New youth walk in to the offices of the Children & Families Action Network every day. But last year, at a staff member’s urging, one particular young man took some information back home, where his mother read about an autism program run by one of CFAN’s partners. As it happens, the family’s other son has autism, and was soon enrolled in that very program.
As a youth worker, you may have a regular, even routine, presence in young peoples’ lives, but at times, you may be unable to reach them on a daily basis or at the level you need to make a real connection. Sometimes, by partnering with families and bringing parents into the positive youth development process, your work can become a more fundamental part of a young person’s life.
In this case, two young people found help instead of just one. The lesson is simple. By working with youth’s families, you can bring your program into the home, where it makes the biggest impact.
Step 1: Involvement
“The families can’t be left outside,” says Julio Galan, Executive Director of the Children & Families Action Network (CFAN). As part of the Family & Youth consortium, CFAN advocates for family-focused nonprofits in southwest Louisiana. They also provide area youth with leadership development activities, and opportunities for career exploration and civic engagement. And while parents are invited to every CFAN event and class, their year culminates each August with the Family Festival, which draws over 1,500 participants to learn about community resources for positive youth development. Families participate by doing crafts and touring the festival’s range of activities, most of which are run by local businesses. It’s a day-long testament to how different “systems” can work together.
As proponents of positive youth development, Galan and his organization feel the family is essential precisely because they are a youth’s fundamental context. “A lot of family-serving organizations focus on one particular age group: the young person, the parents, or the siblings,” says Galan, “We try to look at the whole family as the client.”
Step 2: Empowerment
Jennifer Sarah Tiffany, Director of Cornell University’s HIV/AIDS Education Project, takes a similar approach in her community outreach work. In her conversations with youth, Tiffany discovered that many of them wished they could talk to their parents about HIV and AIDS, and also about sexuality and drug use generally. More often than not, their discussions simply led to kneejerk, emotional reactions from moms and dads who didn’t know enough about the issues to speak any further.
“Youth would come home from school and say ‘We had a class on AIDS,’” says Tiffany. “But instead of two-directional conversation, those parents said, ‘Don’t have sex! Don’t do drugs!’ And kids wouldn’t want to continue that conversation.” So Tiffany and her colleagues set out to design more effective parent-education programs, something that went beyond the standard “one-dimensional” model where adults attend one meeting and get lectured about a specific topic.
The new approach, a series called AIDS Lifeline, has three key components. First, the Education Project has started meeting parents where it’s most convenient. “We try to embed the groups within existing social contexts,” says Tiffany, explaining that they’ve begun holding meetings in churches and offices so that parents don’t have to go out of their way to attend. “If we only put up a poster in a library and said ‘Come who may,’ we wouldn’t get the level of interest that we’ve gotten.”
Second, the project now holds multiple meetings with small groups rather than one large, potentially intimidating, information dump. Very often parents will be reluctant to talk about sex at first, but gradually loosen up after they get to know the other 8 to 12 people in their group. Tiffany explains that “a lot of the change goes on between the workshop sessions. We give them time go home, think, read stories, and develop a dialogue between the parents. We want them to learn these things on their own terms.” She feels a special pride when once-reticent parents eventually participate in the group activities.
Finally, Tiffany and her colleagues try to give parents their own voice in the education process by encouraging them to lead discussions and choose workshop topics. “We get them to speak about their own experiences,” she says, “and give them a place where they won’t be judged.” Many of these parents never had sexual education as teenagers, leaving them adrift and unprepared when their own sons and daughters ask them for advice. In Tiffany’s words, AIDS Lifeline gives them “a baseline of knowledge so they feel empowered to talk with their children.”
Step 3: Bringing It All Together
If the HIV/AIDS Education Project’s philosophy of open-mindedness, personal attention, and individual empowerment sounds familiar, that’s because it’s essentially, as Tiffany says, “Positive youth development for adults.” When parents achieve the same confidence and comfort as their children, positive youth development becomes a fundamental part of their home life—an important family value—and families, young people, and youth workers can work towards the same goals together.