Programs that serve young people from historically underprivileged backgrounds (e.g. youth of color, immigrant youth, youth with disabilities, etc.) exist in a landscape of social equity issues and this landscape is often overlooked. Youth programs tend to tailor their approach to young people’s needs based on delivering skills, knowledge, and/or relationships that are absent from the young people’s lives.

While specific skills, knowledge, and/or relationships are shown in research studies to benefit young people, these skills, knowledge, and/or relationships are not a wholesale passport system that can get young people through or to new levels, spaces, and trajectories. In fact, social equity issues locally and nationally tend to interrupt the effectiveness of youth programs (e.g. bias in job hiring practices). The social equity issues that the young people face daily are not directly targeted for change. Many youth programs can be characterized as using an approach of “add and stir” (borrowing a phrase from the women’s movement “add women and stir”); that is, much like stirring together ingredients, youth programming engage youth in a vacuum separate from the landscape of social equity issues. 

There are few youth programs designed and carried out with attention to the social equity issues (e.g. racial, class, and gender biases) that impact the youth population. The current state of youth programming signals to professionals in this sector that there is a need to build a framework that directly contends with social equity issues.

A way into a new framework

In the examples below, we annotate important features of youth programming that are designed and carried out with full intellectual and practical understanding of impending social equity issues.

Example 1

The Missouri Model of juvenile justice uses small community-based programs and houses to divert young people away from institutional settings. In the Missouri Hills center – one site in the series of locations where the Missouri Model is applied – no more than 10 young men live together with two adult professionals. The young men learn and practice de-escalation skills with one another. That is, the two adult professionals operate the center and the young men support the two adult professionals in resolving youth-youth and youth-adult conflicts including escalation to physical altercations. This is one piece of the intensive designs and practices of the Missouri Hills center. (Read more in Randall Shelden’s Our Punitive Society, 2010)

The young people in the program are historically incarcerated, punished with minimal services during incarceration, exit incarceration without a safety-net, and their lives tend to encompass a revolving door of recidivism. Most often, the young people are teens of color, teens with low SES, and with school IEPs. Youth-led non-institutional programming counters the social equity issues of harshly responding to young people already undervalued in the society with institutionalization for much of the time non-violent offenses. (Read more on the citing and incarceration of non-violent youth in Thalia Gonzalez’s article in Journal of Law and Education, 2012)

Example 2

The League of Young Voters facilitates voting habits among teens by facilitating political advocacy activities on issues relevant to the young people.  Adult facilitators walk alongside the young people to identify issues most pressing to the young people’s lives, then provide training; the adults help the young people to formulate those issues into a political advocacy agenda. The targeted outcomes include increased voter engagement among young people from politically under-represented groups and development of political advocacy on youth-led issues for local and state political outlets.

These outcomes do not take on an “add and stir” approach because the young people design the advocacy agenda (e.g. targeted issues, featured actions, etc.). The young people in the program are historically non-voters, not engaged in civic activities, and experience the consequences of laws that are not in their and the community’s long-term best interests (e.g. criminalization of non-violent youth offenses in California’s Prop 21, criminalization of homelessness, etc.). Youth-led political advocacy counters these social equity issues – that of voting restrictions, the perception of who appropriately fits the profile of a lobbyist, and who’s voice gets heard in national elections.

What is the effectiveness of a social equity framework for youth programs?

Youth programs with an emphasis on a social equity framework can produce concrete results where conventional “add and stir” approaches are used. In Example 1, the Missouri Model of juvenile justice has a tremendously successful track record of decreasing institutionalization and recidivism. Unfortunately, in Example 2, there is no systematically collected data on the effectiveness of this program.

It is a real challenge t0 find youth programs in every community with a social equity framework. Historically, youth programs in the community, schools, and government agencies face the task of keeping their doors open and promoting the presence of their services. Yet many opportunities are before us for evolving youth programs. An evolution of a social equity framework with every youth program can take us beyond “add and stir” for shifts in the very social equity issues that negatively influence the lives of the young people. We see illustrations of this evolution in the two examples above; both examples show the ways young people are positioned to actively engage social equity issues rather than simply endure them (e.g. Missouri Model young people at the Missouri Hills center co-manage a safe space for rehabilitative programming, a major alternative to the institutionalization and punitive response that this country is known for).

Closing: Get support

We encourage professionals in this sector to begin conversations with their colleagues about moving youth programming into a framework that prioritizes the social equity issues that the young people face in their daily lives. Engage in a process of reflection and assessment to understand which of your youth programs can begin a transition to this framework. Identity resources in your community that can inform your process; university faculty and their students spend entire semesters studying the social equity landscape locally and nationally (Dr. Young-Alfaro teaches on these topics at Fresno State). Also, there are many tools that thoroughly take users step-by-step through social equity issues including racial, class, and gender biases.

The young people in your programs will be more richly served and your program will be among the first to pave a way for those who come in the next 10 years. Additionally, once you and your colleagues begin the process of reflection and assessment, connections between social equity issues and your workspace will also become clear (e.g. having what is typically called the “hard conversations”). Welcome and engage conversations on how social equity issues impact your staff members who may or may not reflect the population of youth that you engage. Many organizations, schools, and agencies have values on diversity and inclusion; this framework is a chance to deeply apply those values to the very fabric of your programming, for youth and staff. This evolution in youth programming has the potential to drive sustainable impact in the lives of young people who you care so much about. We’d love to learn from you about your process. Consider letting us know how your programs directly engages social equity issues,