By Sam Piha
Helen Janc Malone is the series editor of Current Issues in Out-of-School Time. The Series promotes and disseminates original, theoretical and empirical research and promising practices from practitioners to further grow and strengthen the OST field.
The latest book in this series is entitled At Our Best: Building Youth-Adult Partnerships in Out-of-School Time Settings edited by Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Deepa Sriya Vasudevan and Jessica Tseming Fei. Because the formation of positive youth-adult partnerships is such an important issue in the out-of-school time field, we approached the editors with a few interview questions. Their responses are below.
There is nothing more powerful in our efforts to improve our society than understanding how to cultivate deep and meaningful partnerships with young people. “At Our Best” offers key insights about the power of youth-adult partnerships in out-of-school time settings. Brion-Meisels, Fei & Vasudevan have compiled a powerful and comprehensive collection of voices of people who are blazing a new path in partnering with youth. This book is a must read for researchers and practitioners searching for fresh analysis and innovative insights into building youth-adult partnerships. -Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Education & Africana Studies, San Francisco State University , Chief Executive Officer, Flourish Agenda, Oakland CA
Q: Why did you choose to focus on the topic of youth-adult partnerships?
A: All three of us have a research and practice-based background in youth development work and/or out-of-school time (OST) settings. As readers of this blog may agree, when you work in OST settings, you witness and engage in a lot of forms of youth participation; these can range from more tokenized and performative youth participation (for example, inviting a youth participant to share their program experience at a funders’ event) to youth facilitating and deciding the kind of activities happening in their programs and communities.
Something that the three of us talked about in our shared teaching and research is how centering youth voice and decision-making is oftentimes an intentional approach to OST program design for older youth, and yet, there aren’t many written resources that focus on this contribution of the OST field and the complexities of these collaborations from educator and youth perspectives. We wanted to gather a chorus of voices that considered what the ideals of partnership work might look like in practice. We invited a variety of people–– youth workers, scholars, educators, and young people –– to reflect and theorize their experiences with intergenerational partnerships both within and beyond OST programs. The response was incredible; we really appreciate how honest our authors have been about both the rewarding and messy parts of intergenerational collaboration, both in theory and in practice.
Q: Can you define what you mean by “youth-adult partnerships”?
A: Theoretically, our work draws on Roger Hart’s “ladder of child participation,” which defines participation as “the process of sharing decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives” (Hart, 1992, p.5). Thinking about the essential role of positive youth-adult relationships in supporting youth participation in educational settings, we build upon Shepherd Zeldin, Brian Christens, and Jane Powers, who define youth-adult partnership as the practice of, “(a) multiple youth and multiple adults deliberating and acting together; (b) in a collective fashion; (c) over a sustained period of time; (d) through shared work; (e) intended to promote social justice, strengthen an organization and/or affirmatively address a community issue” (Zeldin, Christens, & Powers, 2012, p.388). This definition resonates with our experiences working in and studying OST programs, as well as the perspectives of many contributors to our volume.
Much like schools, in OST settings, youth-adult partnerships require everyone to push against hierarchical relationships and pervasive, negative constructions of youth as “at risk” or “in need of control.” They necessitate a full interrogation of the meanings, purposes, and processes of youth development. Our definition of youth-adult partnerships holds that in order to be authentic, intergenerational relationships in OST settings must focus on community and societal goals. In other words, settings must focus on nurturing collective development and outcomes rather than individual development and outcomes. Indeed, as we can see in abundance during this time of global pandemic and global uprising for racial justice, adults and youth become better able to address pressing needs for transformative change when we tap into the power of community care, social solidarity, and collective action.
Intergenerational collaboration and learning are not new; the authors in our book draw on a legacy of intergenerational solidarity in the United States. The partnerships that they describe highlight practices in which youth participate and engage in mutual and reciprocal teaching, learning, and creating with adults. In this paradigm, youth are involved in decision-making that meets both their individual needs and priorities as well as their communities.’ A partnership model still includes mentorship and wisdom from adults, but it requires adults to honor and center the knowledge and perspectives of young people. It necessitates quite a bit of rethinking and ongoing reflection among adults, which is what we emphasize in this book. Our authors share examples of what it means to challenge adults’ instincts to control a situation, and to fundamentally reassess the nature and the goals of our work in OST settings.
Q: Can you provide an example of practices that promote positive youth-adult partnerships?
A: Yes! We were inspired by many practices shared by the contributors to At Our Best. One example is the development of group rituals that foster humanizing spaces for adults and youth. This can involve: a) holding regular check-ins where group members can talk honestly about their emotions; b) playing icebreaker games that highlight the importance of team building and fun; c) creating community agreements that uphold shared values and goals; and d) engaging in debrief discussions where people can share feedback to support individual and collective growth. These activities support ongoing processes of trust-building and relationship-building between adults and youth. Combined with structures for democratic decision-making, they also contribute to balancing power and participation within the group.
Q: What are some of the dilemmas that adults may face in their efforts to promote positive youth-adult partnerships?
A: Adults often face dilemmas around how to use their own power to support the work of the group, while still centering the voices and the leadership of youth. It can be challenging to figure out when to step up and when to step back, and there are no easy answers. Within youth-adult partnerships, adults must frequently reflect upon how dynamics of power, positionality, and privilege are operating within the group. Importantly, a major part of youth-adult partnership is dialogue about the impact of these dynamics, and about ways to transform any harmful dynamics that exist. Many of our practitioner authors recommend practices of transparency –– as well as cultures of accountability –– to help counter the adultism that we have to work to unlearn. Importantly, decisions about how and when an individual should exercise their own power and privilege to help a group accomplish its goals do not have to be made in isolation; this is yet another place where adults can listen to youth and lean on the collective wisdom of the group in navigating what to do.
Q: How can youth take the lead in promoting positive youth-adult partnerships?
A: Young people can take time to explore the thoughts, questions, issues, and phenomena that fascinate and galvanize them. They can take initiative to express themselves to any adult who they trust. This creates an opportunity for young people to be more deeply understood by the people around them, and it is a valuable skill-building experience, too. Through voicing their desires and talking about what’s important to them, young people learn about what it takes to advocate for themselves and others. Ideally, it can also be a confidence-building and hope-generating experience--one that enables young people to access resources and supports that can help them in their next steps, and that demonstrates that they do not have to be alone in their journeys. We have seen so many examples of young people taking the lead in promoting youth-adult partnerships over the last two months - it has been truly powerful to behold.
Q: We know that putting a priority on the formation of positive youth-adult partnerships goes beyond the work of individual youth workers- it has to be supported at the organizational level. Can you comment on this?
A: Absolutely, there has to be organizational leadership and whole-hearted, whole-team and buy-in to partnership efforts and practices. If there isn’t this expressed ongoing commitment and willingness at the organizational management and leadership level, youth workers can become frustrated and exhausted by partnership work that goes unseen and undervalued; youth will probably not trust or believe that their efforts will matter. Something we appreciated about the youth programs represented in this book–– Intergenerational Change Initiative in NYC, Teen Empowerment in Boston & Somerville, Massachusetts, The Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education, Youth in Action in Providence, Rhode Island, and Humanities Amped in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to name a few –– is that partnership work is embedded in the mission, approach, and philosophy of the whole organization. This means that youth hold leadership positions within the organization and adults have systems for ongoing debriefs and critical reflections at the organizational level to evaluate the processes and outcomes of their partnership work. Partnerships do a good job of holding organizations accountable and transparent about their work, too; when working in partnership, a program doesn’t become about one charismatic leader or “savior” of youth, rather, it becomes about building a caring community.
We do also want to note that partnerships need to be recognized as a promising practice and activity in the eyes of funders as well. Organizational leadership can feel pressure to show individual outcomes vs. community outcomes to keep program doors open and may perpetuate this kind of expectation of youth workers. This can lend itself to more traditional educational practices that position only adults as experts and decision-makers.
Q: Who do you think the audience is that would benefit from this book?
A: With our collective experiences in afterschool programs, classroom teaching, academic research, and community arts, we truly believe that educators both in and out of schools can benefit from this book. Many out-of-school time organizations are already seeking to work in partnership with youth; for them, this book will provide concrete practices and strategies, as well as examples of the challenging tensions that can emerge.
On the other hand, we believe that school-based educators would benefit from engaging the type of pedagogical moves and tools for relationship-building that our authors describe. By building trusting relationships, drawing on problem-posing methodologies, engaging democratic participation and providing opportunities for collective action, schools will become more authentic and engaging sites of learning. Moreover, there are many principles and practices of youth-adult partnership that can deepen and enrich the work of school administrators, educational researchers, community organizers, and community-based artists. This book is intentionally designed to speak to a wide array of people interested in intergenerational work with goals of social justice and collective well-being.
Jessica Fei is the Director of Programs for the Sadie Nash Leadership Project. As an educational researcher and practitioner, she seeks to center the voices and leadership of youth, and to build relationships and communities grounded in authentic care.
Deepa Vasudevan is a visiting lecturer in education at Wellesley College, whose research focuses on the occupational identities and expertise of community-based youth workers, constructions of care work in education, and youth engagement in out-of-school learning experiences.
Gretchen Brion-Meisels is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose work draws on critical participatory action research approaches to understand how schools and communities can become more equitable and loving spaces.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.