In a small enclave of West Seattle, there are youth who are speaking up. They may not be garnering headlines, but they’re talking about issues that matter and helping to guide the future direction of their community.

The Let’s Talk Race Series, hosted by the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA), is run by youth and adult facilitators from the organization Young Women Empowered. This 8-part series aims to open up and advance the discussion about race and racism and to celebrate multiculturalism through storytelling and critical dialogue.

“Part of our work is youth leadership,” David Bestock, Executive Director of DNDA, says. “To have youth, particularly young women of color, to help facilitate our event and bring in youth voice while also helping them gain confidence and power in leading these challenging conversations for members of the public -- that’s a win, win, win. The third win is pushing the conversation forward.”

Community Development: An Integrated Approach

Empowering youth -- the future leaders of the community -- is the one of the pillars of DNDA’s work, but community development encompasses many activities such as housing rehabilitation, supporting homeowner needs and managing community centers.

DNDA, for example, runs a myriad arts, environment/restoration projects and youth development programming. They also own seven affordable housing sites with 144 units. Bestock says he wants to “focus on their integrated part of their programming model: where a young person in our affordable housing can access our restoration services, come to a DNDA community event and then attend arts programming. We’re trying to continue the growth of those connective points within our own programming.”

The integrated approach described by Bestock allows community development organizations to elevate young people in their community.

“If we’re thinking about community development in the long term, which we should be doing, then we need to be thinking about, what challenges are young people going to face?” Bestock says. “How can we take steps to mitigate those challenges now? And whether they’re in the room or not, they’re involved, so let’s please invite them into the room.”

That philosophy has proven benefits. When community youth development coalitions are in place, young people have a defined site to go to address issues and concerns. In California, the existence of a youth coalition led to the creation of a youth master plan that "built bridges between the city, schools and community organizations."

As Bestock puts it,  “To have [youth] priorities be heard, be supported, and be amplified helps us all in building a community that will really serve us in the future.”

Giving Youth a Seat at the Table

Community development relies on the power of young people to gain traction in society. However, many youth lack strong family foundations and must build an understanding of the systems that might work against them. To remedy this, community youth development relies on partnerships between young people and adults working toward a common goal: creating the right environment for “successful development of young people, their peers, families and communities.” For example, an organization may provide mentors, job skills and networking connections to increase the potential for future employment success.

Bestock admits that it it can be challenging to achieve this partnership because some adults are accustomed to telling youth what to do, not listening to them.

“We have found that when you actually listen to young people, they have a very astute sense of what is going on around them, and they have some ideas for how to make it better,” Bestock says. “I think if If we all paid attention to that and created more inviting spaces for youth to raise their voices then we’d all be better off.”

How Funders Can Support Community And Youth Development

To foster connections and make lasting change, community development programs involve a variety of programming, activities, and partnerships. This process requires many stakeholders, volunteers, and committed staff and community members to make change happen.

But, the work is complex at times and even with defined plans, many efforts go underfunded or overlooked.

“Funders want to support programs, but those programs are run by people who need to get paid and on computers that need to be updated,” Bestock said. “We need funders to get on board with sustaining the organization in the long term so that we can build new programming and we can prioritize the programs that are working the most effectively.”

Additionally, funders can support the work in their own ways, by connecting youth and their own children across communities, listening to lesser heard voices and promoting the understanding of the relationship between youth development and community development.

“Finding more ways of human connection is the real work of community development,” Bestock says.