By Sam Piha
I first met Ben Kirshner in 2002 when he was working alongside Milbrey McLaughlin (Stanford University) on a qualitative evaluation of the San Francisco Beacon Centers. This evaluation was unique in that it relied on the experiences of youth and the collection of data by youth ethnographers. After graduate school, Ben went on to join the faculty at the University of Colorado (CU- Boulder). Because he is a champion of youth development and youth organizing and participatory action research, we chose to interview him. Below are some of his responses to our questions.
Q: Throughout your career, you have focused on youth development and the learning within out-of-school time programs. Why is that and who were your major influences?
A: My early career experiences working in out of school youth programs (New Orleans, Providence, and eventually San Francisco) shaped my subsequent interest in youth programs as contexts for learning. I saw how out of school spaces could prioritize community, relationships, and belonging. I gained personal fulfillment being part of those spaces and I was inspired by the kinds of intergenerational partnerships that happened organically as youth and adults worked on projects with shared goals and values.
I especially want to credit four talented mentors and colleagues from San Francisco’s youth development scene--Tom Ahn, Anthony Mickens, Teresa Arriaga, and McCrae Parker—for seeing how youth work could embody a powerful intersection of social justice, creative design, and community.
When I found my way into academic spaces I found a new set of mentors in Na’ilah Nasir, Shawn Ginwright, Milbrey McLaughlin, and many others who showed me ways to design, study, and understand powerful and equity-driven youth development spaces.
Q: You have studied why youth activism and civic engagement are important avenues for youth development. Can you share some of your findings?
A: In my initial research I wanted to challenge dominant frameworks for youth civic engagement and community service, which were based on middle class and affluent assumptions about “service”, and were not capturing the kinds of community resilience and youth activism happening in communities of color.
My research carried out with multiracial youth organizing groups in the Bay Area showed how youth participants developed a capacity for critique and collective agency to challenge unjust systems and negative stereotypes. These developmental achievements, it turned out, also spoke to unique elements of learning environments in youth organizing groups. Through peer to peer mentoring, apprenticeship learning, and commitments to young people’s dignity, these settings offer great promise for learning environments in and out of school.
Since then I’ve developed more strategic research collaborations with youth organizations and schools, in which we use research to understand and address compelling challenges jointly identified with youth or organization leaders. For example, I was part of a participatory action research team to study the impact of a high school closure on students, which showed students’ creative and resilient adaptations but also the stressors that displacement added to their lives.
More recent work extended core findings about youth organizing groups as developmental settings and tested out their relevance for classroom learning in collaborative work with high school educators.
Q: You have promoted the engagement of youth in gathering data for program evaluation. Why do you believe this is an effective/important strategy?
Youth are the best reporters and advisors
A: Youth participation in program evaluators is smart for several reasons: first, it’s a terrific learning opportunity for youth to do that kind of research and analysis in partnership with adults. Just as important, good evaluation centers the experiences and goals of its target population, and so it makes sense to me that youth would have a say in figuring out optimal ways to define and evaluate the quality of their experiences. Research by others (such as Shepherd Zeldin) has shown that organizations that engage youth in governance and evaluation tend to show more accountability to their mission.
Q: You have studied program attributes that attract youth participation in afterschool. Can you share some of your findings?
A: One thing we know is that this varies a bit by age group, such as whether youth are elementary, middle school, or high school age. My work has tended to focus on high schoolers, and has looked at a few different kinds of contexts, ranging from community centers to more focused digital media programs.
Some of the key ingredients are general and might strike readers as obvious: compelling programs provide a sense of community and belonging, treat youth with dignity and respect, and offer activities that are aligned to their interests, such as music making, creative writing, or social justice activism. High school youth, particularly those living in marginalized communities, tend to avoid programs that have a deficit or savior orientation.
But I should add that there is not one cookie cutter rule for programs that attract youth – some youth may be drawn to highly structured, adult-directed environments (such as competitive sports), and others want to be in youth-driven spaces that enable flexible participation, from hanging out, to exploring new activities, to geeking out in fields like tech or art (as Mimi Ito and colleagues write about). Because teenagers tend to have more autonomy over how they spend their time, it’s important that schools and neighborhoods offer plentiful and varied opportunities for youth.
Q: It is often said by youth that the climate and behavior of adults in afterschool programs are very different than those from in school. Is this true in your studies? If so, can you elaborate? And why do you think this is true?
A: Yes, in my experience it is true that youth programs enable adults and youth to interact differently relative to school teachers or school administrators. Some of the differences are visible in concrete ways: youth program staff tend to go by first names, they often are more representative of young people’s communities, and they skew younger. But the underlying structures and job responsibilities are also different. Many youth programs have less obligation to teach specific content, which frees them up to prioritize relationships and mentoring. And, because, in most cases young people are there voluntarily, some of the underlying power dynamics that show up during the (mandatory) school day are absent.
Of course, there can still be tensions, and power imbalances, but on the whole the vocation of “youth work” calls for an approach that is more relational and empowering than what is permitted by the job responsibilities of teachers in typical comprehensive high schools.
Ben Kirshner moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in his twenties, where he was a youth worker. These experiences motivated him to study educational equity and the design of learning environments, which he pursued at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. Ben is now a Professor in the School of Education at CU-Boulder and serves as Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. In his work with CU Engage Ben supports programs and people who develop and sustain university-community research partnerships that address persistent public challenges guided by values of social justice and grassroots democracy.
Ben's research examines youth organizing, critical participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. His 2015 book, Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, received the social policy award for best authored book from the Society of Research on Adolescence. Ben is Editor for the Information Age Press Series on Adolescence and Education. His new projects involve collaborations with youth organizing groups that use research to build organizational capacity and campaign strategy, and partnerships with school districts that promote transformative student voice. In his spare time Ben enjoys listening to South African jazz, trail running, and hanging out with his family.
By Sam Piha
Despite the reach that is provided by our new digital media, many young people are isolated from large sectors of their own community and positive visions of what they can become and accomplish as adults. Many are also unfamiliar with other places and cultures and lack a global awareness – an awareness they will need to have to be successful in the 21st century. Afterschool and summer programs are perfectly positioned to help young people expand their horizons through various activities that can be offered in these settings.
“I would say that education always has to expand horizons for young people, to expand their sense of what’s possible. One of the things we're constantly working against, particularly with young men of color, is the negative and pernicious effect of stereotypes - stereotypes which lead them to believe they have a better chance of being a ball player, or a rap star, than of being a scientist or a writer, or being an elected official or lawyer.
Part of expanding horizons means giving concrete experiences, which allow them to see and learn about how knowledge is applied in the real world, in professional settings, why in fact that is a course of action and a career path that they may want to choose, and most importantly, what does it take to get there? So that kind of work, of expanding the sense of what's possible, of exploiting the stereotypes, and of tapping into those that deeply seeded sense of identity is essential to the work of really capturing the imagination of young people.”
– Pedro Noguera, Professor, UCLA, School of Education
What learning that EXPANDS HORIZONS looks like:
Seven things program leaders can do to begin promoting expanded horizons:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this expands horizons principle.
2. Invite a speaker from the community to come to your program: This can be most effective when the topic is linked to something the students are studying in school, or to a project they are working on in the program. For example, if they are learning about the Civil Rights movement, you might invite neighbors who lived through those days to talk about what it was like. If they are studying butterflies, you might find a local entomologist to visit. Firefighters and other people with exciting jobs are always welcome speakers. Community colleges, museums, parks, volunteer centers, and community centers are all good places to start looking for speakers.
3. Get out of the building: Any time you leave familiar space you are allowing young people to expand their horizons. Take a field trip to a regional park or museum. Visit a local establishment, service, or branch of government to learn how it works. Attend a program or activity at a local non-profit organization such as the Red Cross, Sierra Club, a social justice or civil rights organization, or a local arts center or library. Practice using public transportation, and let young people help figure out how to get where you are going.
4. Expand the participant’s knowledge of other groups and cultures: Start by educating yourself. Avoid tokenizing young people or others in your program or school by asking them to explain their culture. Instead, go to the library, look on the internet, attend local cultural events, and call or visit organizations promoting equity for the group you are researching. Learn what you can about the history, art, literature, music, food, celebrations, and struggles of a culture or group. Then help the young people in your program study different cultures and celebrate the contributions of different groups. You might learn about women, people of color, and gay people who have contributed to your neighborhood. Celebrate various holidays as they are celebrated in different countries. Celebrate Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Gay Pride Month, or Cesar Chavez’s Birthday. Young people can present what they’ve learned, and adults may be willing to share food, decorations, or music. Don’t make assumptions about what any particular person might share. Be sure that these celebrations are part of an ongoing process of inclusion and education, and that some groups aren’t just segregated to certain ‘diversity days.’
5. Career and educational exploration: It is important that we help young people think in new ways about what they could become as adults. This means exposing young people to professionals and possible careers. This can be done by inviting working community members to offer presentations to your group, by visiting businesses out in the community, and career exploration activities that include job shadowing and internships. (See Curricula and Compilations of Activities below.)
Because many careers require training or education after high school, consider activities that have young people see higher education as something that is reachable and achievable. This includes bringing in speakers who have succeed in post-secondary education, forming relationships with college fraternities or sororities, visiting local colleges, and helping youth and their families access information regarding financial assistance and entrance requirements.
6. Global awareness: Plan activities that increase young people’s exposure and knowledge of other countries and cultures. Virtual Vacation is one of several curriculums that can assist staff in designing experiences for young people. The Virtual Vacation Leader’s Guide is available for purchase here: http://www.temescalassociates.com/resources/resourcestemescal.asp. Afterschool for the Global Age and other resources are available at the Asia Society website (asiasociety.org).
7. Internships: For older youth who have shown a passion in a specific area, look for community partners who would be willing to accept an intern. Internships allow young people to advance their mastery and to see how they could use their new skills in a real-life work environment. 88 It is important that the young people as well as the businesses are prepared in advance and are very clear about the expectations. Visit other programs that have successfully introduced internships and take advantage of articles and curriculum that have been published to assist programs that are just launching internship programs.
Below is a good program example of expanding horizons:
After School All-Stars (K -12), serves 90,000 students 468 Title I school sites in 20 major cities across the Country. CampUs, is a middle to high school Summer Transition program they run as part of their We Are Ready initiative:
Participants camp out at a college campus such as U of Hawaii, UCLA and Ohio State, for 6 days so that they can learn all about what life is like in high school and college. While on campus, they live in dorms, are taught study skills and about the SATs, they create their own personalized 4-year plans, and they learn what requirements need to be met for graduation. Participants have the opportunity to pick majors and they learn about careers connected to those majors through guest speakers. They are asked to complete a mock college application which includes an essay, resume, recommendation letter, and in-person interview, and take part in a mock acceptance ceremony on the last day, held by the All-Stars staff. They meet and are mentored by current college students. This allows the participants to visualize the process and understand how all the steps connect.
By Sam Piha
Young people tell us they are most engaged when they are given opportunities to learn new skills. If young people are to learn the importance and joy of mastery, they need the opportunity to learn and practice a full sequence of skills that will allow them to become “really good at something.”
Afterschool activities should not promote the gathering of random knowledge and skills. Rather, afterschool learning activities should be explicitly sequenced and designed to promote the layering of skills that allows participants to create a product or demonstrate mastery in a way they couldn’t do before.
Programs often achieve this by designing activities that lead to a culminating event or product that can be viewed and celebrated by peers and family members. For older youth, many programs are depending on apprenticeship models to assist youth in achieving a sense of mastery.
Designing programs that allow young people to fully experience mastery requires a belief by the adults that young people of all ages can persist in building a complex sequence of skills, especially in areas that they have a passion for. This means allowing young people to make mistakes, to sometimes fail, and giving the support they need to persist.
What learning that SUPPORTS MASTERY looks like:
Five things you can do right now:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this supports mastery principle.
2. Plan for the skills and knowledge you want your participants to acquire in your program: Often when planning programs, staff people go straight to lining up activities to fill a determined stretch of time, without thinking through what the learning goals are for a project or the overall program. Instead of identifying activities, work with staff to determine what kinds of knowledge and skills you want your young people to acquire over time through their participation in your program. They might be academic skills, study skills, leadership or team skills. Now, consider what kinds of experiences and activities you can provide over time that will meet your learning agenda. Don’t feel like you have to do it alone! You can use or adapt curriculum materials to align with your participants’ interests and needs, and draw on teachers and others around you who may have more experience in planning against learning outcomes. Don’t forget to sequence the skills from easier to more difficult, and to allow the skills to build on one another.
3. Culminating activities: Take a look at your different “clubs” and determine which clubs would allow young people to host a culminating activity where they can showcase their newfound skills and/or finished products. For instance, a club studying dance or rap could host an end-of-term performance. Those engaging in activities that featured art could host a viewing of their artwork. Having a culminating activity motivates young people to hone their skills and receive recognition for their accomplishments. After a successful event, the positive effect on a group’s sense of community and the individuals’ experience of accomplishment can be quite profound.
4. Advanced clubs: With your staff, consider whether current clubs can be followed by advanced clubs – clubs that allow young people to continue to gain new knowledge and skills in an area that they have high interest. For instance, a video club where young people learn how to use introductory video software could be followed by an advanced club where they learn more advanced software, or moved onto learning how to create soundtracks or digital special effects.
5. Internships: For older youth who have shown a passion in a specific area, look for community partners who would be willing to accept an intern. Internships allow young people to advance their mastery and to see how they could use their new skills in a real-life work environment. It is important that the young people as well as the businesses are prepared in advance and are very clear about the expectations. Visit other programs that have successfully introduced internships and take advantage of articles and curriculum that have been published to assist programs that are just launching internship programs.
Below is a good program example of "supporting mastery":
Youth Institute (community-based); (Grades 8 – 10); YMCA of Greater Long Beach; Long Beach, CA
The Summer Youth Institute is focused on the process of digital movie-making which requires pre-production, production and post production work. The Youth Institute operates 8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for eight weeks. The youth are placed in production groups and operate in a collaborative learning environment throughout the summer. These groups are very diverse with no majority - gender, ethnic/race, age, or grade level. They have had executive briefings at Apple, Pixar, Google and EA Sports and all the executives, according to Youth Institute leaders, say the same thing, "We want employees who CAN work in DIVERSE groups. If you can't work in a diverse group, you will not work here long."
Each production group in the Youth Institute creates a short film, teen magazine, website, music production and 3D printing and product design. This work teaches youth critical, sequential, spatial, and analytical thinking, along with group work and problem solving skills. The process of making a movie is also project and product-based. Digital movie-making, if done right and well, demonstrates all of the Learning in Afterschool and Summer Learning Principles.
By Sam Piha
Since the school shooting in Parkland, FL and the response of young people to gun violence, we have all become more aware of youth activism and civic engagement. We were curious about how youth have been involved historically in social movements, and the effect of social media on social movements. Thus, we interviewed Gordon Alexandre, a historian and activist about these questions. You can see below some of his responses.
Q: In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, there has been a spotlight on youth activism. Are there other contemporary social movements that have attracted the participation of young people?
A: When one looks at political activism right now, young people are not the primary movers. The #MeToo movement has eclipsed all other, for the moment, and it is not primarily youth driven. The labor movement has also had a resurgence lately and it, too, is not youth driven. In addition, much emphasis was placed on getting young people to vote in the 2018 mid-terms and neither those getting young people to vote nor young people voting is, in and of itself, a sign of social activism.
Voting is an institutional response within the bounds of expected behavior and not an ‘outsiders’ response of social activism. This is not to say that the spotlight won’t return to youth activism. It’s just not there right now.
Q: There has been much discussion on the role of technology and social media in contemporary social movements. What do you believe are the pros and cons of technology-driven social movements?
A: I do not believe social media drives social justice movements. Technology can assist social movements - spreading the word, capturing events in real time, encouraging folks to get out and protest, and the like. What drives social movements are causes themselves being fought for and the personal relationships developed between those involved.
Technology is not a substitute for the bonds developed during political struggle and the movement culture that results from that. To do this, people need to be brought together whether it be the union halls of the 1930’s, the black churches of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the anti-Vietnam War movement on college campuses in the 1960’s. Also in the 1960’s we saw the importance of gay night clubs of the gay rights movement and women’s consciousness raising groups of the women’s empowerment movement. More recently, we have seen activism around the issues of gun control and “get out the vote” efforts on high school campuses.
Some would say that today’s social media is the equivalent to yesterday’s black churches or college campuses. It is not. Communicating with someone on social media is ‘virtual’ and you cannot have a ‘virtual’ social movement and movement culture.
Q: Looking back in our history, are there other social movements that have attracted the participation of young people?
A. Young people have been the main participants in social justice movements since, but not before, the 1960’s. Most of the activists in the civil rights movement were young. MLK was in his mid-twenties when he burst onto the scene in 1955.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated many non-violent acts of civil disobedience that was the ‘bread and butter’ of the civil rights movement. Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) was the main anti-Vietnam War organization on college campuses in the 1960’s.
The feminist movement and gay empowerment movement were also led by young people. Later on, the environmental movement of the 1970’s and after, the anti-World Trade Organization movement of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and Occupy Wall Street of 2011 were all youth driven, with varying degrees of success.
Q: What do you believe are the pros and cons of young people participating in social movements? Does it matter what age the young people are?
A: The advantages of youth driven social protest movements are varied and many. Young people have passion, energy, time, and not much to lose. They often possess the idealism and optimism that often accompanies youthful inexperience. They can take more risks with fewer consequences.
On the other hand, they often lack the virtue of patience, wisdom, and experience, all of which are necessary for success in the long run. Obviously, the best recipe for a social movement is to combine the advantages of youth with the advantages of those who have engaged in social movements in the past. But this much easier said than done.
Gordon Alexandre taught U.S. history and political science at Glendale Community College (outside Los Angeles) from 1985 to 2015. His main area of interest was on social reform movements of the Twentieth Century. While at GCC, Gordon was either chief negotiator or president of their American Federation of Teachers chapter for twenty years. Prior to his teaching, Gordon was a labor organizer and activist. Since retiring in 2015, Gordon has delivered several lectures to graduate students at Antioch University on “Trumpism: A Historical Perspective” and “Student Protest Movements: 1968 to 2018". Gordon is also featured in the video documentary, the History of Afterschool in America.
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.