Good News for Pittsburgh Youth!

Adam’s note: This is the second of many posts I’m writing for a blog called AfterschoolPGH. I’m taking the privilege of reposting it here for your reading pleasure and my future reference!

The news doesn’t generally tell us is how excellent youth today are. Despite the pressures of a crumbling economy and failing social safety net, more than ever, youth are thriving. From my experience and research traveling the nation, I have directly observed that civic engagement, volunteering, community action, and social change led by young people are soaring. I’m not simply talking about those kids either: Instead, there’s a rampant movement afoot across our nation to engage all young people in changing the world.

Allegheny County is no exception. Across the area, there are countless youth working with adults to make their neighborhoods, the whole area, and our entire world a better place. One excellent example is Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG). This nationally recognized multi-generational mentoring program fosters leadership skills, a sense of female community, and a commitment to service among three generations: elementary-school girls, undergraduate women, and professional women. Another is Unified for Youth in Pittsburgh (U4Y). An annual conference boasting over 70 participants, U4Y is the only conference of its kind in Pittsburgh, bringing together youth, adult allies and educators for two days of safe schools training in LGBT issues.

Powerful activities like these serve as role models for other organizations and communities throughout Allegheny. They also change the narrative about youth by forcing the media to see young people in Pittsburgh as powerful contributors to making the world a better place.

Other examples come from the City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Youth Council. Their goal is to serve as a liaison between youth and the Youth Commission on issues affecting youth. The Council encourages the positive growth and development of young people by involving them in social, cultural, recreational and other drug and alcohol-free activities. Upon request of the Mayor or City Council, the Youth Council shall provide advice and assistance on matters concerning the needs of youth from the perspective of young people.

When NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently spoke in downtown Pittsburgh, he challenged young people to see that groups of committed, principled people can always overcome organized money. So many examples throughout Allegheny County demonstrate exactly how that’s happening, especially because youth are partners.

A faith-based community in the region that focuses on seeing youth past the news is called the Pittsburgh Youth Cluster with Adults, or PYCA. This effort of the Unitarian Universalists focuses on building an interdependent web of youth in the greater Pittsburgh area (hereafter referred to as the Cluster) through spiritual, social action, and community building activities. They say, “We are youth organizing youth!”

A large engine in Pittsburgh moving youth past the news is the Heinz Endowment. Through strategic targeting, they’re funding campaigns led by and with youth focused on air quality, education reform, and much more. The reports linked to here cover more than a dozen organizations, and are well worth exploring.
One way that young people themselves are addressing media bias against them is by creating their own media. In Allegheny County, a coalition called Pittsburgh Youth Media is creating opportunities for young people in the region to engage in both traditional and non-traditional forms of media, using the tools, skills, practices and technologies that professional media outlets use, thereby enabling them to participate thoughtfully in reporting on current events and issues. Pittsburgh Youth Media is a coalition of education, media and community groups formed in early 2012. Members include Carlow University, SLB Radio Productions, Inc., The Consortium for Public Education, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Community Television, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, WQED Multimedia, Allegheny Conference on Community Development. These organizations and the individuals involved are concerned enough about how the traditional media portrays youth to create a new narrative with youth as partners.

Congratulations Pittsburgh- you’re beginning to see youth past the news. Keep it going!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

3 Tips for Excellent Youth Programs

“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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth Involvement in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

Adam’s note: This is the first of many posts I’m writing for a blog called AfterschoolPGH. I’m taking the privilege of reposting it here for your reading pleasure and my future reference!

Since the 1970s, there’s been a national movement to promote youth voice. Funny enough, there’s never been just one definition of youth voice, so its not surprising that the movement never really took off. I wrote the my Short History of Youth Voice in the United States back in 2005, and since then I’ve uncovered a lot more history. Historical writer Phillip Hoose has contributed extensively to these findings too. However, he and I aren’t really writing about a movement, per se, but instead, incidents. In 2004, the National Youth Leadership Council invited me to think about the question of whether the youth voice movement was dead, and almost 10 years later I know the answer.
I came to Pittsburgh in 2011 to share the basics of Youth-Driven Programming with almost 50 providers from across Allegheny County. The year before the University of Pittsburgh’s Youth and Family Training Institute brought me to State College to talk with youth providers from the systems of care movement. Throughout my times with these different program workers, organization leaders, and others, I learned about many different ways youth voice is engaged throughout Allegheny County. Before I explore some of these examples, let’s define some terms.

  • Youth Voice. I define any expression of any young people anywhere, anytime, about anything, as youth voice. This wide-open definition allows for the broad diversity of children and youth to be acknowledged, and makes it so that youth voice is not contingent on whether or not adults want to hear it. Listening to youth voice is a step towards youth engagement, but they’re not the same. 
  • Youth Engagement. After reviewing the research literature and writing a variety of summaries about it, I defined youth engagement as the sustained connection young people feel to the world within and around them. This includes all types of connections, from interpersonal to intrapersonal, animated to stagnant, social to personal. Youth engagement is required for youth-driven programming, but can exist without YDP. 
  • Youth-Driven Programming. YDP is a guiding philosophy and practice for organizations that integrates youth as partners in a variety of ways throughout organizations and communities. YDP is among the deepest forms of youth integration that can happen in nonprofits, government agencies, and faith-based community. 

All that said, youth voice is a lot broader than YDP. YDP demands an integrity and commitment that a lot of organizations simply can’t make. However, all organizations can and should listen to youth voice. As simple expression, youth voice can be everything from youth on boards to graffiti and poetry, and from youth surveys to clothing and music. Youth voice is any expression of young people, and not just those that adults want to hear.

In Allegheny County, there are several examples of organizations that use YDP to effectively reach young people. Following are just a few.

  • CHANGE – The Children’s Hospital Advisory Network for Guidance and Empowerment (CHANGE) is a youth led and driven board which advises Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC about the youth perspective and issues that affect this population. It will work to ensure successful adult lives for youth who have special healthcare needs or have faced barriers in healthcare transition. 
  • Summer Youth Philanthropy Interns – Recognizing the need to incorporate a youth voice in its grant making, The Heinz Endowments again employed recent high school graduates as summer youth philanthropy interns. The program included eight teams of interns at local nonprofit organizations, each of which awarded $25,000 in grants. 
  • SITY (Systems Improvement Through Youth) – Comprised of 14 individuals, ages 16 through 25 years, who are active in or alumni of DHS and related child-serving systems including child welfare, drug and alcohol, education, juvenile justice, mental health and mental retardation. Building on the value of their personal experiences in the system, they will be assisted to develop leadership skills as advocates and system advisors, be provided with positive experiences of social service careers and policymaking, and be encouraged in their professional development. 

As each of these show, YDP is much more involved, sophisticated, and impacting than youth voice. They represent the next forefront of work for afterschool providers across the nation, and especially in Allegheny County. Here are several resources that might be useful for your own YDP efforts:


Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!