We know that youth programs have public value. But does the greater community know? Recipients of public funds must defend their use of public resources by demonstrating the value to the community, not just the value gained by the individuals who participate. Can you articulate what that is? Have you been doing so?
My Extension colleague Laura Kalambokidis works with educators in youth development and other fields across the nation on how to demonstrate the public value of their programs. Laura did a survey of educators that shows that of those who do not infuse a public value approach in their work, the primary reason is that they do not have enough time. To me, this suggests we view this approach as something "extra" to tack onto our plan of work. I would argue that demonstrating public value helps us to prioritize our work and involves changing how we talk about what we do and how we measure the impact of our work.
Youth programs have societal impact. Here are a couple of ways in which they do that:
- They build trust among community members
To take a negative example, the "What's Up?" study showed that young people spend a large amount of time isolating themselves with computer games and television viewing. This is a threat to their personal development, but more than that, social isolation among young people is linked to social ailments such as criminal activity and drugs use -- a societal problem (Rankin & Quane, 2000). On the other hand, as one of my favorite authors, Robert Putnam says, trustworthiness "lubricates social life." Relationships among unlike peers and diverse community members, fostered by youth programs, generate social trust (Flanagan, 2003).
I am currently working on the Pathways Project, which is finding that youth in the programs studied have affinity and trust across race, ethnic background and socioeconomic background, embracing the philosophy, "all equal; all different." In their programs, they unpack stereotypes, cross social boundaries and develop trust in people outside of their family. Social trust is the root of democracy and is linked to publicly valued outcomes such as a strong economy, well functioning political institutions, and better performing schools (Rahn and Transue,1998; Social Capital Blog, 2012).
- Youth become agents of change
In programs, youth develop agentic capacities-- the ability to improve the quality of life for themselves and their community. So, while leadership skills, education plans, and civic values fuel young people to achieve private success, youth agency is also a resource that can be released into the community, making it a ready asset to the public. Youth programs position young people to be community partners, prepared to work with others to collectively improve the well being of the communities they share. For example, young people in the the Big Urban Woods CYFAR club recently partnered with their school, community organizations and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to restore a neglected 5-acre parcel of forestland. A place that was once a spot of unsightly neighborhood activity is now a vibrant outdoor learning environment and place of pride for the CYFAR youth and others in the community. Young people acted as partners for community improvement.
These are just two examples from my own work. What do you see as the public value of youth programs? Are you letting the public know about the value they receive?
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