A new perspective on at-risk youth

Positive youth development and violence prevention research

Maria Bjørdal | Jun 13, 2006

Photo by Alice Pasqual

Youth at risk.

As a youth worker, the usual suspects come to mind: Lina, whose single mom is forced to leave Lina and her two younger brothers to fend for themselves while she works 12-hour days to almost keep the rent paid. Randy, whose juvenile court record is as thick as a phone book, while his grandmother feels helpless to make a difference as his legal guardian. You’ve got your own suspects, and they probably popped into your mind immediately when you saw this article.

But what does it mean to be “at risk”?

The term “youth at risk” is usually applied to kids who lack the necessary support for normal adolescent development. They experience barriers that prevent them from meeting the educational, economic, or social expectations of their community due to issues like poverty, minority status, and lack of family support. [This definition provided by Dr. Sofia Herrera Maldonado.] However, while some would label at-risk youth as coming only from disadvantaged communities and distressed neighborhoods, or as experiencing particular difficulties in their families, those involved in the Positive Youth Development movement avoid or denounce this designation. They seek to turn the labels around in the world of adolescent research and development by asking, “Is using risk terminology really a fitting approach to working with ‘at-risk’ youth?”

The mission of the Fuller Youth Initiative for Positive Youth Development and Violence Prevention [The Initiative was established in 2002 by Fuller Theological Seminary and funded by a federal grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.] was to identify intervention strategies for community use. In the past, youth violence prevention has come mostly from a deficit mindset focusing on risks and behavioral problems. In contrast, Fuller’s emphasis stems from a Positive Youth Development (PYD) model. Rather than focusing on risk factors and dangers, recent research applies new categories in order to put the spotlight on the opportunities and resources youth have available to them.

Recently I had a conversation with Fuller research faculty members Dr. Sofia Herrera Maldonado, the Research/Program Evaluation Coordinator, and Dr. Jim Furrow, Professor of Marital and Family Therapy, about this research, seeking to reap some of the early fruits of their study for youth workers. As the project is still very much in progress, there are questions that cannot be answered yet. Nevertheless, this conversation with Sofia and Jim is the beginning of FYI’s application of the findings to the way we care for at-risk kids in our communities and ministries.

Sofia, what’s the Positive Youth Development approach, and how can youth workers benefit from PYD?

PYD is a model that can easily be applied to youth ministry. A Positive Youth Development approach places a special emphasis on promoting developmental resources or assets in the lives of youth. The term “developmental resources or assets” refers to experiences and supports for youth that enable them to become successful adults. In this model it is also important to recognize the role of resources and opportunities. Youth need not only to have access to resources, but they also need to have the opportunities to develop their sense of self, skills and abilities, as well as their talents or gifts. [For more information on developmental assets, visit the Search Institute.]

PYD is different from other approaches because it focuses mainly on the potential of youth. This is a new paradigm. Other approaches focus mainly on “what’s wrong with youth,” and how to extinguish these behaviors. But PYD places a special emphasis on the promotion of students’ strengths. When I think about some developmental resources that can be promoted in the church, I am thinking primarily about adults investing in young peoples’ lives in the form of mentoring, being connected to good role models, and that they have opportunities for involvement in meaningful activities that will develop their capacity for leadership.

Jim, can you tell us about the method you’ve used to study youth and violence?

We are using community-based random phone surveys to assess youth-reported risk, resources, and thriving in three particular Los Angeles communities: Pasadena, Compton and South Los Angeles, two of which would be considered high-risk and low-resource communities, with another community that is seen as having a high level of community resources and yet high levels of risk behaviors based on juvenile crime records. Further, we are examining archival records to learn about the community resources like the number of churches, libraries, parks, and school rankings to assess community-based assets.

In each of the three communities, we are conducting in-depth interviews with youth nominated for their exemplary caring behavior. These “prosocial exemplars” from higher-risk neighborhoods provide us insight into the role of developmental resources in promoting the successful development of these young people. We are also conducting the same face-to-face interviews with youth who are in court diversion programs or alternative high schools. Each of these youth has committed an offense that resulted in their placement in one of these special programs. Finally, we are conducting program evaluations with a select number of violence prevention programs located in each community.

From the study so far, Jim, what are the most significant findings for youth workers?

One of the things we are learning in interviewing various youth programs is that having a clear mission statement that informs specific practices that are effective is foreign to many programs. We’ve encountered youth workers who are so busy trying to meet the real needs of real kids that they don’t have time to step back and ask some basic questions: “Where are we going? Where will we be in 5 years? How do we make sure we meet our goal?” So, we’ve done some evaluations, not just of whether the program is working or not. But asking questions like, “What are the program goals? Are they clear?”

In doing these interviews we are asking about assumptions that the organizations are making. Do they see their job as a “safety net” trying to keep kids safe and protect kids from risks that are in their environment? Or do they see their primary goal as promoting specific resources in the lives of youth that enable them to succeed? One is more of a deficit mindset: Adolescence is a difficult time and we help kids manage and get through. The other views adolescence as a time when kids are putting together the way they view the world. And it’s such a great opportunity to gather the resources in the community, schools, and church. Together we can ask, “How do we get behind them and support them?”

So, Jim, if I’m a youth worker with a bare minimum of awareness of youth violence, what are some first steps of action for me?

The first question is: What is my mission? The second question is: Given my mission, how much will my work focus on youth violence? Given that, how am I going to respond to the violence in our community? How much youth violence exists in our community and neighborhood? Am I going to respond to it through my own programs, or in partnership with the school or the police? Say I’m a youth minister in a church that has youth violence issues or gang activity coming into my neighborhood. How are we as a church going to respond? And how will we respond together with the community? When we think of developmental resources, we think of them existing at several levels: the family level, the school level, and the community level. And the church level spans all of these levels. That gives the church tremendous opportunities.

What are some of these opportunities?

I remember a conversation with a pastor who got a call from a school counselor about his youth program. The school counselor didn’t happen to be a person of faith, but he believed that the church’s program was the best thing going on for at-risk youth in the community. Too often the church sees itself as isolated and does not consider how its programs are connected to the community. The reality is, those connections expand the church’s opportunities to make a difference within the community as a resource for a diversity of youth.

Wherever you are, you have to understand how ministry takes place in your context. What are the unique resources in your context? This is one of the lessons Sofia is learning as she drives the streets of South L.A. and Compton trying to identify these programs that are reaching out to youth. They are only known by the immediate community. Often they are born as responses by community members to some tragedy who say, “I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to make the place safer for the kids.”

Sofia, where do you see opportunities for the church to reach out to those labeled as at-risk youth?

The church is in a very unique position to reach out to these youth. In inner-city settings, the church may have the facilities and the personnel that no one else has available to reach out to youth in creative and meaningful ways. I know a priest at an Episcopal Church who works with youth and has created a vibrant and alive youth ministry. Through his work, this priest has been able to provide a place where youth have opportunities for spiritual development through relationships and informal mentoring. At the same time, the priest has successfully fostered a sense of service as an expression of the youth’s faith.

He identifies activities that are meaningful and that entice them to contribute to the local community. These youth have become known in the community for their service to others and for their caring attitude. For example, the youth made trips to a local home for the elderly to spend time with the residents. Others participated in a marathon for a special cause, others organized and participated in talent shows within the church, and all of them visit their local council member’s office once a year. This inner-city parish has had to deal with all kinds of safety issues in the community, like drive-by shootings. The youth group’s facilities and the support of the priest and church staff have allowed the church building to be a safe haven, where the youth feel welcomed and where they can drop in at almost any time.

Given our research, we’d love to see other ministries around the country do what this priest and others are doing. Instead of viewing at-risk kids as people to whom we minister, all kids–even kids at risk–have assets and resources that can be used to serve others.

Action Points:

  • What do you think makes a student at risk? Is there such a thing in our culture as a kid who is NOT at risk?
  • What are you doing to respond to the kids in your community who are affected by violence? How do you see God working in the midst of that part of your ministry? What do you wish was different?
  • What do you think of the perspective of Positive Youth Development that focuses on the assets and resources that ALL kids have, regardless of risk level? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? How would your ministry look differently if you, your adult team, and your entire church viewed kids through “glass half full” lenses instead of “glass half empty” lenses?
  • What is your mission statement? How are your practices in youth ministry connected to your mission statement? Is there any way to measure? If not, should your mission statement be revised to make assessment more possible?
  • At a recent Urban Youth Worker’s Institute conference, keynote speaker Lina Thompson declared that the moment we become Christians, we’re at-risk Pharisees. Is using risk terminology a fitting approach to working with “at-risk” youth? What other categories need to be included when we think about risk (ie, risks associated with kids from wealthy families, risk of cultural abandonment, risk of purposelessness, risk of religious pluralism, etc.)? What are the advantages of shifting our language to focus on assets instead of risks?
Maria Bjørdal
Maria Bjørdal is a former FYI staff member, and is pursuing a Master of Divinity with a concentration in Youth, Family, and Culture from Fuller Seminary. She lives back and forth between Pasadena and Oslo, Norway, where she works with an urban youth ministry she helped found in 2000. Maria holds a B.A. in theology from the Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology and Political Science from the University of Oslo. While in Norway, Maria also works for the Norwegian Lutheran Seminary in the bachelor's program in Youth, Faith and Culture.

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