Cultivating an ecosystem for youth development – Part 2 – Advancing Leaderly Capacities

Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University

In my last blog, I discussed the cultivation of ecosystems for youth development. I highlighted the importance of interconnected change mechanisms, the role of feedback loops, and how change mechanisms can work together to foster capabilities in young people.

Today’s post outlines the capabilities advanced in this ecosystem, and expands on the evidence related to how positive changes occurred in participants. I left off describing a concept that I call “leaderliness”. The concept is derived from evidence in my research at Grow Dat Youth Farm (GDYF), where youth work and learn leadership skills through the meaningful work of growing food on an urban farm.

In considering the capabilities youth were developing, I came to understand leaderliness as the fundamental, foundational capabilities that youth require to grow higher-level “soft” and “hard” skills. In Paul Tough’s recent work on How Children Succeed, he outlines core non-cognitive skills (or “soft skills”) such as grit, curiosity, perseverance, self-confidence, self-control, etc. From Tough’s work and others, it is evident that these skills are critical to the success of young people, and the value derived from acquiring them early in life is critical to later success.

In my work, the data determined that youth leadership development on the farm was focused very much on the advancement of similar capabilities. Because GDYF harnesses the value of diversity, leadership development took on many different versions. The evidence showed the value of the ecosystem approach was in its ability to offer something for everyone with a common focus around developing growth in leaderliness.

So what is leaderliness and why is there a need for a new language to capture these skills? Leaderliness represents the basic, foundational capabilities that advance leadership and enable growth in other capacities. These are almost softer than soft skills that promote advancement in other higher order abilities.

On the Grow Dat Farm, leaderliness in a participant represented:

  • The ability to “open up” and feel comfortable engaging with people I don’t know.
  • Acknowledging my personal tendency to either “step up” and be the first one to speak in a group setting even though     I am afraid, or learning to “step back” and allow others to come forward and lead if I am usually the first to speak.
  • Learning to overcome a challenge and realizing my ability to alter behavior and advance personal self-efficacy.
  • Delivering positive and negative feedback in a professional setting in Real Talk to grow my interpersonal abilities.
  • Interacting with peers and adults in the real, meaningful work in a structured, positive environment.
  • Understanding how my effort, contribution, and active participation in the work matters in collectively accomplishing        the goals of the program to provide greater fresh food for our community.
  • Witnessing how my professionalism, commitment, and hard work in the job will impact our team and mission.

The ecosystems approach reflects that these leaderly capabilities are reinforcing, and feed into the advancement of other capacities. For example, youth all require self-confidence in their abilities to participate and speak in front of peers, and grow self-efficacy. Thus as confidence grew, we could see improvements in other outcomes.

And as the leaderly capacities grew in participants, the process for creating change within the ecosystem was revealed. The key change mechanisms worked across the program to guide youth toward desired leaderly outcomes. Advancement of capabilities was an iterative process within the interconnected systems. This was generated through the key change mechanisms of Real Talk, Real Work, and Real Accountability. Here are some examples of what the change process looked like that led to leaderly outcomes:

  • Hearing a single, positive phrase in Real Talk such as “you are supporting your team a lot in the work in the fields”         over and over encouraged youth to recognize the value youth brought to the work,
  • Receiving encouragement to improve “your professionalism by getting to work on time” through a Real Talk Delta,
  • Seeing the effects of personal behavior and the inability to follow the standards in the work environment resulting in a     pay deduction,
  • Gaining an opportunity to earn back lost pay by correcting behavior,
  • Interacting with a peer or caring adult through Real Work, and
  • Witnessing how your contributions help advance the goals of the program and hearing about it from a trusted adult.

What this demonstrates is that consistency and small things, though at times overlooked, really matter within youth development programs to promote positive change. Programs can be designed like ecosystems to reinforce the various change mechanisms to direct youth toward the desired outcomes.

Change in young people is often times unpredictable and requires iterative, reinforcing systems to respond to the diverse, unique individuals we work with. Young people often require multiple opportunities to understand how to adjust to professional environments, build capacities, and learn what it takes to succeed in life and work. Change in these settings is not linear. It takes time, real relationships between people, and a setting that allows youth to fail and explore who they are.

Youth are diverse and therefore require dynamic systems that respond to their unique personalities and needs. As the world grows more complex, it is even more necessary to create ecosystems that reinforce the kinds of changes we want to see.

Author Bio: Joshua Schoop is a Social Innovation Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University. Joshua studies ecosystems to foster youth development and entrepreneurship. He completed his PhD at the Payson Center for International Development in 2014. This blog post discusses Dr. Schoop’s recent research that investigated the inner workings of an innovative urban youth leadership program.

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