Community Stakeholders Seek Positive Youth Development

When it comes to the well-being of youth in Wake County, it’s very easy to talk in terms of what we don’t want them to do. Yet, simply focusing on eradicating problems isn’t enough. Last year, the John Rex Endowment began wrestling with a different and, perhaps, a more important question: what is it that we do want for the young people of Wake County? 

To guide our investments for youth, the John Rex Endowment reviewed the body of work in positive youth development and enlisted the help of Judith Kahn, a national expert who works with communities, cities, and states to apply a positive youth development framework. The success and effectiveness of the positive youth development approach is centered on the ideal that eliminating problem behaviors does not equal ensuring positive outcomes for youth.   
Positive youth development has been defined and framed in a variety of ways. Capturing two decades of research and the wisdom of youth development experts, Kahn shared what she considers the three tenets of youth development:
  • Young people grow up in families and communities, not programs. And efforts to promote positive development must be focused on the overall context in which that development occurs.
  • Youth, in partnership with adults, have critical roles to play as stakeholders in all efforts to promote positive youth development.
  • Society, communities, institutions must have a vision for what it wants for its young people. 
In support of our community’s need to define what it wants for our young people in terms of positive outcomes, the John Rex Endowment brought together a group of approximately 50 community stakeholders in October 2009 for a full-day meeting at Marbles Kids Museum. The meeting was facilitated by Kahn, who helped the group explore a deeper, shared understanding of the fundamental requirements of healthy youth development. 
“The day was designed to complement our fall 2009 release of a Positive Youth Development Request for Proposals that focused on strategies to develop the capacity within our community to integrate a positive youth development approach and perspective,” said Kate Shirah, program director at the John Rex Endowment.  “It was a collaborative opportunity to begin defining what our community wants for youth, existing resources, areas of need, and the best approaches for positive youth development in Wake County.”
Youth were actively engaged in the October discussion, and together the group began to identify areas of focus on the path to creating an environment in Wake County which offers the supports, opportunities and services all young people need – in all the places and spaces where they spend their time. An important aspect of the meeting was identifying challenges such as the lack of mechanisms for information sharing; the geographic size of Wake County; often negative perceptions of youth, and the tendency to design programs for youth instead of with youth.
During the meeting, connections were made among groups in the community who have aligned interests for Wake County youth. Conversations have continued with groups evaluating how to overcome challenges and make the most of opportunities. “Some participants are already looking within and thinking creatively about how they can support positive youth development with their existing resources,” said Kristen Rosselli, director of community services for the City of Raleigh, “That’s exactly what we need as we work in parallel to further develop a community-wide agenda, find ways to involve youth with meaningful roles, explore opportunities for sharing resources and data, and seek sustainable solutions.”
In January 2010, the City of Raleigh convened community leaders to define excellence in youth development and determine best practices for systematic change. Participants included representatives from city and county government, the school district, foundations, and community-based advocacy groups. Resulting from the January meeting, the City, with input from Wake County Human Services and the John Rex Endowment, has initiated an ongoing planning process to engage key community institutions in identifying how organizations can increase effectiveness through a more collaborative effort to improve youth outcomes in Wake County. The John Rex Endowment understands that partnerships are important for community change and sees great value in this community effort.

In the next year, the John Rex Endowment will issue a second Positive Youth Development Request for Proposals.  Similar to the initial funding in positive youth development, the Endowment will be accepting grant proposals which aim to improve the capacity of organizations and communities to address the health and well-being of youth in Wake County by using a positive youth development asset-based approach with an emphasis on connectedness, engagement and leadership development.