Empowerment of community’s youths key to future successes

by Larry Alexander, with Maxwell Alexander

Youth Empowerment—it’s not just another fluffy new-fangled way to coddle kids. It’s about how we prepare the next generation to lead, and choose our nursing homes.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 27.6 percent of Americans are under age twenty. Baby Boomers only make up 25.1 percent of the population. So whether we empower our youthful majority by design or by default is a choice each community must make, and the decision should be based on facts, not stereotypes.
0903fea1How do we empower young people by design? First, welcome them. Then, listen to them and act on what they say. In other words, show them we value not only their existence and ability to play football, but also their thoughts. There’s a lot more nuance, but those are the basics.
However, the Upper Peninsula’s young people are not feeling valued.
According to the 2006 Youth Asset Report coordinated by the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development (GLCYD) only twenty-one percent of Marquette and Alger counties eighth, tenth and twelfth graders feel valued by their communities. The only category scoring lower was youth involvement in creative activities such as music, art, drama or creative writing, which scored seventeen percent.
The story is the same in Dickinson and Iron counties—twenty-five percent feeling valued by the community—Chippewa and Mackinac counties—twenty-two percent—and Luce County, twenty percent.
On the upside, seventy-three percent of Marquette and Alger County youths felt positive about their future and seventy percent said they had strong family support. They also were achievement motivated (sixty-eight percent) and valued integrity (sixty-six percent) and honesty (sixty-six percent). Results were similar in Dickinson, Iron, Chippewa, Mackinac and Luce counties.
The original survey was developed by the Search Institute of Minneapolis (Minnesota) and the Lutheran Brotherhood, a nonprofit corporation that provides financial services and community service opportunities for Lutherans.
0903fea2The first survey was conducted between September 1989 and March 1990, with 46,000 sixth- through twelfth-grade students in 111 communities and twenty-five states answering 152 questions from “Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors.”
In 1990, the Search Institute and the Lutheran Brotherhood published The Troubled Journey: A Portrait of 6th-12th Grade Youth, which introduced the concept of Developmental Assets, the thirty building blocks of healthy development, which are linked to the prevention of high-risk behaviors and the promotion of academic success, compassion and other indicators of positive development.
The initial thirty assets grew to forty.
By 1994, 250,000 young people from all socio-economic backgrounds had taken the survey, providing statistically sound data that was used to build the assets-based approach. The approach is described in the 1994 publication, What Kids Need to Succeed, a handbook on the forty assets and how to help young people acquire them.
In Search Institute terms, assets are key individual (internal) and environmental (external) resources that enable and nurture young people to develop in healthy, positive ways.
For a complete list and explanations of the forty developmental assets, visit GLCYD’s Web site at www.glcyd.org and click on “40 Developmental Assets” in the right navigation bar.
Peter L. Benson, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Search Institute, and a leading authority on human development, and his team developed the forty assets using the survey data.
Benson acknowledges in What Kids Need to Succeed that circumstances such as trauma, genetics and economic conditions can have a profound effect on a young person’s development, but they are not the only indicators of how successful a child may be. Benson’s team saw there was a significant correlation between negative behaviors and limited assets; positive behaviors and multiple assets.
In October 2007, GLCYD hosted an Upper Peninsula youth summit attended by sixty young people. Students used the data from the youth asset survey conducted by GLCYD in 2006 to identify their communities’ strengths and areas of concern and ways to improve on weaker areas.
Participants highlighted safe communities, strong family support and positive views of the future among community strengths. Areas of concern were youth restraint, adult role models and planning and decision making.
According to youth summit participants in general, youths need parents, schools and communities to address the areas of concern by empowering young people to take action and work with them to create local action plans to address the unique characteristics of their communities.
Participants identified specific action items to help strengthen areas of concern. For a complete list of these action items, visit www.glcyd.org
Ann Gonyea, director of marketing and public relations at GLCYD, and her colleagues work with many youth-focused community groups throughout the Upper Peninsula.
Recently, GLCYD was in Ironwood conducting focus groups with students in grades seven through twelve as follow-up to a survey students took in 2007 on their use of and attitudes toward the Ironwood Carnegie Library.
One of the focus groups was conducted in an area of the high school library where a student was fulfilling an after-school detention. The group invited him to join the discussion, arguing it was better than just sitting there by himself, and his input would be welcome.
Gonyea described him as the kind of kid who is trying not to be noticed.
“That’s what you think at first glance,” Gonyea said. “He was tall and thin and slinked and slouched down in his chair. His hair was long enough to be combed forward and cover his eyes. He wore all black except for the silver studs on his clothes, choker and wrist bands.”
The young man hadn’t been in the library in about four years, but from his protective slouch, he did provide some helpful insights from the perspective of a young person who does not use the library regularly, in other words the library’s target audience.
After the discussion, Gonyea asked the young man, who had mentioned he was a skateboarder, whether there was a skate park in Ironwood.
The question opened up a two- or three-minute conversation. Ironwood is, in fact, building a skate park. Construction will begin as soon as weather permits, according to Gonyea’s young source. He told her a little about the community’s efforts to make the skate park a reality.
“He’d been to skate parks in other areas and knew this would be a good addition to the Ironwood community,” Gonyea said. “He was enthusiastic about the skate park being right downtown—easy to get to and at the center of the community’s comings and goings.”
Search Institute research indicates the location of youth recreational areas—like skate parks, baseball fields and basketball courts—is very important. Parks and fields that are tucked away do two main things. First, they provide an unsupervised gathering area where young people can slip easily into making bad decisions for themselves and their communities. Secondly, and perhaps even more undermining to helping kids make better decisions, it sends the message that the community wants to hide these kids.
Placing a park in the heart of a community is an all-around better approach. Kids who are engaging in risky behaviors are less likely to congregate in publically visible places. And being right in the heart of town sends the message that kids matter and their activities are interesting.
One example of a town listening to, and thereby empowering youth, comes from St. Louis Park (Minnesota). In 1996, forty-four percent of all ninth grade high school freshmen were failing one or more classes. By the 2005-2006 school year, this number was less than twenty-one percent. Credit for this turnaround was given in large part to the Building Assets-Reducing Risks program, which helped school staff use communication as a tool to increase student commitment and attachment to the school, relieve freshmen anxiety and improve student performance.
In 1998, St. Louis Park’s young people felt empowered enough to attend a city council meeting and present the case for renting a portable skate park. They were well prepared and gave a convincing presentation. The city rented the portable park. Based on the park’s success, city government decided to build a permanent park.
The parks and recreation department was consulted and plans were made to build the skate park in a somewhat underused city park along a regional trail. Neighborhood meetings were held, plans were drawn up and soil borings were taken. Skate park designers were interviewed.
But parks and recreation director Cindy Walsh realized there was one constituency, one group of stakeholders, who had not been consulted—the kids, themselves.
According to St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs, dozens of skateboarders showed up at the town’s second youth summit in 2002 and blew the adults away. They talked about how they’d use the park and their level of social responsibility, and they acknowledged business owners’ concerns. The kids didn’t want to be trouble, they just wanted a place to hang out with their friends while doing something they liked.
The adults realized the park they were planning was nothing like what the kids wanted and, to their credit, stopped and listened. Walsh and her staff had two main goals: find out what type of facility the kids would use and get them involved in designing it. The kids actually wanted a park that would be less expensive to build and maintain than the park the city was planning.
Over the course of several months, young people worked with civic leaders to pick the location and design the park. The group went with a very visible site that fit the desired outcomes set by the kids themselves.
Mayor Jacobs saw the process as a hallmark of the community’s Children First initiative. He said it was a hallmark for public process in general and shows how simply listening to the stakeholders can make all the difference.
“Many of the kids who use this park were part of the design team,” Jacobs said. “Most of them never knew how close we came to building a park that would not have met their needs and would likely have been a failure,” Jacobs said.
GLCYD is dedicated to helping other organizations who have an effect on Upper Peninsula youth. As such, they include three youth members on their board of directors. Two of these young people are Helen Collins, a senior at Negaunee High School, and Cheyenne Chapman, also from NHS.
Collins joined the GLCYD board because she thought it was important the board have a young person’s perspective when making decisions about youth and the community. She said GLCYD is an organization trying to make our community a better place for young people.
Collins feels her input is valued and added that GLCYD is organizing a Fish Bowl, which is a meeting specifically for youth to talk about whether the community values them. The adults who attend remain silent and listen.
She also is involved in the Global Awareness Club at NHS.
“I joined because I wanted to have an influence on global issues that are important to me,” Collins said.
Besides being on the GLCYD board, Chapman is the chairman for the local Global Awareness group and volunteers for the Kids and Teens program at her church.
“Basically I help to lead meetings, make sure everything is on task and volunteer for a lot of the grunt work,” Chapman said.
With the Kids and Teens group, she said she helps teach younger kids about church values, such as being nice, helping others and being yourself. She also is trying to organize a teen spot to explore sexual and religious orientation.
Chapman feels she makes a difference in the lives of adults and kids and that the adults she knows take her and other youths seriously.
Gonyea thinks we also need to start talking about the payoff for the community in purposefully empowering young people and creating safe and engaging places for them to go. By lifting kids up, listening to what they have to say and honoring what’s important to them, they are more likely to feel like part of the community and less likely to make and keep making poor decisions that lead to more costs to the community.
“It costs money to help people get over addiction,” Gonyea said. “It costs money to process people through our judicial system. It’s poor economic planning for our community to ignore and alienate our young citizens. They are only kids for a minute.”
She said the Ironwood skateboarder she met will be a member of the adult community in a year’s time. He’ll be old enough to serve our county and he’ll be making decisions affecting his place in the workforce. He may even start thinking about being a parent himself.
“Why wouldn’t we as a community choose to be more involved in his life?” Gonyea said.
8-18 Media has been providing a platform for youthful voices to weigh in on community issues for the past fifteen years. Members work in teams to produce stories for Marquette Monthly, WMQT-Q107 and WNMU Public Radio 90. Their reports have appeared in national outlets including The Boston Globe, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Stories can be accessed at www.upcmkids.org under the 8-18 Media link, or at www.glcyd.org.
The program, which recently added an Ishpeming bureau, is sponsored by the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum and is administered by long-time Upper Peninsula journalist Dennis Whitley.
The approximately forty-five-member youth news team is made up of young people from ages eight to eighteen who report on issues affecting their lives. The program’s mission is to empower young people by giving them a significant voice in the world. The team covers local issues, youth cultural exchanges and has covered national political conventions.
“These kid’s faces are a sight to see when they know they’re being taken seriously,” Whitley said. “This was illustrated last fall when the kids went to the Democratic and Republican national conventions and got to interview people like Howard Dean, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.”
The Upper Peninsula has many youth-focused groups, including local chapters of time-honored national groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the YMCA. But new youth initiatives also are embraced.
The Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency (MARESA) has been an effective source of progress in the area of youth empowerment.
“MARESA is the best source of youth empowerment going, bar none,” said Larry Boburka, Westwood High School guidance counselor and youth advocate.
One effective idea generator has been MARESA’s UP Teen Leadership Cooperative (TLC). The TLC’s stated mission is to change the world—one person at a time. The group promotes positive youth development, works to curb drug use and violence, and equip students with the self-worth, skills, vision and support they need.
Westwood High Schools ACTion Troupe was inspired by the TLC. With Boburka’s help, twenty to thirty-five students participate each year, using dramatic skits, television and radio ads and leadership training seminars to discuss the root cause and prevention of violence and alcohol abuse. Westwood’s is the largest of the many Upper Peninsula ACTion Troupes and it has been asked to facilitate training sessions throughout the state.
The group has an annual alcohol awareness week supported by the school. This year, the week before prom is a target, but the dates have not been set in stone. One popular event during alcohol awareness week is the root beer keg party.
“Kids like it because they get free root beer,” Boburka said.
The troupe likes it because it’s a good chance to talk about the dangers of keg parties. Guest speakers include police officers and a recovering alcoholic whom Boburka said are very compelling.
In reaction to statistics indicating there is an alcohol-related death every fifteen minutes in the United States, the troupe created the “Every 15 Minutes” program, in which troupe members dressed as Death reaped a new “victim” from class every fifteen minutes, labeling them dead, taping their mouths and putting a “think of me the next time you want to drink” T-shirt on them.
Boburka also works with the Youth C4 group (Coalition to Create Community Change), another MARESA initiative introduced last year. C4 is community-based with a wider target audience than the more individual school-based ACTion Troupe concept.
The young people involved were surprised by statistics about alcohol availability in the region and wanted to help define responsible drinking. They had seen ads on television tagged with “please drink responsibly” and wanted to know what that looked like. So C4 adopted and is advocating the 0-0-1-3 concept, which defines responsible drinking as zero underage drinking, zero drinking and driving, a maximum of one drink per hour and three drinks per event.
This kind of community leadership is exactly what the Lake Superior Leadership Academy is about. The academy, which is for emerging adult community leaders, also tries to include a youth participant in each class. The Lake Superior Community Partnership built the eight-month program on the idea that today’s leaders have an obligation to nurture tomorrow’s. The academy recruits emerging leaders from a range of public and private sector fields and offers participants the opportunity to learn about the local economy and issues facing the community.
MARESA sponsors one teacher or administrator each year and, when possible, one student.
“The young people bring a different perspective to the class,” said Carol Fulsher of the Leadership Academy. “Just being there reminds the others that it’s not just about us, but also about the next generation.”
The academy sees leaders as people who recognize potential in others and work to develop that potential.
“I challenge people to start by listening and taking the opportunity to have conversations with young people more,” Gonyea, a 2006 academy graduate, said. “Sometimes all kids want is to be heard. When I was talking to the Ironwood skateboarder about the skate park, he sat up a little straighter and lifted his eyes so I could see them.
“It may have only been for a couple of minutes, but in that time, we engaged each other and I could see him. He’s a good, smart and promising young man. He just wanted someone to take a little interest in what was important to him, listen to his thoughts on the matter. And for me—a full grown adult in this country and this world at this time—seeing that young man’s eyes and passion gave me some much needed hope for our future.”

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