What it takes to make Meaningful Connections

Outside of the social services sector when the term ‘youth engagement’ is used a standard picture comes to mind.  It usually involves an older person speaking to, or mentoring a troubled teenager.  Hollywood would normally add during the engagement the youth listens attentively, follows through accordingly and everything works itself out.  The youth in the movie almost always goes on to post-secondary school becomes successful in their adult life and lives happily ever after.  However people working within youth sectors and understanding today’s challenges of meaningful youth engagement can confer that it’s not at all what Hollywood depicts.

Everyone has a story and when the trust factor is established they will tell it

Meaningful youth engagement far exceeds just conversation, it demands initially establishing rapport and thereafter relationship.   Anyone who works with people especially those in need know that most people don’t open up like a book due to a myriad of factors.  Take into consideration what it would take for ourselves to disclose anything remotely confidential to a stranger.  It’s most likely not going to happen based on the obvious; trust hasn’t been established.  Trust is multi-layered, takes time to build and is earned. Without forming a sense of trust the level of conversation won’t likely go beyond surface.  Hence the first step of building trust to begin rapport is opening up a two way conversation that is of interest to the youth.  My company’s methodology is to commence with finding the common denominators between youth and ourselves.   We start the engagement process by sharing our own unique stories which thereafter leads into conveying our Interests, Skill Sets and Personality Traits. Synergy changes when people find out that they have something in common or similarities in experience.

Finding that balance

Actively listening in any conversation is a challenge, however doing so with a youth you are getting to know so not to come off as over bearing or as interrogating is a skill.  Also being cognizant that conversation is a two way street and the worker/youth boundaries adds yet another layer of reality. Balance balance balance is the name of the game.

Yeah mon I comprehende!

Speaking and understanding the language of the community can be literal or figurative.  Whether engaging newcomers who speak Farsi, Amharic, Somali, Spanish, French or Russian etc being able to communicate in the language spoken by the individual is key to supporting them. In the event you can’t speak a second language having resources that can communicate effectively essentially builds trusts and services the young person better.  From the figurative perspective, understanding the ‘language of the community’ is key if you are to relate and get it.  Many members of communities impacted by marginalization speak to each other in what some would term slang or dialects of English. Understanding the code of the streets in communities which youth service providers serve is tantamount. In my experience I’ve witnessed several organizations hiring staff that doesn’t get it.  Youth service providers must pose a question to themselves; is it a service or disservice by not reflecting the people you serve in the staffing model.

The little things that matter

It is critical that while building relationships with youth we exercise being non-judgemental and that we continue to build esteem, confidence throughout ongoing conversation.  Practices like following up on a non-scheduled basis, doing home work to provide people with options,  conducting outreach by getting out of the comfort of the office and going into the community ,getting to know the employers, training facilities, schools, etc all go a long way when working to meaningfully engage youth.

Holding youth accountable when they mess up

Far too often service providers are the only support system youth have to turn.  That being said staff must be empathetic while keeping youth accountable.  This means calling youth out when they haven’t lived up to their potential and doing it in a manner whereby they save face and learn from their experience.

Accessing the right supports

Being cognizant of the resources out there so you can make adequate referrals entails being a master of networking in the sector that you are supporting.

Empowering the youth to set objectives that lead to accomplishing their goals. 

Taking small steps amounts to big moves. Commenting to youth about the change you observe is a key esteem builder.  Where youth have demonstrated they have taken on change e.g. passing classes, graduating, staying out of trouble etc., encourage them to feel good about themselves and continue their efforts.

More food for thought

Are your programs representative of the communities needs you serve?

What are the youth`s and marginalized communities main concerns

Some of the real Challenges: time constraints, work quotas to be met,  the realities of post-traumatic stress, youth unemployment, old habits being hard to break, addictions and some people not wanting to change.

Raising the bar with Roderick