Cultivating an ecosystem for youth development

Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University

Importance of the Environment to Cultivate Change in Young People.

The challenges of global youth employment are well documented (ILO, 2013). It is clear that youth around the globe without meaningful opportunities are much more likely to pursue a life of crime (Chi et al, 2013), terrorism (The Economist), and other risky behavior. A recent study of a youth summer jobs program in Chicago, for example, supports this thinking, reinforcing the popular proclamation that “nothing stops a bullet like a job” (“Curb crime”).

Young people today require opportunities and capabilities to succeed and navigate a complex world. Trends in international development have shifted toward job creation through various “social innovations” to tackle the youth bulge and complications posed by the global youth employment crisis. Social entrepreneurs, policymakers, and development practitioners look to create and increase opportunities for youth by building entrepreneurship, business acumen, and other “hard skills” through education and technical training. Additionally, studies continue to demonstrate the correlation between success for young people and specific “soft skills” often gained during critical developmental periods of life, leaving many problem-solvers looking to craft meaningful programming that fosters both of these critical capabilities.

While education and skills are critical components for youth to capitalize on the opportunity landscape, less is known about the types of environments that are required to cultivate these capabilities.

An Ecosystems Approach to Youth Development

In my research, I investigated how organizations focused on youth development can build environments, or “ecosystems”, to promote capabilities in young people. To address this question, I conducted a mixed methods case study of “Grow Dat Youth Farm” in New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States.

Grow Dat Youth Farm (GDYF) is a social enterprise utilizing urban farming to advance youth leadership. The program pays urban high school students to work on a farm for six months. GDYF operates on a values-based curriculum with the mission of nurturing a diverse group of young leaders through the meaningful work of growing food. Youth are hired from a spectrum of backgrounds and situations, bringing together various genders, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds around the common goal of growing sustainable food. Sixty percent (60%) of what is grown is sold, while the remaining 40% is donated to the community aiming to increase local access to fresh produce.

Drawing on complexity thinking and the “pathways approach”, I viewed the farm, program, and participants as an interconnected “ecosystem”. Through this lens, I captured how and what cultivated change in the young people in the program. Complexity thinking views the organization as a system, where “feedback loops” and interdependent elements and mechanisms work together to cultivate change in the participants. The changes youth were experiencing were valued using Sen’s Capabilities Approach.

Building Change Mechanisms

Through the complexity lens the ecosystem consisted of three main “change mechanisms”:

  • “Real Talk”,
  • “Real Work”, and
  • “Real Accountability.”

These change mechanisms worked together with other elements of the program to cultivate capabilities in the participants.

“Real Work” is defined as the actual work youth engaged in planting, weeding, harvesting, and selling the produce. The work was conducted in crews of roughly 10 participants led by an adult “Crew Leader,” junior staff and program alum as an “Assistant Crew Leader”. Through manual labor, youth built relationships and learned to engage with the people and environment around them, fostering key interpersonal and communications skills.

The Real Work acted as a platform for the other two change mechanisms to feed off. To advance change, Crew Leaders had to interact and learn about areas for growth for each young person by watching them interact with peers in the work. In learning about the young people and building relationships, Crew Leaders were able to guide participants toward desired changes through Real Talk and Real Accountability.

Real Talk is an open communication platform where youth deliver and receive feedback related to their performance in the work place. Real Talk is conducted every two-weeks on payday Saturdays. Youth receive their paycheck and learn about areas they are doing well (Positives) and areas they need to improve (Deltas). Over time, Crew Leaders consistently utilize this tool to build youth confidence by recognizing positive contributions to the work, and guide youth toward areas where they can continue to advance.

Real Talk is reinforced through other change mechanisms revealed through the ecosystem approach, namely the incentives-based “carrot and stick approach”, called Real Accountability. GDYF is built on standards that are tied to the values the organization is pushing youth towards. Standards such as professionalism, hard work, commitment, respect, and integrity are tied to specific indicators and behaviors that the organization expects youth to demonstrate on the farm.

For example, Professionalism is tied to:

  • “showing up on time”;
  • “wearing your work clothes”; and
  • “calling if you will arrive late”

If youth are in violation of one of these indicators, they receive a warning in the Professionalism category. A second violation earns a small pay deduction from their paycheck. For example, if “Robert” arrives late on Thursday and again on Saturday, he receives a warning and a $10 pay deduction from his paycheck. As with Real Talk, Violations are tied to the two-week pay cycle. Thus, Robert would receive $10 less on his next check.

During those two-weeks, Robert also receives encouragement through the other change mechanisms. For example, Robert will be reminded in Real Talk to communicate with the staff if he is to arrive late. Thus, the mechanisms function through feedback loops as an interconnected and reinforcing ecosystem.

The ecosystem approach demonstrates how organizations can utilize change mechanisms to build capabilities in youth. Small, iterative encouragements rooted in standards overtime guided Robert and other youth toward what I came to call “leaderly” changes. These leaderly capabilities are fundamental capacities – softer than soft skills - that are linked to the development of more advanced hard and soft skills.

This posting is the first in a series of blogs by Dr. Schoop. The next blog will focus on the “leaderly” changes youth experienced as a result of participation at Grow Dat Youth Farm. For more information on this work, Dr. Schoop can be reached at [email protected].