By Sam Piha
Jessica Tseming Fei, Deepa Sriya Vasudevan and Gretchen Brion-Meisels served as editors of At Our Best: Building Youth-Adult Partnerships in Out-of-School Time Settings. We interviewed them to ask about the forming of youth-adult partnerships in the era of COVID-19, social distancing, and distance learning. Their responses are below. (Note: In a future blog we will hear from them on their new book and more about youth-adult partnerships.)
Q: We know that one of OST’s superpowers is promoting positive adult-youth partnerships. With school closures and social distancing, promoting relationships can be very difficult in the era of distance learning. Can you comment on this?
A: Relationship-building in the era of distance learning can definitely be challenging. When we are physically apart from each other, maintaining a sense of togetherness with others requires intentional and robust efforts. This type of effort is necessary, though, for OST programs to continue playing a key role in young people’s learning and growth. Nurturing our sense of connection to people and places –– that represent community and care –– is essential for our mental health and well-being. Although the work can be daunting, this is an important opportunity for us to explore new ways of being in community and operating as collectives. It does take significant initiative, and perhaps a leap of faith, for adults to bring this sense of possibility in relationships to an online setting. Foror both adults and young people, it can feel strange and surreal to work closely together outside of the shared physical environments of their OST programs, both in continuing relationships and in starting new ones with summer programming.
Yet, with a lot of checking in (individually and with one another) about our experiences and how we can show up for one another, our relationships can become even more responsive and resilient. With creativity and commitment, the principles and practices of relationship-building that anchor our in-person OST settings can be translated into the virtual space. We’re confident that the promotion of relationships can remain a superpower of OST, and become an even more meaningful and purposeful part of our work.
Q: Given the difficulty of developing partnerships between youth and adults when they are interacting remotely, which children are at greatest risk?
A: In some ways, this time mirrors and exacerbates issues of access already happening in programs and schools. Having individual phones, laptops, and reliable internet connection, for example, are critical for continued relationship-building, and there are systemic discrepancies in access when it comes to these utilities.
In this particular time, many children and youth have parents who are essential workers - in healthcare, food, and sanitation. Older youth have had to step up in their caregiving responsibilities to younger siblings and may not feel like they have time to engage in synchronous structured programming or activities. At the same time, they may desire the routines and community that OST spaces provide. As educators, we have to recognize where we fit into the ecosystems of care right now, know that we might play a role in providing essential services, and also honor our roles as social and emotional support providers for our students and their families.
Most young people (and adults!) feel stressed or overwhelmed by the constraints of stay-at-home orders, distancing, and the trauma of lives lost during this pandemic. For youth in particularly vulnerable communities, this can be an even more difficult time, particularly for: youth with parents working outside the home in essential services or who are themselves working to support their families, youth experiencing mental health issues, illness, and physical disabilities, undocumented and mixed status families who have been excluded from government assistance, queer youth who may not be out or safe at home, incarcerated youth or youth in group homes, youth in uncertain home circumstances (e.g. foster care, domestic violence), and youth of color – particularly African-American youth, whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and Asian-American youth, many of whom are experiencing increased violence due to anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.
Q: Can you state any strategies that programs are using to maintain and promote relationship building (adult-youth, youth-youth) in the era of COVID-19 restrictions?
A: At Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a community-based youth organization where Jessica serves as Director of Programs, educators have continued to use rituals like opening circles and games to sustain and deepen the interpersonal relationships between youth. Adults and youth engage together with prompts that invite vulnerability and storytelling—grappling together with topics that range from self-care to family life and coping with grief and loss. Group activities--for example, mindfulness activities, feminist fashion shows, and singing games--continue to create a sense of joy and healing that strengthens the bonds between individuals.
In addition, there are many ways to take collective action while socially distanced, and the processes around these actions can further fortify relationships and solidarities between groups. Throughout Sadie Nash programs, educators facilitate project-based work through which young people can enact their own visions, with support from peers and adults.
Recently, Sadie Nash has leveraged youth-adult partnerships to facilitate wellness events for LGBTQQIA+ college students and communities of color, develop awareness campaigns about the impacts of COVID on youth in foster care and on people experiencing domestic violence, and conduct outreach via social media about the Census. The organization has also expanded relationships by doing more parent/family engagement--offering support to whole households through workshops on financial planning, intergenerational game nights, and small grants that provide emergency financial assistance for basic necessities such as food, groceries, and rent. The overarching strategy has been to lean in to the program’s embeddedness in community--staying present in this collective experience, attuned to the differences in vulnerabilities, and rooted in the values that have long guided the organization.
We are encouraged by the flexibility and nimbleness of OST educators in response to this moment, and by the commitment to partnership-oriented relationships with young people that we have seen. At the same time, we recognize that OST educators and community-based organizations are particularly vulnerable right now, often providing significant physical and emotional labor without having the financial security that should accompany this. Keeping this in mind, we hope that funders understand their role in offering financial continuity and stability for programs that foster partnership. We also hope that adult program staff make intentional space for honest conversations, affirmations, and ongoing team building to buoy one another. For adults, supporting and caring for each other more holistically in these uncertain times can model the kinds of positive relationship-building we aspire to with our young people.
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.