Empower and Engage Marginalized Communities

Creating Youth Programs That Empower and Engage Marginalized Communities

Too often, youth development programs are built from a “deficit thinking” perspective – designed to give remedial instruction on academics and other skills. I believe that there’s a more powerful way to engage youth as leaders in their community—by building structures and programs that empower them to see themselves as active participants and leaders in their own communities.

Creating Systems of Engagement for Youth

How do you create youth programming opportunities that are healthy, inviting, and just? During my time researching youth studies, I’ve found that a spirit of partnership and collaboration with youth is vital—especially in communities with diverse perspectives and high potential for growth. The opportunity for youth community programming opportunities often looks very different between marginalized and non-marginalized communities. In non-marginalized communities, there may be exciting and engaging programs for kids like “Be a Scientist for a Week.” In marginalized communities, these programs instead focus on remedial education and additional academic tutoring. This deficit thinking runs counter to what my work has demonstrated: the most successful community youth programs collaborate with youth and allow them to create something that matters to them.

I ask young people to shift their perspective. They need to stop seeing themselves as people who need to be developed and recognize the talent and capacity that they already have. I want them to bring their knowledge and skills to bear on issues and problems in their own neighborhoods and communities. They have everything they need to solve these problems and they can take a role in creating the communities that they want to live in right now.

Youth Programs That Inspire Action

The Mastercard Foundation funded an eight-country youth entrepreneurial study looking at institutions of higher education and what they’re doing to promote youth entrepreneurs. I spoke with students who attended entrepreneurial programming in Rwanda who really felt engaged with the Mastercard program. This more successful programming model includes coaches who work with young people rather than lecturing them. They work together to build a business plan that both allows them to earn income and do work that matters to their community. The coaches work with program participants to utilize the young person’s prior research, aiding them in creating salary-paying economic activity in their neighborhood.

The participant reactions to this program stand in contrast to other programs they had participated in, which were designed as lectures complete with tests of the students’ knowledge. This didactic model left most participants feeling disconnected and uninspired.

Another project that I have worked with is “Root for the Home Team.” It’s a youth leadership and entrepreneurship project in the Twin Cities, that gives the opportunity for youth to develop their leadership skills through exploring personal interests and public issues. One of the things that makes this project successful is the way we invite youth to precipitate change. For at least six hours a week, the youth we work with get a chance to be seen as community members with a huge ability to contribute. When we invite youth to collaborate in this capacity, it’s amazing what happens.

Giving kids a chance to positively impact their communities can take all forms. I worked with Andrew Fisher, the former vice president for MCA Records in the Jazz and Blues division, to create the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project, which provides music industry opportunities to young people. Kids work with leading Jazz musicians for 10 to 14 weeks, focusing on music, technology, songwriting, spoken word, and many other aspects of the music industry. This engagement in the music industry provides kids a platform to take a stance on community issues they care about.

Tips for creating engaging, collaborative community programming for young people

Youth engagement opportunities work best when professional partners provide consultation, reflection opportunities, and the resources young people need to continue their project. Ultimately, listening to the youth you’re working with is key for successful partnerships.

  1. Collaborate. Regardless of what you’re doing with young people, collaboration is key. Young people have multiple ways to resist activities and programs they feel they’re not invited into in a meaningful way. Act as a collaborative facilitator rather than simply an instructor.
  2. Get to know your program participants and their strengths. Young people are quite diverse individuals, so you can’t assume who they are by looking at them. Meet your program participants and work with those people. Most importantly, look to build on the skills and cultural knowledge they already have; view the young people you’re working with as assets.
  3. Invite young people to become historians of their communities and families. In our current historical moment, much of what matters to communities and many young people has been erased from public consciousness. It’s important to invite young people to understand the real positive impact they can have on their communities.
Ross Roholt

About the Author

Ross VeLure Roholt, Ph.D.

  • Assistant Professor
  • College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)
  • School of Social Work (SSW)
  • University of Minnesota

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