Youth Programs Help to Develop Decisionmakers

PROGRAMS for disadvantaged youths are offering more opportunities for kids to actively think for themselves, say social-policy experts. This new emphasis on empowerment gives young people a chance to take part in group decisionmaking, learn about their local communities, and take on leadership roles in these activities.

Empowering young people in youth programs similar to YouthBuild "is giving youths more control over the actual content and process that the program uses," says Andrew Hahn, who is associate dean of the Heller Graduate School for Social Policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

"Rather than think of youths as passive clients in a youth program," he says, "the young people actively steer the activities of the program. And they decide, you know, `We don't want to renovate this park, and we do want to renovate this one.' "

This shift in youth programming is a phenomenon of the '90s, says Mr. Hahn. During the '60s, he says, youth programs offered leadership opportunities but they often contained little substance.

"Kids were running around taking control but not learning anything, with no adult supervision," he says.

During the '70s and '80s, programs were heavily specialized and supervised by adults and professionals, says Hahn. Now there is an emphasis on combining the best of youth programs for content as well as including empowerment opportunities.

Teaching disadvantaged youths to be more independent-minded helps inspire them to break out of the poverty cycle, says Karen Pittman, vice president of the Academy for Educational Development, a nonprofit consulting organization in Washington, D.C.

"It's more than just coming in and offering a person job training," Ms. Pittman says.

"That young person has to be prepared not just for skills but for a different frame [of mind] that really calls for being different from people around them.

"One of the things that seems to be characteristic of young people who do make it is that they have that sense of purpose and that sense of independence," she says.

Learning about a community - or a culture - is another key element in the empowerment process in these programs.

For example, programs may teach youths about their own neighborhood, or require them to write about or interview neighborhood elders about community problems. In addition, minority youths may be taught about African-American history or Latino culture.

"It makes young people realize they are part of a people, part of a living, breathing community," says Hahn.

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