Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Difference Does It Make? An Interview with Milbrey McLaughlin

By Sam Piha

Milbrey McLaughlin
Milbrey McLaughlin has been a leading thinker, researcher, and advocate on youth development, out-of-school time youth programs, and community schools for decades. Dr. McLaughlin teaches at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and is Founding Director of Stanford’s John W. Gardner Center

Dr. McLaughlin recently released a new book entitled, You Can’t Be What You Can’t See: The Power of Opportunity to Change Young Lives. Below are her responses to a few questions regarding her work. 

Q: Can you say a few words about the subject of your new book and why you decided on this? 

A: My 1994 book Urban Sanctuaries chronicled the successful youth outcomes associated with CYCLE (Community Youth Creative Learning Experience), a neighborhood-based youth program operating in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing project. CYCLE provided the high-poverty black youth growing up there with concrete alternatives to gangs and school failure, occasions to experience life outside the four square blocks of their dense neighborhood, and opportunities to imagine futures different from the concentrated poverty they saw around them. 

While Urban Sanctuaries documented participants’ encouraging outcomes in the early 1990s, it could say little about whether these positive attitudes and behaviors could or would be sustained over time given the powerful challenges of poverty and negatives of life in Cabrini-Green. You Can’t Be What You Can’t See: The Power of Opportunity to Change Young Lives follows up with around 700 CYCLE participants 30 years later and provides a rare opportunity to see the long-term impact of a youth program on their lives, and the lives of their children.

CYCLE had remarkable success in enabling Cabrini-Green’s low income, African-American youth to make it through high school and move into positive adult lives. In a community where around 30% African-American females and less than 20% of African-American males graduated from high school, and where gang membership and early pregnancies were the norm, CYCLE participants’ accomplishments are extraordinary. Around 90% of the youth involved in CYCLE’s scholarship programs and other activities during the 1980s graduated from high school. They subsequently achieved careers such as educators, doctors, office workers, social workers, managers, youth leaders, tradesmen and law enforcement officers. Many attained success in higher education. In addition to earned Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees, CYCLE participants from the 1980s include 11 doctorates, 2 MDs, and MAs in programs such as architecture, social work, education, and business. 

Today, CYCLE alums have stable jobs, families and friendships; they are active in their communities and in their children’s lives. And, a majority of their children are high school graduates headed for higher education. 

Q: What were the key takeaways? 

A: There were several:

  • The impressive accomplishments of CYCLE alums and their children show that the negative outcomes predicted for kids who grow up in concentrated poverty like Cabrini-Green—school failure, early pregnancy, involvement with gangs, drugs—are not inevitable. They result not from a so-called “culture of poverty” but from a poverty of opportunities. But sadly, nationally, the youth who most need out-of-school opportunities like CYCLE in fact have the fewest. Kids, especially black youth, growing up in the most impoverished communities have scarce constructive things to do once school is out.
  • Attention to the character of the context available to high-poverty youth may be the single most important ingredient in transforming poor kids’ sense of who they are and what they might become. CYCLE’s experience counsels that the most productive approach to improving low-income youth’s social and academic outcomes involves changing the nature of their environment rather than zeroing in on “fixing” the kid. CYCLE demonstrates that a comprehensive, youth-centered, relationship-based program that exposes poor kids to new places, options and pathways, supports their academic and personal efforts unconditionally, and gives them the tools needed to reach their goals can transform the lives of even the most disadvantaged, marginalized youth.
  • This follow-up project highlights the importance of taking a ‘life-course’ or long-term perspective to understand the consequences of a youth program on participants’ lives. While near-term program outcomes such as high school graduation or postsecondary enrollment provide important markers of program effectiveness, they can say nothing about whether [or not] the positive developmental outcomes these benchmarks predict in fact occur, or are sustained. Arguably, the intergenerational consequences associated with CYCLE participation—what happens to their kids— may provide the ultimate gauge of sustained effects.

Photo Credit: www.chicagoganghistory.com

Q: Were there any findings that you were surprised by? 

A: Interviews, alums’ personal friendship networks and social media provided information about the lives of more than 700 CYCLE alums. Although I expected to hear many reports of alums’ rewarding personal and professional lives, I found the extent of these positive life accounts stunning. All but a handful of CYCLE participants enjoy productive middle class lives today, and former participants credit CYCLE for this success. CYCLE represents an extraordinary return on investment!

Q: Several years ago, you led qualitative research on the San Francisco Beacons. To conduct this research, you hired youth ethnographers. This was very unusual at the time. Why did you choose to conduct research in this way and what were the benefits? 

A: It seemed to me that youth would be especially perceptive observers of Beacon activities and contexts, as well as effective interviewers of youth about their Beacon experiences--better in many instances than Stanford researchers and graduate students! Stanford researchers interviewed youth and staff, observed, and reviewed record data as part of the Beacons research. The youth ethnographers’ reports and perceptions brought important ‘validity’ and insight to our work. In several instances youth ethnographers pointed out features of program settings we did not see or fully understand—particularly around staff/youth interactions. For instance, youth ethnographers considered the Beacon center that the quantitative [survey] research deemed ‘best’ not all that attractive. They preferred the Beacon center that quantitative research deemed disorganized; it was their choice because they found it welcoming and supportive in ways the other more by-the-schedule Beacon was not.

Q: In 1994, you wrote a book entitled Urban Sanctuaries, in which you describe how urban leaders create and sustain youth programs in spite of enormous challenges. Based on what you've seen and learned since then, have any of your views changed or been altered? 

A: When we began the research that led to Urban Sanctuaries in the mid-1980s, the term “positive youth development” was not widely in use among youth practitioners, if at all. Greg Darnieder, CYCLE’s founder, certainly had never heard of it! Thirty years ago, successful out-of-school programs like CYCLE generally were the work of committed, passionate individuals like Greg. Little organized support existed to foster systems or networks dedicated to providing or expanding youth development opportunities. The advice offered in Urban Sanctuaries to create more CYCLES was “go find a wizard!”  Today, however, many more resources are available to promote and enable effective OST programs. This encouraging development changes my recommendation about how to enable more effective youth programs from ‘go find a wizard,’ to advocacy for efforts that coordinate youth-focused funding streams and resources within and across local, state and federal policy systems, and so provide productive system contexts for those wizards and the youth they serve.


Milbrey McLaughlin, Ed.D. is the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Policy, Emerita, at Stanford University and the Founding Director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Communities. She also is Co‑Director of the Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, an interdisciplinary research center engaged in analyses of how teaching and learning are shaped by teachers’ organizational, institutional, and social‑cultural contexts.

McLaughlin has focused throughout her career on the various institutional contexts and policies that shape youth outcomes—schools and community-based institutions most particularly. The Gardner Center embodies McLaughlin’s interest in identifying and understanding the cross-institutional issues that shape with settings within and through which youth move, and in advancing a youth sector stance to inform policy and practice.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mindfulness Techniques in Afterschool: Experiences of a Youth Worker

By Sam Piha

The use of mindfulness techniques with young people have been shown to promote social emotional skills (self-awareness, emotional regulation, social awareness, and empathy, etc.). For years now, they have been used by schools and expanded learning programs. Mindfulness techniques are also being used to promote self-care for adults in stressful jobs (youth workers, health workers, and others). 

For some, these techniques are about relaxation, self-care, and time to regain calm. For some, they involve awareness of breath or more formal lessons on meditation. 

For others, this sounds too “touchy-feely” or "religious" for expanded learning programs. We disagree and have created a 16-week curriculum for use with young expanded learning program participants and have offered trainings for school districts and county offices of education across California. 

Below is a guest blog from an afterschool worker describing her use of mindfulness techniques in her program. 


My name is Erika Chavez. I am currently 22 years of age. I have been an after
Erika Chavez
school academic instructor for the POWER program at Pioneer school for 3 years now. I am also in the process of becoming a certified Holistic Health Coach. 

I am deeply passionate about bringing awareness concerning health and complete overall wellness to those around me, whether it is through social media, events, or in my classroom. My vision is to someday be able to start a movement that encourages and inspires a balanced and an all-round healthy lifestyle - physically, mentally, and spiritually. 

Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s own awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. 

I have been practicing mindfulness with my students for 3 years now. It all began with a pretty Fiji water bottle full with gold glitter. You see, I needed a visual way for my students to understand what mindfulness was and the purpose it had. So, I showed them the still water bottle with the glitter resting at the bottom of it. I asked them if they were able to see through the water bottle and of course their response was “yes” since the water was clear and calm. 

Photo Credit: Able Data
After I shook the entire water bottle, I then asked them again, “can you see through the water bottle now?” They all responded “no” with such wonder in their eyes. I then explained to them how that water bottle was our brain and the glitter represented our thoughts. When I introduced mindfulness to them, I explained how it was a powerful tool to help us calm that glitter down in our brains so that we could be able to clear our waters in order to make wise decisions. They then understood how it all worked and they were all motivated to calm their glitter. [See "Just Breathe" video].

I had them all lay down on the floor with their eyes closed and focused on their breathing. I then played a children’s guided meditation and they followed… sure enough there was one or two students who couldn’t stay calm but what’s new, right? However, with lots of patience and understanding, those few students who couldn’t seem to settle down began to slowly sink into the activity. I must admit, seeing all my students laying down on the floor, with their eyes closed, hands crossed on their chest, and breathing calmly was one of the most rewarding and soothing feelings ever. 

Mindfulness has allowed us as a group to come together and form a bond of understanding, kindness and support. Now they even come to me asking if we can please meditate! Especially when they’re hyper, that’s when I realize they ask for it the most. Best part is seeing them tell one another, “calm your glitter, you need to relax and make better choices”. I’ve seen them grab the water bottle and take it to that student so they can be reminded of what’s going on. It’s seriously amazing!

I’ve seen some students mature, others striving to be better, and I’ve heard others open up with very intimate things that were weighing them down. One student in particular taught me a lesson I will never forget. She opened up and talked about a very serious, sensitive and painful situation that had occurred to her. She broke past a wall that had been holding her back for some time, making her feel trapped. I was able to see the strength coming through her as she let it go. She became present and was able to acknowledge her feelings and thoughts. 

This also helped me as a teacher to better understand why she acted the way she did and I was able to support her in a much more effective way. Now she is a better student and her behavior has improved radically. This is the POWER of mindfulness.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Does the Afterschool Movement Have an Expiration Date?

By Sam Piha

Social movements come with a shelf life or expiration date. The afterschool movement is no exception. This means that all of us must get engaged to protect the future of afterschool. 

At the federal level, the Trump Administration will continue to seek the elimination of 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC). You can learn more from the Afterschool Alliance and how to get involved by clicking here.

At the California state level, many stakeholders are working together to ensure that ASES funding is increased to keep up with rising costs. You can learn more from the California AfterSchool Network and how to get involved by clicking here

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Sharing Circles: Cyphers

By Guest Blogger, Johanna Masis, Program Director at Oakland Leaf

Johanna Masis
At Oakland Leaf, all of our programs incorporate the practice of Cyphers. We believe in the power of people's stories and life experiences regardless of how many years they have been alive.  There is a collective wisdom that exists and needs to be honored. When we practice Cyphers, or community circles, the benefits are immense. I have seen the culture of a 100 person program change for the better in less than a month by creating the space and putting in the work to Cypher. The benefits of this practice include increased familiarity with people's stories, empathy building, idea sharing, harm repair, healing for the individual who is hurting, and compassion building. The additional value add for our Newcomer youth is that they get to practice their English in a low-risk environment. 

Cyphers are used as a space to do intentional community building in the form of having a discussion on any topic.  The Cypher is meant to serve as an emotionally safe place for each participant to say their piece without interruption or judgment. Youth have very few venues where they can speak their truth without interruption, let alone without judgment. Make sure that if chairs are used, then everyone must have a chair. If you are sitting on the floor, then everyone sits on the floor. Everyone should be able to see each other. Sitting in the circle diminishes hierarchy and overall power dynamics. Everyone is equal. 

There has been mention of some intangible components of the Cypher such as the discussion, the shared values, and emotionally safe space. However, there are tangible components, too. They include: a centerpiece where youth may focus their attention; a talking piece that can be brought by the facilitator or made by the group; and something from nature (a plant, glass/bowl of water) to remind us that we are connected to the earth. I have seen youth bring a toy or a picture of their families to the circle as an offering to the group during the Cypher.

Cyphers are encouraged to happen at least once a week and many of our programs calendar them in so that youth know when they will occur. The values of the collective are held throughout the Cypher. I would encourage you to have youth share a value they bring to the first few Cyphers.  People do not have to speak but are expected to hold the talking piece for 5-10 seconds before passing the talking piece.  If there are people absent on the day of a Cypher, then a place is still held for them in the circle.

Photo Credit: Oakland Leaf

For those considering to integrate the practice they should:

  1. Model and practice with the adults and/or youth that will facilitate. Do not assume adults are natural keepers of this space. Practice with each other in staff meetings to increase comfort levels.

  2. Be honest about your role as facilitator. Based on the reason for the Cypher, if the facilitator has been harmed or has done the harm then they should not facilitate. 

  3. Use Cyphers for different reasons not just to repair harm. You don’t want to “anchor” Cyphers as these intense conversations that make people cry.

  4. Allow time for each person to share at least twice during a Cypher. If the purpose is to plan, then you may be able to have multiple Cyphers to accomplish the task. However, if repair is needed then allow a realistic amount of time for that type of Cypher.

  5. Be prepared for the vibe to get deep. Youth will share extremely personal experiences. Be prepared to sit in that discomfort. Hold everyone accountable to the values if they veer from them because of that discomfort. Remember: it may not be intentional to break from values. Defense mechanisms manifest differently for people.

  6. As the facilitator, have discussion prompts and reflection questions prepared. Sometimes a Cypher can take its natural course and as a facilitator you do not want to lose the capacity to close up the circle. 

The more often you practice having a Cypher, the easier it gets. Youth will come to expect it and for many of our youth in Oakland this is the only part of their day or week where they can speak freely. Honor each other’s voice and experiences. 

Johanna Masis majored in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara and did her graduate work at Holy Names University in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). She started her career as a high school teacher and later joined AmeriCorps. She taught abroad in Japan and has, since then, dedicated herself to promoting creative ways for youth to learn in different capacities. Johanna first joined Oakland Leaf in 2013 and is currently the Program Director. She completed the CalSAC LDI 360/365 fellowship in March 2016, and she has since been an advocate for the powerful, learning experiences and network opportunities the fellowship provided.