“Some programs suck,” said Latisha as she sunk into her chair, arms folded.
Jennifer piped in, “Yeah, teachers can just be rude and get away with it.”
“Ah man, I had this one who tried to pick a fight with me just because I had to go to the bathroom,” volunteered a guy everyone called Bee.
This was part of a conversation I had last week at the National Service Learning Conference in Denver, Colorado. There to co-facilitate a presentation of a project I’m involved with in Seattle, I made a point of connecting with several young people who were attending the conference too. At lunch one day I sat down with a group of African-American students. Speaking frankly, I reassured them that I was a safe adult to talk to, and started asking them about the programs they attended in their hometown of Minneapolis. A little while into that conversation the above dialog came out.
I believe it’s because of perceptions like the ones above that youth programs are absolutely essential to the vitality and success of communities in the United States today. Faced with an unending barrage of challenges from the neighborhoods they serve, K-12 schools across the country today are under assault from all sides. Their budgets are getting cuts and their problems are stacking up.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that youth program providers aren’t having it a lot easier. However, there’s are many reasons why our nonprofit, government, and faith-based programs are going to make it a lot further than their K-12 comrades in schools, and one of the primary reasons is excellent facilitation. Following are a few tips for how to facilitate excellent youth programs.
3 Tips for Excellent Youth Programs
- Don’t be evil. Afterschool programs are not business, and nor should they be. They do not generate fiscal profit, and rely primarily on donations from individual and foundation donors, as well as government funds. This means that the 200,000 young people under 18 in Allegheny County aren’t consumers and the aren’t products. Instead, they’re humans. They’re imbued with emotions and ideas, feelings and beliefs. They ask questions, observe, critique, praise, examine, explore, identify, deny, and play, often insatiably. Excellent afterschool programs don’t squelch or repress these instincts; instead, they uplift and support them. They ensure that ultimately they’re serving young people where they’re at, and not insisting they go somewhere else. Don’t be evil with children and youth.
- Do not harm. All children are born with a love of life. It doesn’t matter what family you’re born into or what the conditions are that you are raised in; children want to dig into living and grow. After years of increasing instruction and guidance and leadership by adults, young people can feel the love of living squeezed out of them. They’re exposed to the realities of poverty and the tension of popular culture, all of which seems determined to make them into successful consumers. Excellent afterschool programs foster the love of living within their participants, no matter how old they are. Teenagers become successful community leaders when they’re in great afterschool programs; elementary students become determined learners. Do no harm by lifting the love of life into the highest part of your heart and mind, and engaging young people in doing the same thing.
- Make things better. Its a cynical age that divests in afterschool programs while increasing funds for private juvenile incarceration companies. Young people in low-income homes are parents by moms and dads working two and three part jobs to make ends meet, while middle class children and youth are becoming latchkey kids again. Seen primarily only as lower-income consumers and service workers, businesses are withdrawing their support for young people too. When they invest in empowering and engaging young people, excellent afterschool programs step head and shoulders above their peers. Make things better by serving children and youth in substantive ways that changes lives. We can’t afford for you to do any less than that.
Afterschool programs have had to rely on excellent facilitation for their entire existence. Without the compulsory attendance laws governing schools, we’ve had to rely on appealing to kids from a more base level in order to recruit, engage, and retain participants. Providers can’t be jerks, autocrats, or mean, because children and youth will simply stop attending their programs.
The steps above are just a start; I wrote an article called “Becoming An Excellent Facilitator” that you may appreciate. Find other great resources, and make your youth program an excellent one.