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"Race, Poverty, and Youth Development,"

by Carla Roach, Hanh Cao Yu & Heather Lewis-Charp (July/August 2001) is an article about youth development in low-income communities.July/August 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

The Positive Youth Development Framework.

The process commonly referred to as “youth development” is one that most young people pass through on their way to adulthood. During adolescence, ideally, young people receive support from their peers, families, caring adults, schools, and community institutions, thereby increasing the likelihood of “positive” youth development and improved life outcomes. Yet even under the most ideal circumstances, adolescence is often a time of turbulence. It is a stage of rapid development physically, psychologically and socially; young people are simultaneously confronted with issues of identity formation, self-worth and acquiring a broad set of skills needed to function as an adult.

For young people growing up in low-income communities, however, the challenges of adolescence are exacerbated by a range of factors, including a lack of economic opportunity for their parents, family instability, inadequate schools, prevalence of drugs, violence, social isolation and, in the case of ethnic and racial minorities, racism. Most low-income youth enter adolescence having already experienced many of these challenges. Consequently, adolescence often represents one of the last opportunities to intervene in the human development of young people and help them overcome the academic, health and social barriers associated with growing up in poverty. Moreover, adolescence represents one of the last opportunities to access young people in groups, through schools, community centers and peer groups. For society, adolescence represents the final chance to intervene in the lives of young people before welfare dependency, limited productivity and other social problems become life patterns that ultimately are more costly.

Since the 1950s, there has been a steady growth in social programs and policies aimed at helping low-income youth meet the additional burdens imposed by the confluence of adolescence and poverty. During the late 1980s, the focus of these efforts shifted away from the prevention of specific problem behaviors (such as pregnancy, school failure, unemployment) to the promotion of positive development and preparation for adulthood among low-income youth.

Undergirding this shift to positive youth development was the work of Michele Cahill, currently Senior Program Officer with the Carnegie Corporation, and Karen Pittman, Executive Director of the Forum for Youth Investment. As co-founders of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research at the Academy for Educational Development, Cahill and Pittman set forth the positive youth development framework. They argued that the term “youth development” refers to the ongoing process in which all young people are engaged and invested — even in the absence of family supports and formal programs. All young people will seek ways to meet their basic physical and social needs; and to build the individual assets or competencies (knowledge, skills, relationships, values) they feel are needed to participate successfully in adolescence and adult life. In other words, youth development is an inevitable process, and depending on the influences young people are exposed to, their development can either be negative or positive.

Three guiding principles are now routinely used to develop programs and policies and to evaluate the outcomes of positive youth development. The first principle is that society has to articulate a vision for what it wants for its young people. The second principle underscores the fact that young people grow up in communities, not programs, and that efforts to promote positive development must be focused on the overall context in which that development occurs. The third principle holds that youth in partnership with adults have critical roles to play as stakeholders in all efforts to promote positive youth development.

The factors influencing positive youth development suggest a number of key inputs. Young people need a stable place which is theirs and where they feel safe; access to basic care and services that are appropriate, affordable and, if necessary, confidential; high quality instruction and training; opportunities to develop social and strategic networks; opportunities to develop sustained, caring relationships; challenging experiences that are appropriate, diverse and sufficiently intense; and opportunities for real participation and involvement in the full range of community life.

In short, all young people, affluent or low-income, need a mix of services, supports and opportunities in order to stay engaged. Promotion of positive youth development requires that young people have stable places, services and instruction. But they also need supports — relationships and networks that provide nurturing, standards and guidance, as well as opportunities for trying new roles, mastering challenges and contributing to family and community.

Poverty, Race & Other Contextual Factors

While the paradigm shift from a deficit-based to a youth development perspective moves us closer to defining promising program practices and settings that nurture positive youth development outcomes, the field has yet to address two areas critical to expanding the reach and impact of youth development programming. The first relates to effectively serving vulnerable young people who are not involved in traditional youth development activities. Field leaders such as Karen Pittman have identified this as a key challenge, explaining, “The youth-serving organizations and efforts that have capitalized most on the ‘youth development paradigm shift’ have not consistently addressed the needs of young people who are dealing with or are most at risk for poverty, school failure, family crises and problem behaviors.” The second area entails mobilizing youth-serving agencies to effectively address the cultural and social contexts that mediate the potentially negative societal influences (e.g., poverty, discrimination) on young people’s healthy identity development.

The development of vulnerable young people is often profoundly impacted by poverty and discrimination. Related societal factors — such as a lack of economic and employment opportunities, sexism, homophobia, lack of access to high-quality health and education services, and stereotypical media portrayals of certain groups— all contribute negatively to a young person’s sense of identity, connectedness, competency and control over his or her fate in life. Unfortunately, a good number of youth programs try to treat “all youth” in an equitable manner so as to minimize such differences among youth; however, these differences often reveal the most about the challenges youth face as they draw upon the supports and opportunities that are available to them. Further, youth organizations have often not provided a safe and comfortable space for youth to explore their own identities and develop a critical understanding of the differences in opportunities and experiences they face in their daily lives. Creating such safe spaces is pivotal to engaging vulnerable youth populations, who must resist the internalization of negative societal messages about who they are and their capacities.

While youth development occurs in a limited manner in formalized programs or institutional settings, it tends to occur more fully within multiple, naturalistic contexts such as family and communities over a span of time. These overlapping and nested contexts can play a positive role in supporting youth’s mediation of negative messages and experiences. The quality and structure of the relationships that youth have in these settings do play a pivotal role in contributing to the development of healthy and productive coping behaviors to stresses in their lives. At the same time, however, family and community factors, such as poverty or inadequate schools, can inhibit growth and lead to the development of negative coping skills. Unfortunately, many programs tend to focus on a discrete set of activities or experiences, and in fact fail to take into account the reciprocal and dynamic interactions that take place between the individual and various contextual arenas. In doing so, they fail to support bridge-building between youth and key supports within their “multiple worlds,” thus missing the opportunity to further assist them as they seek to navigate around the pitfalls of adolescence or beyond the debilitating conditions that arise from poverty and social injustices.

The failure of youth development practitioners to provide adolescents with the appropriate developmental opportunities to explore issues of identity, independence, equality and decision-making is no small matter. As a consequence, programs and organizations that seek the participation and involvement of “at-risk” youth frequently have a difficult time with recruitment and retention of adolescent participants. These critical gaps alienate young people and leave them searching for ways to define how they fit into society and how they can make meaningful contributions as vital participants in American civic life.

Civic Activism: Bridging the Gap?

Young people with a combination of passionate indignation, optimistic enthusiasm and a willingness to take risks and challenge the status quo have long been associated with social movements for justice and equity. For example, young people’s determination to bring about an end to the war in Vietnam and to extend civil rights to ethnic and racial minorities, women, and gays and lesbians transformed the cultural environment of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. While much of this struggle was contentious and controversial and not every outcome was positive, there can be no question that the youth movement of those years made beneficial contributions to society. And the lives of the young people themselves were enhanced in the process.

Civic activism is being rediscovered as a particularly relevant approach for positive youth development today. Its focus on social justice issues provides a pivotal ideological frame of reference for youth who are searching for meaning and a place in their social world. Youth cannot form healthy political or civic identities without understanding how their own values, belief systems, experiences and expectations connect them to larger ideological and social communities. As Erik Erikson argues, “Adolescent development comprises a new set of identification processes, both with significant persons and with ideological forces, which give importance to individual life by relating it to a living community and an ongoing history.” Thus, civic activism acts as a pivotal forum for youth to connect to social-historical challenges facing them and their communities and to see a role for themselves and others in co-constructing a new reality. Such connection forms the basis for developmental outcomes, such as an increased sense of efficacy and a strong civic identity. Moreover, the networks of support developed through such efforts lead to a renewed trust in adults and institutions.

A Case in Point: The Youth Leadership for Development Initiative

Civic activism holds promise as a strategy for dealing with difficult topics such as race, poverty, gender, sexual orientation and immigrant status among young people. This has major implications for the content of youth development programs, the method of program delivery, staff development, and the creation of a safe environment that encourages all youth to act on and explore their own truths. The reality however, is that, for the most part, practitioners from these two fields rarely collaborate or share strategies. An opportunity exists, therefore, to bring these two communities together, intentionally supporting and fostering learning about civic activism as a youth development strategy that specifically targets the leadership and civic engagement of marginalized youth.

This realization is beginning to spark a number of pilot programs across the country. One such response is The Ford Foundation’s Youth Leadership for Development Initiative (YLDI). YLDI was launched in September 1999 as a learning network of organizations that are exploring how civic activism can be employed as a component of youth development programming. Twelve U.S. community-based organizations were chosen from a national search to be part of the three-year network. The organizations represent an array of youth constituencies, including African American, Latino and Latina, Native American, Asian Pacific American, low-income white suburban, gay and lesbian, faith-involved, girl leaders, and low-income Asian immigrant women and children.

The participating organizations were selected based on the demonstration of several factors, including a recognition of the relationship between civic activism and positive youth development. Other selection factors included an assessment of young adult leadership or founders, and a primary focus on community service and social issues. For instance, the organization C-Beyond, based in Concord, California, mobilizes low-income white youth and youth of color to jointly combat persistent negative social forces such as adultism, racism, sexism, homophobia and class discrimination through youth meetings, presentations to high schools and community action campaigns. Through these efforts, youth can gain an ideological perspective fundamentally based in the belief that collective action can lead to a better future; moreover, they come to understand themselves as key actors in actualizing that future.

YLDI is managed by the Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development, a project of the Tides Center, a nonprofit organization that hosts over 300 projects promoting progressive social change. In keeping with its mission, the Innovation Center hopes that YLDI will foster and strengthen the best thinking and practice in the youth development field. The intended outcomes of this work are to stimulate additional research, practice and policy; contribute to a base of literature promoting best practices and models; build commitment and leadership among practitioners; and create a new paradigm for youth development theory/practice that integrates aspects of civic activism and youth leadership development.

In the final analysis, youth development needs to consider all the dynamics of human growth and development while providing young people with the places, skills and opportunities to achieve positive youth development outcomes. Efforts to push the boundaries of current practice must recognize social justice work as integral to the youth development mandate and demonstrate how youth development programming can more effectively tackle issues such as poverty and race. Ultimately, we hope, young people in the United States and around the world will have greater opportunities in working to create more vibrant, democratic societies.

Further Readings

Erikson, E. H. (1965) “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity.” In E. Erikson (Ed.), The Challenge of Youth. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Murphy, R. (1995). Definitions, Language and Concepts for Strengthening the Field of Youth Development Work. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development, Center for Youth Development and Policy Research. (Available from the Center, 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Wash., DC, 20009).

Phelan, P.K., Davidson, A.L., & Yu, H. C. (1997). Adolescents’ Worlds: Negotiating Family, Peer and School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Pittman, K., & Irby, M. (1995). An Advocate’s Guide to Youth Development. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development, Center for Youth Development & Policy Research. (Available from the Center, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW, Wash., DC, 20009).

Pittman, K., Irby, M., & Ferber, T. (2001). Unfinished Business; Further Reflections on a Decade of Promoting Youth Development. In Youth Development: Issues, Challenges and Directions. (Available from Public/Private Ventures, 2000 Market St., #600, Phila., PA 19103).

Roach, C., Sullivan, L., & Wheeler, W. (1999). Youth Leadership for Development: Civic Activism as a Component of Youth Development Programming. Chevy Chase, MD: Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development. Commissioned by the Ford Foundation. (Available from The Innovation Center, 7100 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, MD 20815).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1997). Understanding Youth Development: Promoting Positive Pathways of Growth. (Available from National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth, PO Box 13505, Silver Spring, MD 20911-3505).

Carla Roach is the YLDI Project Director at the Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development (7100 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, MD 20815, (301/961-2899).
Hanh Cao Yu is a Senior Social Scientist at Social Policy Research Associates (1330 Broadway,#1426, Oakland, CA 94612). Her specializations are youth development, intergroup relations, and diversity and organizational change.
Heather Lewis-Charp is also a Social Scientist at Social Policy Research Associates. Her specializations include identity development and education and diversity.

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