Creating a safe and supportive environment is essential for engaging students in a community service program, organization, or throughout a community. The environment includes everything around youth, including the culture, structures, and climate of the organizations they volunteer in and learn from. The vast majority of programs, organizations or communities that seek to engage youth as volunteers are adult-driven, which makes it vital for adults to work with youth to create these environments, rather than assume that they must do all the work.
- Climate is the way people behave, their attitudes and feelings within a program, organization or throughout a community.
- Structure includes the responsibilities, systems, authority and relations that allow a program, organization or community to perform its functions.
- Culture includes the attitudes, values, beliefs, and typical patterns of relationships, behavior, and performance that characterize the program, organization, or community.
The following are essential elements in creating a safe and supportive environment for youth community service.
- There is a general sentiment among the majority of adults and youth that engaging youth is a key to success.
- Adults in believe that engaging youth in a variety of roles is important and possible.
- Youth and adults acknowledge their mutual investment, dedication, and benefit, and it is made visible in relationships, practices, policies, and organizational culture.
- Adults do not talk about youth in the third person or otherwise act as if youth are not present, when in fact they are.
- Student volunteerism is validated and authorized through adults’ regular acknowledgement of their ability to improve programs, organizations and schools.
- The voices, strengths, talents, actions and achievements of youth are continuously focused on in our program, organization or community, and are infused throughout all components of all activities.
- Important activities focused on youth are done with youth, including research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy.
- Before any activities in which they’re engaged youth have opportunities to learn about the issues, agendas, politics and processes they are going to participate in.
- Programs and organizations have made youth part of plans, activities and evaluations, and young people have contributed throughout the process.
- Student volunteers incorporated into ongoing, sustainable activities throughout the group, organization or community.
- Student volunteers are encouraged and supported to invite other young people or adult allies to support them.
- The voices of youth of all ages are engaged throughout the program, organization or community.
- Youth feel comfortable asking for clarification of acronyms, definitions, concepts, or asking critical questions about assumptions, activities and other components.
- Youth are never lectured about their behavior, attitudes, input or other perceptions adults may have of them. Instead, adults and youth are treated as equal partners, each with valuable contributions to make to the program, organization or community.
- Issues addressed by student volunteers are not limited to so-called “youth issues”; instead, youth are seen and treated as members of the entire community. “Their” issues are the community’s issues, and the communities issues are theirs.
Let me know what you think! And for more information about support environments see the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit at http://www.freechild.org/YouthVoice.