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Participants in a recent panel discussion about the youth development field agreed: Nonprofit leaders and volunteers, policy makers, advocates, and philanthropists need to adopt a holistic approach to raising our nation's young people and preparing them for successful adulthood.
Definite progress has been made over the past 10 years in bridging the gaps, panelists said, but we need to get beyond the "youth as victim" narrative we've been using, shift to a unifying approach, and invest in a critical key to change: parents.
"People say that the magic is that the doctor is giving the advice," he said. "I think the magic is both the pediatrician and the fact that our 3.9 million parents are taking action. If we really want change, we have to engage the people who are most affected by these issues."
Bruce Lesley raised the idea of changing the narratives we use to talk about children and where they fit in public policy. For a long time, we've used a "rescue" narrative that paints children as victims, he said. That approach has created a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating an "us versus them" mentality that is disempowering to the people in need. What's needed is a narrative that resonates across the board with people's values. "The sector has played defense for so long," he said. "We need to shift that focus and figure out ways to make the issues before congress more holistic."
"There are a set of critical strategies that need to be included in the design of public education, and they're by and large about youth development," he said. "No longer do we talk about 'after school' as a holding pattern for kids; it's now 'extended day' where we get all sorts of learning and holistic development skills built in. We're at a moment where we can talk about the outcomes on the youth development side as constituent to the holistic development of children, which includes education outcomes."
Dan Cardinali agreed, adding that the youth development field as a whole needs to realize the untapped power among the people it serves. "We need to begin organizing our constituents and seeing them as valuable, self-directed advocates," he said. "We've been part of the problem by not giving voice to the people we serve. There's a really big mirror we've got to hold up."
Other ways to bridge the gap between education and youth development, and between youth-service organizations themselves, the panelists pointed to the need for common goals to spark increased collaboration.