Monday, August 19, 2019

Supporting Our Youth in Times of Fear and Threats

By Sam Piha

As our young people are returning to classrooms and afterschool programs, our country is gripped by confusion, fear, and anger that is a result of hate speech, mass shootings and deportations. This is particularly true for communities of color and other marginalized groups. It is important that afterschool program leaders think about how they will respond and support their young people in light of this crisis. 


“My family is documented and we’re residents, but regardless of that fact, we’re just scared. We’re afraid that something can go down. Personally, I didn’t want to go to school. Anywhere I go, I feel threatened.” 
- Roman, 17yrs. old, El Paso, TX

The Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence (AzCASE) offers the following tips for afterschool providers:

  • Understand and acknowledge that some anxiety is normal.
  • Connect with your community. Talk to parents in your program, talk to others working in your program. Just let people know that you are there for them and the kids.
  • Turn anxiety into action. If your program works with a community that is more deeply impacted and you have the flexibility, find a way to allow the kids you work with to volunteer or find a cause they can support that builds the community up.
  • Be available. Kids hear more than we may think. While you don’t want to introduce a topic that may trigger trauma, make sure the kids you serve know that you are there and willing to talk to them about their concerns and fears.
  • Take care of yourself. These events are hard for adults too. Take your own mental health temperature and know when you need to ask for support or seek help. Remember you can’t help the kids if your trauma has been triggered.
We would add that it is important for program participants have a regular opportunity, such as a sharing circle, for young people to express their thoughts and concerns - not just when there is a local or national crisis. 

Source: Washington Post

It is important that adults and youth do not fall into hopelessness. To avoid this, it is suggested that we find ways to take action for change. Below are some leading organizations, assembled by Youth Service America, that will help you take action:

March for Our Lives
Everytown for Gun Safety
Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence
The Brady Campaign

We are currently researching how  expanded learning programs should respond to ICE raids that impact their participants. We do know that some school districts have addressed this and if your program is school-based, you should seek advice from your school district host. Below are some recommendations from Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), who developed a 10-step guide to help schools and educators support children affected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids:

  • Make counselors, social workers, and other professionals available to help students and families who may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Identify bilingual liaisons who can, if needed, provide support and translation for students and families.
  • Designate safe spaces, such as school gyms, where students and families can wait for assistance if a parent is detained.
  • Provide the support and legal protections afforded by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act if students have no place to live.
  • Ensure that law enforcement officers are not on school grounds, unless needed, because their presence could re-traumatize students and discourage families from seeking support.

Source: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Equity and Access in OST Programs

By Sam Piha

There is a new book series entitled Current Issues in Out-of-School Time. The Series Editor is Helen Janc Malone. The Series promotes and disseminates original theoretical and empirical research and promising practices from practitioners to further grow and strengthen the OST field. 

The latest book in this series is entitled Changemakers! Practitioners Advance Equity and Access in Out-of-School Time Programs, edited by Femi Vance and Sara Hill. Because equity and access are such important issues in the out-of-school time field, we approached Femi and Sara with a few interview questions. Their responses are below.

Q: There is a lot of discussion among afterschool leaders and providers about the issue of “equity”. Can you define what you mean by equity?

A: With this volume we want to add to the discussion on “equity” and we cannot do that well if we all mean different things when we use the term. With that in mind, we define equity early on in the volume; it is “when young people have the tools, resources, and other supports they need to achieve desired outcomes”.

We also caution against confusing equity with equality, which is when everyone gets the exact same resources. As we know, each young person is an individual with unique needs, equality will provide some support but it may not be the kind of support each young person needs to succeed. Equity, as we see it, requires us to provide tools and resources that are intentionally aligned with, and match the needs of youth.

Q: Many afterschool programs, per their funding, are located in schools that serve black and brown families and those from low-income communities. Do you think this covers the issue of access?

A: It’s a start but it is not the full picture. A few of the chapters in the volume draw attention to strategies that we can use to improve access for youth and families and to resources for programs. Based on her work with her program, Rachel Loeper suggests concrete outreach and retention strategies to meet young people where they are and encourage programs to examine their existing practices that result in the most vulnerable youth being unaware of or worse feeling excluded from programs. Suzanne Stolz pushes us to think about how we can meet the needs of disabled youth and Andrés Henriquez and Sonia Bueno share how to get immigrant families “in the door” and provide meaningful opportunities for immigrant families to participate in and contribute to programs based in a science museum.

And, yet, we are just scratching the surface. For example, there is still a rather large unmet need for programs in the nation, and particularly in communities with concentrated povertyWhat, beyond funding, is behind that? We should also be discussing access to programs for youth who live in rural communities and how we can ensure that youth continue to access resources during the summer. Locating programs in low-income schools is just the beginning, not the end.

Q: What can programs do in the way of promoting different experiences to address inequity? 

A: One of the most impactful techniques that programs can use is to train staff to use a critical youth development approach with young people. In the volume, Merle McGee makes the case for why programs should invest in critical youth development and offers some practices and activities that can help programs to get started. In a nutshell, critical youth development helps youth to articulate, understand, analyze, and push against power, privilege, and oppression. Staff will need to examine and reflect on their own beliefs and attitudes about these issues to effectively use critical youth development.

We also encourage organizations to learn about implicit bias, or the beliefs and attitudes that unconsciously affect our thoughts and behaviors, both positively and negatively. Management and other professional staff can examine how implicit bias shows up in organizational policies and practices. In her chapter, Kathryn Sharpe taps into equity-minded OST leaders for recommendations on how to build equity and mitigate implicit bias. We think her chapter is a go-to resource for organizations ready to take that step.

Q: At the systems level, equity in afterschool concerns both issues of access and program experiences. Can you comment?

A: What we are currently lacking is an agenda that names the most pressing issues around equity and access so that we can begin to think through how we can address them. Legacy organizations, e.g. Boys and Girls Clubs, The Ys, 4H, because of their national span, may be the ones who can get this agenda rolling. Statewide intermediaries are also in a position to help set an equity and access agenda. As we have alluded to in our responses to earlier questions there is no shortage of issues that we can tackle. The tension will be deciding which issues to focus on first and the strategies to do so.

We can share a few equity and access issues that are currently on our minds. One is the misalignment between quality standards that call for equity, diversity, and inclusion and quality assessment tools that rarely address this issue thoroughly. Another is ensuring that people of color are better represented at all levels of the afterschool field, including the systems level.

A final topic that we have been paying attention to is how to recognize and respond to resistance, from people and organizations, to equity-driven practices. Equity can be uncomfortable for people to discuss because it requires us to examine the effects of privilege, power, and oppression on your daily lives. Undoubtedly, there will be resistance and knowing that, we can think through how to address it. We are currently collecting anecdotes of resistance to efforts to promote access and equity in OST programs, so if any of your readers would like to share their story, they should feel free to contact us.

People are already doing work on each of these topics, so there is progress. Again, we need a more intentional and unified approach to equity and access.

Femi Vance, Ph.D. is a researcher at American Institutes for Research (AIR) where she researches and evaluates out-of-school time programs and provides technical assistance to youth development professionals. She strives to translate her research into practice via board service, training, and practical and relevant blog posts and guides. Dr. Vance holds a Master’s in Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in Educational Policy from UC Irvine.

Sara Hill, Ed.D. has over 25 years of experience in youth development, curriculum and instruction, nonprofit management, evaluation and research. Dr. Hill has designed and delivered professional development for hundreds of educators at all levels, including youth and staff at community based organizations, public school teachers and administrators. She received her M.Ed from Harvard University School of Education and her Ed.D. from Vanderbilt University, Peabody College.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Importance of Gender-Based Programming for Boys, Part 2

By Sam Piha

There's an emerging trend in afterschool to focus on the needs of boys,
Ashanti Branch
especially boys of color and those from low income communities. Ashanti Branch, Founder and Executive Director of Ever Forward Club, is a former classroom teacher and a strong advocate for boys. He appears in the feature film documentary entitled, The Mask You Live In. Ashanti is also featured in the History of Afterschool in America documentary where he makes the case for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below we continue our conversation with Ashanti about the needs of boys. You can view part 1 here

Q: Do you think it's helpful to develop programs that are gender based? 

A: There is a huge need to have separate gender groups for the work that the young men need to do by themselves; for the work that young women need to do by themselves. There needs to be safe space for them to come together and learn about healthy relationships, healthy conversations, and building community together.

What I realized was that our young men need a space where they can be not only held to high expectations, they can be given high support; that this is an environment where, as a mentor, I can push them the way that I need to push them and they do not worry about how it looks to other people in the room.

If young men are not learning how to be young men in a healthy way, then how will they learn how to be young men in a group with young women? They need to figure out, "How do I be? How do I work in this world?" The world is expecting you to act a certain way. We don't put them in a box. We say, however you show up and however you are, you're perfect. But how do we help you learn tools? To navigate and communicate in ways that are different - not just based on who we are and how we are raised. I think it's really important. 

As a teacher, I've seen students who are smart, who do their homework on the sly, then they goof off and talk back. Then you recognize it - they're trying to code switch. Many boys think they can't let their friends know that they are a freaking 4.0 student. I had one youth who dressed in clothes four times bigger than his body.  For four years of high school, he was valedictorian. But he knew that what he had to do and luckily he had it in him - "I'm going to take care of my business while I still fit and feel cool with my homies". Most don't have tools like that. 

Source: Ever Forward Club

Q: Can you say something about afterschool and school-day environments?

A: Afterschool programs allow young people to say, "Look, the day is over. I'm tired of pretending that I like whatever they were talking about. Now I get a space to just be free." In afterschool, we have the space to help our young men know that they are valuable. "You may not do so good in your bookwork, but you've got a lot of skills.” I think that afterschool programs allow youth to get a taste for something else, to see how good they can be at something that's not going to be marked as a grade, or not going to take their creativity and crush it because somebody told you that your drawing “is not according to the rubric”.

Many of our schools today are not engaging, exciting or fun. Unfortunately, school still looks like it did 100 years ago. I think schools are maybe one of the only industries that are operating as it did 100 years ago and still expect to be successful. We have a system where you show up, you sit down, you listen, you do what the teacher says, and you go home and hopefully you can regurgitate it when they give you a test.

How do we make sure that not only the afterschool people know how to support young people, but we also take those skills and help teachers integrate those into their classroom? I think it's important that both happen. I believe that it should happen all day long. Teachers should be educated in how boys learn differently than girls in a safe way so that teachers can make sure that they're providing the type of education that's going to reach all of their students. That's what we're trying to do in Ever Forward. We're trying to do more work around the social-emotional development of our young men, teaching them to be social-emotional leaders, so that it doesn't just happen afterschool. It happens all day long. That's what we're really excited about.

Mr. Branch, born and raised by a single mother on welfare in Oakland, California, took the road less traveled to get out of the ghetto and attended one of California’s premier engineering colleges, California Polytechnic - San Luis Obispo. After tutoring struggling students, he realized his true passion was teaching. In 2004 as a first year teacher, Ashanti started The Ever Forward Club to provide a support group for African American and Latino males, who were not achieving to the level of their potential. Since then, The Ever Forward Club has grown to serve both young men and women and become a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 

Ashanti was awarded with a Fulbright Exchange Fellowship to India, a Rotary Club Cultural Ambassadorial Fellowship to Mexico and a 2010 Teacher of the Year Award from the Alameda-Contra Costa County Math Educators. Mr. Branch is on a mission to change the way that students interact with their education and the way schools interact with students.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Importance of Gender-Based Programming for Boys, Part 1

By Sam Piha
Ashanti Branch

There's an emerging trend in afterschool to focus on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities. We published an earlier blog post which contains an interview with Lynn Johnson (Spotlight: Girls) on serving the needs of girls and young women. Now we turn to the needs of boys.

Ashanti Branch, Founder and Executive Director of Ever Forward Club, taught high school, middle school, public, private and Charter schools and is a strong advocate for boys. He appears in the feature film documentary entitled, The Mask You Live In.  Ashanti is also featured in the History of Afterschool in America documentary where he makes the case for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below are some of Ashanti’s responses to our interview questions. 

Q: Can you say a little bit about how you got into this work? 

A: I grew up as a poor boy, raised by a single mother in Oakland. As a first-year high school teacher, I wanted to help some kids in my classroom pass algebra. I realized that those young men were looking for a space to be real, to talk about what was really going on in their life, and not be ashamed about it, not be ridiculed for feeling something or by caring about their education. Many of our boys live in a community where education is not valued, where the smartest kid at the school is called names like nerd, geek, and teacher's pet. 

In some communities, students who get the highest score on the test are celebrated, people cheer for them. But in our community, those students don't get elevated. Our young men believe that to be cool, to fit in the cool crowd, you've got to act certain ways. Usually they aren't ways that are going to help them with their education and help them further their life in a positive way. That's a sad part that we've got to work on. 

That's why I'm really glad that there's some resurgence in this work, and we're trying to be a part of that work. What we've been trying to do in Ever Forward is when we started 13 years ago I was a teacher just trying to help some kids pass algebra. I wasn't trying to start a non-profit. I didn't even know what a non-profit was. 

Q: Can you comment on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities?

A: We are becoming aware that there is a need to support young men in really specific ways.  For so long there's been just a place of ignoring boys and allowing certain behaviors to be left as "boys will be boys" or "that's just the way boys are." I think that what has happened is that this has been let go for so long that young men have found themselves in a crisis. 

If you look at the prison population in the United States, 93% are men. That would tell you something is happening with men. It usually starts when they are little boys. The hyper-masculine narrative of what it means to be a man tells our boys that “this is how men act “ and if you step out of that box, then society has a good way of either pushing you back into the box or pushing you so far out of it that you don't even know who you are.

I think that the awakening of people in communities, the awakening of people around the nation and the world, is recognizing that we must start when they are younger. 

Society doesn't give our young men good tools with dealing with sadness and fear and shame and other kind of emotions. They're clear in what you do when you're angry. They're clear about what you do when you're happy. So if you don't fit in happy or angry, what do you do with the other emotions? Usually it comes out as anger. If somebody embarrasses me, I may feel sad. But I don't know how to deal with sadness. I know what anger looks like. Thus, everything is converted to anger. Or I just pretend like it doesn't matter, then I get checked out to the world.


Then how do young men deal with this? They isolate and experience quiet desperation – “no one cares about me”. They begin to self-medicate, self-fulfill those feelings of not being a part of the group - drugs, alcohol, rampant unprotected sex, gangs. They exhibit so many different behaviors to cover up their feelings that they're really trying to figure out. How do I deal with this real feeling? The documentary, "The Mask You Live In," which was done by The Representation Project, is about American masculinity and how society is shaping our boys. 

Q: Can you describe what kind of activities you do in Ever Forward Club? 

A: There are many activities and curriculums being created to support young men to promote their healthy well-being and social-emotional development. In Ever Forward, we believe that our young men need a safe space to talk about what's going on in their life and to know that any part of themselves that comes out of their words, their heart, is part of them and that's okay. If we give them tools with dealing with the real and the true part of themselves, then we are giving them more space to be fully themselves and they're not pretending to be somebody else. 

Source: Ever Forward Club
Our meetings start off with a simple check-in - your name and how are you doing right now on a scale from one to ten. If we're going to start a meeting, we should know where they are right now. If any one comes in below a seven, we're going to check in further with them. There's a way for them to self-select whether they want people to ask them questions. They can come in and fake it every day -“I'm a nine”- and know nobody's going to bother them.  But if they say “six”, we're like, "Hey, what's up? Why are you a six? What's happening?”  They are then able to indicate "I need somebody to talk to me about something." 

Our young men have a hard time asking for help. I have a hard time asking for help as an adult male. I still struggle with this. If I can't do it by myself, then maybe something's wrong with me. Once our young men feel the safety of that circle, it's really powerful for them because they know that every week I get to check-in with them. It doesn't just stop in the week. During the week, they're building a brotherhood that lasts longer than just the week, but the weekly meeting is like the big piece that helps them through that. 

Once we get check-in done, we often play a game. Usually there is some competition. For young men, competition is really huge. Sometimes it's not really about the game- it's really what happens during the game. Somebody might break a rule, cheat, or make up their own rule. Then stuff comes out. Somebody might get mad, start yelling, or call some names. When this energy comes out that is when we can help teach them. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Importance of Gender-Based Programming for Girls

By Sam Piha 

Lynn Johnson, Co-Founder/CEO of Spotlight: Girls, is a long-time champion of youth development and a strong advocate for girls. She is also featured in the History of Afterschool documentary talking about the need for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below are some of Lynn’s responses to our interview questions. 

Q: Why do you think it is helpful to develop gender-based programs in afterschool?  
Lynn Johnson

A: I know that there's a lot of controversy around gender-specific programming. But this is so important because we are not often looking at where inequity comes in in terms of gender in our schools and our communities. Girls are doing pretty well in school academically and graduating at higher rates than boys. So we're getting girls through school, but we're not really preparing girls for life.

Gender-based programming is important because girls are asking for it. They say they need that space to feel safe. Boys need it as well, and there's a lot of talk about that. There's a lot of great programs out there for boys, especially boys of color.

Q: Can you describe what you consider is important in serving the needs of girls? 

A: One thing that we know for sure, because there's been a lot of people doing research and talking to girls, is that girls really feel the need for a safe place. Many girls that say there aren't safe places for them to really “be”, to connect with others, and learn new skills. Girls have a very deep and complex emotional experience, so how do we give girls the skills to understand all of their emotions, understand that their emotions are okay, and then know that they can make behavioral choices separate from their emotions?

All of us who've been in the youth development field recognize the importance of social-emotional learning and non-cognitive skills. And that's exactly the type of skills that I'm talking about. Girls, no matter who they are, what they do, what they look like, or who they love, they need to be seen for themselves and be told, "You are just right as you are." They deserve a quality youth development space where they're learning those skills to say, "Here's who I am. I'm okay no matter who I am, and I get to figure out how I'm going to take this personality in all different situations." 

Girls are often so pigeonholed into, "You have to be a good girl, otherwise you are a bad girl. You have to be a certain way.” It's really hard for girls to burst out of that bubble. Perfectionism sets in and it really holds girls back. It's about having the courage to overcome all challenges, and our girls don't necessarily have those skills. Our girls are suffering rates of depression at a lot higher rate than boys. Our girls are at greater risk of being a victim of all kinds of assault, of being a victim even of bullying. There's so many things that girls are dealing with internally. Girls are kind of imploding, and we don't quite see it because they're still doing well in school. We need to take care of girls on the inside.

Q: Why is the afterschool setting a good place to accomplish this?

A: The most important thing in serving girls in afterschool is to focus on giving girls their own safe space. It's not realistic in a public school for girls to have that separate safe space. That's why afterschool is a really important setting. We can give girls a space and time in a club or in some sort of program for them to have that place where they feel safe. Also, we can offer girls opportunities for programs that they're not necessarily traditionally involved in like STEM, coding, sports and other areas where girls have traditionally been left out of the conversation. 

Source: Spotlight: Girls
At the same time, I don't think that STEM is the only thing that we should be focusing on exclusively. We need to give girls the social-emotional skills to understand their own emotional experience. They have to understand that they can be angry and upset by something, but then understand that they can make, still, a calm and confident choice behaviorally. All of those things are skills that can be taught and can be applied to any kind of content area, whether it's STEM or arts or sports or anything. I get worried when we focus too much on girls in STEM and not on their emotional experience and the skills they need to succeed in any field.

Afterschool is about old-school youth development, which includes promoting social-emotional learning and non-cognitive skills. [See Youth Development Guide 2.0]. We want to create a safe space for young people to really learn socially, learn collaboratively, learn who they are in the larger world, learn new skills while understand their own sense of growth and progress so they can really take up space as leaders.

Afterschool is the perfect place for young girls to be learning about robotics and for young girls to be learning how their bodies are so powerful as athletes and all of that. At the core it's not just about academics. It's about, "How do I, as a girl, in a safe space, understand who I am, understand why I might be feeling resistant to new experiences, why I might be resistant to certain fields of learning, and understand how to move through those areas of resistance, how to say yes to new things." Afterschool gives you that space, that time. 

Source: Spotlight: Girls
Q: We have been introduced to a number of new concepts, like growth mindsets, grit, social emotional learning, etc. Can you comment?

A: Another important way that afterschool is such an important environment for girls' learning is informed by the research on “growth mindsets”. Girls really suffer from perfectionism. We see this across the board- across race, across socioeconomic groups. Girls are really often stuck in this need to do it right, do it the right way, not look stupid, to not make a mistake. It holds girls back from really, as we say in our program, take center stage and try something new. This research around growth mindset, around this idea that we don't come to a situation with a particular talent, per se, that we get to learn and grow, and we get to go, "Oh, I'm getting there. I'm getting better at something. I get to try something, make a mistake, and try it again." This is really important for girls.

In our Go Girls program, one thing that's at the heart of our culture is this idea that, as girls, we celebrate making mistakes. We have a whole thing about that. There is a whole culture where we, as adults, we're modeling like, "Oops, I made a mistake. Let me figure out how I can learn from that mistake and get better and grow." To me, that is really at the heart of a learning experience, especially for a girl, "How do I get out of what I'm told I'm supposed to be and just try to look imperfect for a second and do something new?" That's a really crucial area for afterschool and girls' learning.

Lynn Johnson is a visionary entrepreneur, speaker, girl advocate, and Co-Founder/CEO of Spotlight: Girls – a certified B Corp that inspires, educates, and activates girls & women to take center stage. Lynn serves on the National Advisory Board of Teaching Artists Guild, the Board of Directors of the How Kids Learn Foundation, and the Alameda County Commission on the Status of Women.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

An Interview with a Youth Development Champion: Ben Kirshner

By Sam Piha

I first met Ben Kirshner in 2002 when he was working alongside Milbrey McLaughlin (Stanford University) on a qualitative evaluation of the San Francisco Beacon Centers. This evaluation was unique in that it relied on the experiences of youth and the collection of data by youth ethnographers. After graduate school, Ben went on to join the faculty at the University of Colorado (CU- Boulder). Because he is a champion of youth development and youth organizing and participatory action research, we chose to interview him. Below are some of his responses to our questions. 

Ben Kirshner
Q: Throughout your career, you have focused on youth development and the learning within out-of-school time programs. Why is that and who were your major influences?
A: My early career experiences working in out of school youth programs (New Orleans, Providence, and eventually San Francisco) shaped my subsequent interest in youth programs as contexts for learning. I saw how out of school spaces could prioritize community, relationships, and belonging. I gained personal fulfillment being part of those spaces and I was inspired by the kinds of intergenerational partnerships that happened organically as youth and adults worked on projects with shared goals and values. 

I especially want to credit four talented mentors and colleagues from San Francisco’s youth development scene--Tom Ahn, Anthony Mickens, Teresa Arriaga, and McCrae Parker—for seeing how youth work could embody a powerful intersection of social justice, creative design, and community. 

When I found my way into academic spaces I found a new set of mentors in Na’ilah Nasir, Shawn Ginwright, Milbrey McLaughlin, and many others who showed me ways to design, study, and understand powerful and equity-driven youth development spaces.

Q: You have studied why youth activism and civic engagement are important avenues for youth development. Can you share some of your findings?
A: In my initial research I wanted to challenge dominant frameworks for youth civic engagement and community service, which were based on middle class and affluent assumptions about “service”, and were not capturing the kinds of community resilience and youth activism happening in communities of color. 

My research carried out with multiracial youth organizing groups in the Bay Area showed how youth participants developed a capacity for critique and collective agency to challenge unjust systems and negative stereotypes. These developmental achievements, it turned out, also spoke to unique elements of learning environments in youth organizing groups. Through peer to peer mentoring, apprenticeship learning, and commitments to young people’s dignity, these settings offer great promise for learning environments in and out of school.

Since then I’ve developed more strategic research collaborations with youth organizations and schools, in which we use research to understand and address compelling challenges jointly identified with youth or organization leaders. For example, I was part of a participatory action research team to study the impact of a high school closure on students, which showed students’ creative and resilient adaptations but also the stressors that displacement added to their lives. 

More recent work extended core findings about youth organizing groups as developmental settings and tested out their relevance for classroom learning in collaborative work with high school educators. 

Q: You have promoted the engagement of youth in gathering data for program evaluation. Why do you believe this is an effective/important strategy?

Youth are the best reporters and advisors
on whether and how an environment feels
welcoming, safe, supportive and fun. - Youth Voices

A: Youth participation in program evaluators is smart for several reasons: first, it’s a terrific learning opportunity for youth to do that kind of research and analysis in partnership with adults. Just as important, good evaluation centers the experiences and goals of its target population, and so it makes sense to me that youth would have a say in figuring out optimal ways to define and evaluate the quality of their experiences. Research by others (such as Shepherd Zeldin) has shown that organizations that engage youth in governance and evaluation tend to show more accountability to their mission.

Q: You have studied program attributes that attract youth participation in afterschool. Can you share some of your findings?
A: One thing we know is that this varies a bit by age group, such as whether youth are elementary, middle school, or high school age. My work has tended to focus on high schoolers, and has looked at a few different kinds of contexts, ranging from community centers to more focused digital media programs. 

Some of the key ingredients are general and might strike readers as obvious: compelling programs provide a sense of community and belonging, treat youth with dignity and respect, and offer activities that are aligned to their interests, such as music making, creative writing, or social justice activism. High school youth, particularly those living in marginalized communities, tend to avoid programs that have a deficit or savior orientation. 

But I should add that there is not one cookie cutter rule for programs that attract youth – some youth may be drawn to highly structured, adult-directed environments (such as competitive sports), and others want to be in youth-driven spaces that enable flexible participation, from hanging out, to exploring new activities, to geeking out in fields like tech or art (as Mimi Ito and colleagues write about). Because teenagers tend to have more autonomy over how they spend their time, it’s important that schools and neighborhoods offer plentiful and varied opportunities for youth.

Q: It is often said by youth that the climate and behavior of adults in afterschool programs are very different than those from in school. Is this true in your studies? If so, can you elaborate? And why do you think this is true?
A: Yes, in my experience it is true that youth programs enable adults and youth to interact differently relative to school teachers or school administrators. Some of the differences are visible in concrete ways: youth program staff tend to go by first names, they often are more representative of young people’s communities, and they skew younger. But the underlying structures and job responsibilities are also different. Many youth programs have less obligation to teach specific content, which frees them up to prioritize relationships and mentoring. And, because, in most cases young people are there voluntarily, some of the underlying power dynamics that show up during the (mandatory) school day are absent. 

Of course, there can still be tensions, and power imbalances, but on the whole the vocation of “youth work” calls for an approach that is more relational and empowering than what is permitted by the job responsibilities of teachers in typical comprehensive high schools. 


Ben Kirshner moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in his twenties, where he was a youth worker. These experiences motivated him to study educational equity and the design of learning environments, which he pursued at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. Ben is now a Professor in the School of Education at CU-Boulder and serves as Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. In his work with CU Engage Ben supports programs and people who develop and sustain university-community research partnerships that address persistent public challenges guided by values of social justice and grassroots democracy. 

Ben's research examines youth organizing, critical participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. His 2015 book, Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, received the social policy award for best authored book from the Society of Research on Adolescence. Ben is Editor for the Information Age Press Series on Adolescence and Education. His new projects involve collaborations with youth organizing groups that use research to build organizational capacity and campaign strategy, and partnerships with school districts that promote transformative student voice. In his spare time Ben enjoys listening to South African jazz, trail running, and hanging out with his family.

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