Mar 07

Guest blog: An equity action agenda for youth development professionals

By Jennifer Siaca Curry, Ed.D. Jennifer has worked in the afterschool and expanded learning field for over a decade, working with the statewide afterschool network in New York and ExpandED Schools. She explored afterschool programs delivered through school/community partnerships in her doctoral dissertation and is a member of the board of the NYS Network for Youth Success. This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Illustration via The Second Line Education Blog.

We are living in an important moment in time (an understatement!), and recommitting ourselves to equity and inclusion for all in the youth development field is a must. Youth programs have a long history of responding to social needs—sheltering kids from war in the early 20th century, providing child care as women entered the workforce in the 1970s, extending academic learning time in the No Child Left Behind-era.

I argue that today we are preparing for a new focus: the social and emotional needs of young people, and that this new opportunity is incomplete without an antidiscrimination framework. The youth development field is poised to protect children and youth of all races, religions, ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, appearances, and abilities – to embrace their identities and lift their assets to support them in becoming productive, engaged, and successful adults.

And the good news? You don’t need a grant to make this happen. Here are six things you can do today to have a positive impact on the youth you serve.

Build a personal understanding of the history of oppression.

Experts agree that having deeper knowledge about our country’s history is central to weakening racism. While it’s certainly easier to leave the past behind us, building an understanding of the events, constructs, and people who laid the foundation for today’s discriminatory structures and beliefs will make you a stronger advocate and enable you to pass accurate historical knowledge on. One of my favorite anecdotes is from Marian Wright Edelman: a Texas student recognized his social studies textbook ignored the brutality of the slave trade, which he had learned in his Children’s Defense Fund program. Not only did he educate his classmates, but his protest led to McGraw-Hill issuing an apology and an updated version of the textbook!

Mind your words—they matter.

First, I recommend youth development professionals subscribe to a philosophy of multiculturalism rather than color blindness. Saying things like, “I don’t see color” or “I treat everyone the same” may feel innocuous, but research and experience suggest that people primed to have a color-blind perspective display more explicit and implicit biases than those primed with a multicultural perspective. When it comes to specifics, the Opportunity Agenda has curated a list of words and phrases that impede equity and inclusion, as well as replacement terms to use instead. It’s a great document to use as required reading for new staff.

Work to eliminate implicit bias.

Most of us genuinely hold no ill will toward others and find the idea of implicit bias difficult to swallow. However, it’s natural to have an “in-group bias,” a slight inherent preference for people who share your characteristics. There are several things you can do, according to psychologists Tropp and Godsil: regularly expose yourself to counter-stereotypic group members and assume the perspective of outgroup members to gain a new worldview to guide your behavior. Lastly, be mindful of implicit bias in your everyday work. From assigning students to activities, to choosing who to hire, to having conversations with families, we have many opportunities to either act on or ignore our implicit biases.

Use culturally-responsive pedagogy (for all students).

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ vision of culturally-responsive pedagogy may be more important now than ever before. She called for teaching and learning to empower students using their own cultural context in their education. Experts at NYU explain “culturally responsive classrooms can create a space where harmful images can be deconstructed and positive self and cultural affirmations portrayed” by infusing classes and activities with reflections of children’s identities, cultures, and languages.

This is not a one-size-fits-all solution; each community has to shape an approach that works for its students. For example, Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and The Rest of Ya’ll Too provides examples specific to teaching Black students in urban communities, such as using engagement techniques used by Black pastors. Although customization is key, there are some universal strategies; for example, many cultures use spoken words and music to share their history. Therefore, opportunities to learn through music, theater, slam poetry, and other verbal platforms can be particularly effective for teaching diverse groups of children. There’s also youth culture to consider—you may not be on Snapchat, but if that’s where your students are most engaged… it’s time to check it out.

Label and address identity-based bullying head-on.

Identity-based bullying includes insults, threats, or physical aggression against someone because of who they are. A 2016 survey found that more than half the middle and high school student respondents reported bullying because of their appearance, and about a third were bullied because of their race or ethnicity. The Anti-Defamation League offers resources and tips for mitigating this type of bullying, including explicitly teaching youth what identity-based bullying is and explaining that it is not caused by the victim’s identity, but instead by the perpetrator’s own biases. Establish open lines of communication with students and create a norm of telling an adult when identity-based bullying occurs. By explicitly including these practices and norms in behavior management protocols communicated to youth, a safer environment for all students will result.

Find staff who build and maintain a positive environment for all.

A program is only as good as the people who run it, and no matter what your intentions are, your staff will make or break your program environment. Hiring staff who are willing to engage in reflection, discussion, and action regarding eliminating discrimination is key. I recommend revamping your screening process to ask questions that explore one’s commitment to inclusion, ask candidates to commit to using appropriate language, teaching, and management strategies, and spending a few minutes observing candidates with youth before making a job offer.

Need more resources? Check out these planning tools from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Racial Equity Tools as a start.

 *Note: this is an excerpt of a longer article with additional research and resources cited. Stay tuned for the full paper, expected to be published this fall.