For years I have talked about becoming more intentional about how we think about and work with youth. Too much of our efforts often go to trying to get attention for youth and the issues that impact their lives, and not enough goes into being intentional about our work on their behalf.
Paying attention means selectively narrowing or focusing consciousness to sort out what is important. Paying more attention to youth may help us spend more time thinking about them but it does not help us act more effectively without a clearer purpose or goal in mind. Paying attention to our children is helpful, it is not enough.
Intentionality, on the other hand, is purposeful. It has an end in mind. It is much more than simply paying attention to what is happening (though that is a critical foundation). Intentionality is about knowing what we want for young people and working to support their learning and development in purposeful ways.
Intentionality around and with youth means designing the contexts they experience. It means being deliberate about the way we interact with them. It means having expectations of them as well as expectations of what we do to encourage and enable them.
Intentionality requires not only focusing our attention but knowing where we are trying to go. And therein lies the dilemma - we do not have a shared sense of where we want to go with young people as a country. We need to create a clearer, shared vision of what it means to be Ready by 21 for work, college, and life.
Intentionality in youth development is not engineering. It cannot be directed like a construction project, where the look of the finished building is largely known before we start. It must be a much more dynamic intentionality, in which what we do at any moment as a parent or a youth worker builds upon and responds to where the young person is and what they are trying to accomplish. It is emergent. It is about supporting the development and intentionality of a young person in their own life as it evolves. It is about the supports and opportunities that increase the odds that young people will succeed.
I know of some excellent organizations that bring intentionality into focus: the Sprockets and Youthprise efforts here in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Ready by 21 efforts nationally and Strive-like efforts underway in many cities. These organizations talk about what success for young people looks like, giving us a vision and goals, and ways to measure whether we are succeeding. They provide ways to get the collective impact that is so badly needed.
How can we shift from trying to get more attention paid to youth to becoming more intentional in providing opportunities and supports for young people and their development?