Passing on the Lessons of Youth and Community Work

Andrew Hahn
March 1, 2000

What do we know about the world of youth program and community change helpers? How can we guarantee that the lessons and practices developed by the best “intermediaries” are passed on to a new generation of assisting organizations?

If you are a youth worker, sooner or later you will find yourself being helped — if (and this is a big if ) you are lucky enough to hook up with the right group. (Sadly, there are too many horror stories on how incompetent “helpers” made things worse, on the agency’s dime.)

In instances where the match clicks, your technical assistance (T/A) provider will share the latest research, identify your weak spots, provide training to your staff, assess your “brand” and work with your board. He will judge your effectiveness. He will help you organize and advise you on coalition-building.

You would think that with such mammoth responsibilities, the outfits that provide T/A or conduct the evaluations would know a lot about similar organizations. Unfortunately, this is often not the case for the outfits or the purchasers of their services. There is little more than anecdote about respective philosophies, approaches, styles, staffing and interests.

In my own recent study, Doing Social Change for A Living, one theme emerged: how hard it is for even some of the nation’s finest helpers to find the time to reflect on their own practices and to pass these “tricks of the trade” on to a generation of younger T/A providers and evaluators coming up in communities across the country.

I am convinced that the best groups possess insights on a range of strategies that could make a real difference in fighting poverty.

Ever think about when a community or program is ripe for change? Junious Williams, Liane Yee and Gus Newport of the Urban Strategies Council, and Sally Leiderman of the Center for Assessment and Policy Development certainly have.

Ever contemplate what forces — political, local leadership, civic culture, and potential for further investment — have to be aligned, and how, to produce sustainable change? This is the kind of thing that Andy Mott, Julia Burgess, and Othello Poulard from the Center for Community Change think about all the time.

Want to know about program replication, expansion and “going to scale?” Chat with the folks nurturing the expansion of the Beacon community schools model in the Youth Development Institute in New York City. And if you want to know about the role of research in the design of programs and how to keep fidelity to program design concepts, drop by the water coolers at such national T/A providers as Abt, Manpower Demonstration Research Organization, Public/Private Ventures, Local Initiative Support Corp. and Enterprise.

Most of the leaders of the best helping organizations have their roots in the ‘60s’ War on Poverty or the great expansion of specialized social policies in the 70s. Now in their 40s and 50s, these helpers may not know who the “limp bizkits” are but they have honed the art of intermediary work to a fine (if not a quite an exact) art. But, sadly, these individuals rarely find time — or have the money — to exchange experiences with their peers in other intermediary organizations, much less find the time to assist the less established intermediaries coming up. One example: we simply do not have the teaching cases that could be used in higher education or in-service professional development to train the next generation of community organizers.

A true curriculum of community-building and youth development will require: opportunities to capture the wisdom of today’s leaders in youth and community development; the development of innovative learning formats for the transfer of skills to younger helpers; and opportunities for every organization to be its own helper, drawing on its unique organizational strength and healthy collaborations with peers.

Today’s most esteemed intermediary helpers need to keep themselves young by being able to pick out the “Limp Bizkits” in a hip-hop lineup. And all of us need to recall the words of St. Bernard (1091-1153): “Believe one who has had experience.”

Hahn, Andrew. "Passing on the Lessons of Youth and Community Work." Youth Today, March 2000, p. 62.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.