Friday, July 25, 2008

Positive Youth Development

It is my belief that an essential way to maintain or build sustainable peace is through engaging the youth population in a positive way. It is this population group that has one of the most important impacts on a society in conflict as much as any other group of diplomats, negotiators, presidents, and other peacemakers. Although this phrase is used often, the youth are truly the leaders of tomorrow; in the United States, Afghanistan, China, Venezuela, and Burundi alike. Engaging this strong and yet vulnerable population is key to any society’s development and successful peace.

For the purpose of this entry, what I want to discuss is a proven method of engaging youth: positive youth development. Positive youth development is a way to structure services, systems, and supports for youth so that they develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed and be prepared for the challenges of adult life. Programs designed with positive youth development in mind may define this differently, but they are similar in emphasis of the strengths and capabilities of youth as change-agents in their communities. This is such an important way to engage youth and instill confidence. More often than not, youth are portrayed on the news and at the dinner table as unruly, violent, mean-spirited, and out of control. Unless there is a special program on exemplary youth, the mainstream media shows youth as the enemy to the community. This is the case in communities all over the world. Positive youth development approaches are a way to counter this limited view into the complex lives of young people.

This method is not only for specific youth programs to use, but a philosophy that many practitioners can utilize, such as in school, churches, recreation centers, and other places where youth just hang out. In any setting, the program may have various features that lets you know that they adhere to this philosophy; such as, maintaining an environment of physical and psychological safety, having a clear structure with adult supervision, supportive relationships with peers and adults, a sense of belonging, and promoting positive social norms. For example, The Forum for Youth Investment (The Forum), located in Washington, DC, has a mission to “create opportunities and incentives for youth and adult leaders to think differently, act differently and act together because they are:
  • linked by core beliefs about what is needed,
  • guided by a shared sense of accountability,
  • girded by compelling data, and
  • driven by a common desire to ensure that all children, youth, families and communities have the supports and opportunities they need to succeed.”
This is a perfect example of positive youth development. Setting as their mission to recognize the commonalities between youth and adults, The Forum is an indispensable resource that builds youth confidence in a positive way so that all children and youth are ready for work, college and life—and valued as change-agents in their community.

The Forum has teamed up with the National Council of State Legislatures and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges for their “Ready by 21” project. In this project, The Forum calls on states to change the odds for children and youth by changing the way they do business; by "thinking differently, acting differently and acting together.” Each year there’s a youth policy forum that brings together state legislators and helps them tackle their youth policies and issues, and develop strategies for enhancing youth policy. Many states have developed Children’s Cabinets and youth budgets and report cards as a direct result, enabling the youth in these states to be heard in the legislative process.

In areas effected directly by armed conflict, unlike the United States, youth not only face similar challenging development stages as American youth, they do it often with a backdrop of guns, soldiers, disease, and poverty. It is that much more important to develop and sustain programs in those areas that engage youth in a positive way so as to build their confidence in a tumultuous world so that they may better lead this world into tomorrow. They must be engaged and respected as change-agents. Youth populations must be bolstered in order to feel confident that they can and do affect change.