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Youth Development: Why it matters

If you work in nonprofits and cultural institutions, then you know that there is a lot of emphasis on legacy. Implicit in that is the role of the next generation…but are we including them in building that legacy?

If you are a community leader, then you need to think seriously about youth development, what it really means, and how it can be key to sustaining your mission.

Too often, people speak of youth as “the heirs” of this legacy, and of the world more broadly. But they are already here in this world, and the world and its conditions is not an object to be passed down. It’s something that we are all co-creating from the moment that we are born.

From that point on, we are always learning how to be better stewards, and youth development understands that this process is present and urgent, not a future event.

Why Youth Development is Mission Critical

For one, it is important to foster participation and stewardship in our communities and especially in youths if we want a culture that recognizes the value of a continued legacy, a shared history.

More immediately, parents who see you commit to those values by your desire to include their children will also be more committed to your mission. Youth development is about sustaining your mission now and in years to come.

Youth Development is Reciprocal

How do you allow youth to understand that being under construction is okay, and also to value who they are and their potential? How do you help them build skill sets that turn into passions that will sustain them and their communities? These are some of the big questions at the heart of youth development. They are not “How can we raise GPAs?” or “How can we emphasize STEM to produce more engineers?”

Do you notice how those questions don’t just apply to youth? Adults, too, are looking for more ways to participate in and support their communities, in ways that go beyond just showing up and donating. When we think seriously about youth development, we start thinking more creatively about how we bring people into our work at every age.

Youth Development is a Litmus for our Other Relationships

If you work in a cultural institution, then you are already working to facilitate the full bloom of individuals, their imaginations, their passions. In the case of adult donors and artists, we know that this relationship is not predicated on us alone knowing and deciding what is best for their future. Youth should not be treated any differently in this regard.

If you find that your tendency is to be controlling and paternalistic when involving youth in your organization, it may be time to think about how you treat the others’ agency more broadly.

A Question of Control

Part of the problem is that kids and youth don’t often get to choose or consent to who teaches them in educational settings, and what they get taught. That lack of agency is part of a much bigger question in youth development, and we will address it more in future posts.

However, a lack of agency haunts people of all ages, and if unaddressed, it makes it all the more likely to reproduce in others when we are given authority. Children are much harder to control; they haven’t yet been conditioned for it.

Youth development is not about conditioning them for that. It is about helping them choose where to put that yet unharnessed energy, and guiding them along as they develop their skills and passions.

Youth Development is About Facilitating, Not Dictating

Humans evolved to be team-players, and youth respond really well to peer-to-peer arrangements in activities and classrooms. In this learning environment, you as the instructor should participate in the activity with them, not just pushing them toward one conclusion.

Be a facilitator, not a dictator.

Direct instruction is necessary at times, but it should not be the only way that we pass knowledge to students. This also isn’t an easter egg hunt where you are prompting and leading them to the relevant information, while you stand back passively. You can be learning as you go, too.

As facilitators, we are showing them how to be accountable to their peers, their community, and to their potential future selves by having curiosity, respect and – yes – enjoyment in their own learning process.

Youth Development Puts You And Your Organization To An Important Test

Cultural organizations exist to serve others, not control them, right? We know that, despite best intentions, this is not always how it works out. Taking youth development seriously is a way of putting that mission to the test, and assessing your own values.

So as we serve youth in our programs, they help us unlearn old ways, learn new ones, face ongoing problems and rediscover the joys of a world that we have already inherited together, and will continue to co-create.

In upcoming articles, we will discuss how to overcome some of the challenges you might face when incorporating Youth Development into your strategic mission. Follow along and let us know if you have specific questions regarding Youth Development that you would like to see addressed.

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