Youth Engagement

Karen Pittman
November 1, 1999

Youth participation for youth development. Youth participation for community change. Different goals with different strategies, maybe even different proponents and results. This is a critical distinction that I, for one, have been slow to grasp. A data-inspired exercise helped me understand the importance of this distinction.

Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) recently released youth survey findings from the communities participating in Community Change for Youth Development, a multi-year demonstration project by P/PV to assess the ability of communities to increase the "core vitamins" for youth development. The data for one community show that teens:

-Feel the effects of crime and violence - Two-thirds feel the streets are dangerous, poorly patrolled and full of gangs. Half worry about break-ins and curtail activities out of fear. Only one-third believe that adults would do something to stop a fight or drug deals. Almost half say neighborhood adults fear teens.

-See the results of idleness and lack of supervision - Seven out of 10 feel that fights, people hanging out and unsupervised children are serious problems.

-Participate in structured activities in early adolescence - Two-thirds of 12-to-14-year-olds have participated in structured activities in the nonschool hours in the past year, but only half of the 15-to-17-year-olds and one-third of the 18-to-20-year-olds have done so.

-Lack adequate work and employment opportunities - Only one-quarter were working at the time of the survey. Four out of 10 have never had a paid job, six out of 10 have never participated in community service. Only half have visited a workplace. Fewer than one in five have participated in an internship, a school-to-work program, or a vocational program.

-Want support - One-quarter of 12-to-14-year-olds want more adults who care about them. Four out of 10 want more adults who provide advice and do things with them. The percentage of teens wanting more adults in their lives increases, rather than decreases, with age. Three out of 10 18-to-20-year-olds have no ties with supportive adults in youth organizations, with one-quarter lacking adult support in their neighborhoods.

-Want to help - Nine out of 10 report that they would work to improve their neighborhood, but less than half feel they have a say in their neighborhoods or that adults listen to teens. More than eight out of 10 12-to-14-year-olds, but fewer than six out of 10 18-to-20-year-olds, have had any leadership experience in the last year. Younger teens were almost twice as likely to have had formal and informal leadership experiences than older teens.

These data document the voids that the P/PV project hopes to help communities in Austin, Savannah, St. Petersburg and Staten Island fill by providing technical assistance and leveraging dollars to increase five core "vitamins" for youth: adult supports, positive out-of-school activities; meaningful work and service; opportunities to shape their own environments and support through transition periods (such as middle school to high school).

Equally important, the data cry for solutions. I don't know what this community did in response to the survey. But let's assume that, two years later, we find a range of steps: community policing, citizen patrols, extended-hour youth centers, apprenticeships, mentoring programs, school-based services and a youth service corps. How many of the initiatives did the youth suggest or help plan? How many did they advocate for? In how many are they volunteers or employed?

If "they want to help" was interpreted narrowly, the answer is probably just a few. But if "they want to help" was interpreted broadly as "they want to help address each of the issues they raised," the answer could be different. Young people become "at the table" stakeholders in planning and implementing every response, from community policing to mentoring. The number involved - not just as participants, but as staff, planners, organizers and volunteers - skyrockets.

It's time to close the loop in our thinking. Community change for youth development. Youth participation for youth development. Youth participation for community change.

Pittman, Karen. "Youth Engagement." Youth Today, November 1999, p. 55.

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