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A Process for Advancing Equity in Youth Programs

Editor's Intro: Youth development and community-based organizations are taking steps to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. Today, Kate Walker, University of Minnesota Extension professor and specialist in youth work practice, describes the process the Extension Center for Youth Development used to create consensus around barriers to, and strategies for, advancing equity in youth programs. 

By Guest Blogger Kate Walker

There are many different interpretations of the word "equity." For us at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development, we define equity as promoting just and fair inclusion and creating the conditions in which all young people can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. In other words, equity is everyone having what they need to be successful. As we began developing a learning series for youth workers focused on exploring and advancing equity in youth programs, we recognized that we are not experts in this arena and that we needed input from youth workers and young people. So we served as conveners and co-learners, putting in place a process, outlined below, to identify barriers, a vision, and strategies. This process could be useful to others working on similar equity projects.

Guiding Principles 

Even before convening a Community Design Team, we hosted discovery sessions with staff, stakeholders, and young people to begin to (re)imagine how a learning series on this complex, important, and emerging topic looks and feels. We also gathered wider input via an online survey. This resulted in key learnings that serve as our Guiding Principles:

  1. Share space and the role of "expert." Maintain the authenticity and rigor of learning by balancing practitioners and academics as experts; promising practices should come from both practitioners and academics. Learning should be reciprocal and mutually beneficial. Highlight practical and meaningful tools.
  2. Lead with vulnerability and transparency. Demonstrate institutional self-awareness across the learning series. The host walks the talk; internal work should fuel external work. Lead this work by example, making sure that the planning team reflects the community it serves. Also, the university must own its history and privilege by actively displaying humility and vocal accountability.
  3. Ensure that historically silenced voices are centered. Amplify and honor unheard voices. Lift up and celebrate effective youth-development practices that come from traditionally under-represented cultures and communities. 
  4. Engage and elevate youth voices. Employ a thoughtful engagement of young people from traditionally under-represented communities. Cultivate youth leadership throughout so that youth voice is present at all levels of planning and execution of the learning series. 

Community Design Team

We convened more than 20 Community Design Team members who work in organizations with a commitment to equity across diverse communities and with young people who could be tapped for their perspectives. We held three sessions, each hosted and facilitated by diverse staff from different partner organizations.

Barriers 
The goal of our first session was to build trust among team members, provide context for the purpose of the group, and develop clear understanding of the barriers to doing equity in youth work. Collectively, the team responded to the question: What gets in the way of operationalizing equity? The group chose the more focused perspective of racial equity, and 87 barriers were identified.

A subgroup with balanced participation from persons of color and white persons conducted a thematic analysis of the 87 barriers. They identified six overarching barriers: 

  1. We all fear the consequences of acting opposite of our assigned racial identity(ies).
  2. Planning about people without people perpetuates exclusion and white supremacy.
  3. Layers of oppression can block self-awareness, which limits growth and action toward equity.
  4. Frameworks, funding, policy, and practices are rooted in whiteness.
  5. Biased systems perpetuate deficit-based approaches that block fundamental change. 
  6. The acceptance of oppression as the norm.

Vision

Over 20 young people joined the Community Design Team members for a Speakout session to get at the question: What does equity in a youth program look and feel like for you? The purpose was to define equity within youth programs and identify what adults need to know and do to support it (i.e., to map out our vision for a series of public learning events focused on exploring and advancing equity within Minnesota's youth-serving organizations).

Speakouts are opportunities for different groups to share their experiences as members of the group and to have those who are not a part of the group listen and acknowledge their perspectives and feelings. The young people, followed by the adults, shared their responses to these discussion questions:

  1. What happens in your program that makes you feel like you are valued, treated fairly, and belong?
  2. What do you never want to see, hear, or have happen again in a youth program? 
  3. What do you want others to know and do to promote equity in youth programs? 

kate_walker.png

Strategies
Given the barriers that surfaced and considering the vision created, the intent of the final session was to build consensus around the question, What actions are needed to remove barriers and move towards the vision of equity that youth want? The Community Design Team built consensus around five strategies to advance equity in youth programs: 

  1. Kate_walker2.pngRespond to youth-identified needs. Respond to needs identified by the youth and change the practice of assuming that adults know what youth need.
  2. Expose histories to unpack identities and practices. Uncover untold histories to identify how they currently affect our society, mindset, youth, youth workers, and practices.
  3. Reconstruct the platform to redistribute power to youths. Move from youths as customers or participants toward youths as partners and leaders.
  4. Institutionalize inclusive practices. Embed inclusive practices in existing institutions so that inclusivity becomes normalized in our society.
  5. Prioritize accountability to youths and their communities. Shift program accountability to include expectations from youths and community.

Recommendations for Youth Programs

We recognize that this is not merely the work of stand-alone professional-development opportunities. We encourage others to hold space for conversations within their youth-development settings around these strategies. Examples include:

  1. What would enable you to move from viewing youths as customers or participants toward authentically engaging youths as partners and leaders in your program?

  2. How can you create opportunities in your setting to learn about a diverse range of histories as well as systems of white supremacy?

  3. How can you embed inclusive practices in your organization? What's the origin story of your organization, and how does that either prevent you from or accelerate creating change?

  4. What barriers have been put up that block young people from fully benefiting or engaging with your program? How can you meaningfully ask, listen, and respond to youth-identified needs and assets?

  5. What needs to happen in order to shift accountability from funders to youths and their communities? What does this shift in accountability mean for your work? How do you know what community expects? How do you share with them what you've done to meet their expectations?

Next Steps

As a result of this work, an implementation team of youths and adults will create learning opportunities based on these recommendations for Minnesota's youth programs.

How are you advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in your youth program or school? We invite you to share the strategies, resources, and curricula that you are using in the comment section below. 

Follow Kate, the University of Minnesota ExtensionHeather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image by Padah Vang, Wilder's Youth Leadership Initiative alumni and intern. Used with permission.

Infographic created by the author. Used with permission.

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