own outcomes stemming from their participation should be the primary incentive (i.e. getting better grades, staying out of trouble, opportunities to participate in awesome clubs, help finding jobs & getting into colleges, careers...etc).

Thus I've been thinking that rather than impose a new incentive structure or other apparatus from above, we should be working more effectively to empower the kids we're working with so that they are the ones working together to solve these types of problems. We want to get our youth to realize that this is their program and that they have the right to determine its development so as to maximize positive outcomes for the youth themselves. I have been thinking of various ways to do this and, after consulting with a number of our students, have decided that perhaps the best way to do this is to start what I'm tentatively deeming a "Youth Leadership Council" wherein a number of students, perhaps 6 who will proportionally represent our youth in terms of gender and grade level (i.e. a good mix of jr highers and high schoolers), will convene weekly to discuss issues of importance to Cabrini Connections (such as the aforementioned lack of participation), come up with solutions and work with staff and other students to implement those solutions. I'm thinking of holding elections in a couple weeks to piggy-back off the excitement surrounding the presidential election, which will also give students a chance to campaign, give speeches, get to know the other students and engage more meaningfully with the program. Eventually, I'm hoping to develop enough leadership skills in these youth and get them to really know what it takes to run our program, that they can send a liaison to our board meetings to ensure the youth have an informed say in the decision making at every level.

Basically I'm hoping the success of this Youth Leadership Council will catalyze a shift in the way we run our program from that of a vertical system of power, wherein we staff have unchallenged authority to a more egalitarian and horizontal framework, wherein youth set the agenda, decide on issues and activities and have joint accountability with the staff. In this way we can not only enhance youth participation and allow them to develop their leadership skills, but accomplish more as an organization by converting them into change agents who begin to take on more responsibility and encourage the rest of the youth to do likewise.


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