While Chelsea, Mass., encompasses only two square miles across the Mystic River from Boston, its population of 36,000 (some estimate as many as 55,000, including the undocumented) represents a United Nations of ethnicities: newcomers from Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, and Central and South America as well as American-born Italian, Irish, Jewish and Puerto Rican residents. Inhabitants live cheek-to-jowl in a city that suffers the urban triumvirate of high poverty, high crime and high unemployment. Yet Chelsea also has leaders committed to fighting these problems.
Thousands of miles away in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert lies the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose four reservations equal Connecticut in size. Of the about 28,000 people living on Tribal lands, more than half are younger than 24 years old. The Tohono O’odham people face challenges such as poverty, rural isolation, drug use, gangs and obesity. Sixty percent of adults, and even some small children, have type 2 diabetes. At the same time, some members of the Tribe are working hard to revitalize its traditional food culture, rich in squash, beans and cactus fruit.
In these very different places, two youth-serving organizations have set out to help young people by placing them squarely in the context of their communities. Rather than simply focusing on the problems and strengths of each individual young person, Roca, in Chelsea, and Tohono O’odham Community Action, or TOCA, see better communities as a key to improving the lives of youth—and youth as a key to better communities.
Thriving Within Systems
The community youth development model, an offshoot of Positive Youth Development, takes into account all of the places and influences that impact a young person’s life—family, school, clubs, gangs, neighborhood organizations, faith institutions, child welfare and police departments, juvenile courts and on and on.
“A plant grows because of systems, the water cycle, the energy cycle with the sun,” says Wendy Wheeler, president of the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, which promotes youth leadership, community building and youth-adult partnerships across the country. “Young people also thrive because of systems.”
Researchers have found that certain elements within communities can protect young people from getting into trouble or doing things—like smoking, drinking, doing drugs, having sex too early, getting involved with gangs—that might put them in harms’ way. These “protective factors,” such as supportive relationships, opportunities to belong and to give back, and positive expectations and values, can be found—or created—in even the most troubled communities.
Most important to engaging youth and making them feel part of their communities, Wheeler says, are what she calls “transformational relationships with adults.” In these relationships, adults don’t play the role of older, wiser guru, but rather of learning partner. “They learn together and from each other and begin to view themselves and the world in a different way.”
Part of the Community
Roca works with 14- to 24-year-olds who have been involved with gangs, gotten in trouble with the law or lived on the streets, as well as teen parents and immigrant and refugee youth. Many of these young people, says Anisha Chablani, the organization’s deputy director, don’t show up for programs, or can’t or won’t. “This is a group that many people would prefer were not in the community.”
Chablani and her staff reach youth wherever they are: on the streets, at the police station or courthouse, at school, at their homes. Roca’s programs are designed with multiple stages, so that youth can come to a drop-in GED study session, a longer-term GED program, or a pre-vocational program, for instance. An intensive case management model builds strong relationships between staff and youth over a two- to three-year period.
And perhaps most importantly, Roca works very closely with Chelsea’s police department and schools, with the idea that “transformational relationships” need to be built among institutions as well as with youth.
“Seven years ago we’d get in trouble for being at the school to look for youth,” Chablani says. “And now we’re in strategic planning meetings to try to prevent drop outs.”
“It’s the same mindset that we have with young people,” she says. “We can’t do anything with either institutions or young people who (a) don’t believe in change or (b) don’t think we’ll be there to do the work.”
In Roca’s job-training and service learning programs, youth clean up public parks and housing units, stock food pantries, and provide health information. “It’s the day-to-day living of connecting people to each other and doing work in the community” that helps change the minds of ordinary Chelsea residents so that they see youth as part of the community rather than apart from it, she says.
Spokes on a Wheel
Tristan Reader, co-director of TOCA, says his organization’s programs promoting health and well-being, traditional foods, cultural revitalization and youth development are spokes on a wheel: “If you remove one, the whole thing becomes weakened.”
With that in mind, the organization last year decided to staff its youth development program with Tohono O’odham youth at the urging of 21-year-old youth coordinator Cissimarie Juan.
“I thought, ‘There are so many programs that we’re creating for youth, but we’re not giving youth a chance to create for themselves,’” Juan says.
At any given time, two to five interns coordinate programs focusing on their Native culture and on supporting youth without strong family ties—priorities identified by Tohono O’odham youth. TOCA interns organized a three-day leadership camp this summer and are already planning another camp on traditional story telling. They have convinced public school officials to serve traditional foods once a week and are involving other students in advocating for better nutrition.
“Young people bring real assets to community work,” Reader says. “Energy, willingness to take risks and try new things, fresh perspective. These are resources that shouldn’t be lost but really should be embraced. They’re essential to not only the development of the young people but also the community as a whole.”
In a community where young people are the majority, Readers says, “If you’re going to be doing community organizing, you have to be doing youth development.”