Responding to the Student’s Dream: Lessons Learned from Positive Youth Developers in New Mexico
posted on March 29, 2017 by Laurel Meister
“I envision a future where equity is a real thing, where youth leadership is a normal part of society and it’s accessible… Everyone has a right to consume and produce media, to tell their own story, to make a change in their community.” – Christina Rodriguez
Christina Rodriguez, 23, has been a student fellow with the youth media organization Generation Justice for three years. The program gives students of color opportunities for their voices to be heard through radio and news outlets, and though Rodriguez certainly cannot speak for all students, her voice was clear and confident when she expressed her dream for youth leadership to be equitable, normal, and accessible.
Organizations throughout New Mexico answer calls like Rodriguez’s through positive youth development, or PYD. As the name suggests, PYD focuses on truly understanding the developmental process and treating youth positively, but in our diverse, impoverished state it has more to do with providing the youth the resources and tools they need to succeed. Through conversations with eight leaders in positive youth development, I learned about some of the creative ways in which organizations provide support for young people, but I was surprised at our community’s lack of imagination when it comes to schools practicing PYD.
You have some incredibly competent people by the time they’re seventeen, and they’re just kind of schlepping away, looking at their watch wondering how much longer till graduation, when they could be doing things—really meaningful things in the school and community.
Several youth developers expressed the concern that current school restrictions limit schools’ ability to serve individuals, while others feared that the charter schools currently practicing PYD privatize the financial resources with which traditional schools could serve a larger student population. Schools have the greatest untapped potential for delivering positive youth development and responding to visions like Rodriguez’s, if they only adopt nonprofits’ ingenuity and zest.
The topic Rodriguez regarded most passionately during our interview was the expression of youth opinion, an opportunity she enjoys with Generation Justice media projects. In the community, listening to youth voices is a matter of encouraging youth performance and creating chances for youth and adults to collaborate. Dr. Shelle VanEtten de Sanchez, whose past work with the Hispanic Cultural Center summer learning institutes encourages student-mentor performance art, noted, “You have some incredibly competent people by the time they’re seventeen, and they’re just kind of schlepping away, looking at their watch wondering how much longer till graduation, when they could be doing things—really meaningful things in the school and community.”
Another of Rodriguez’s concerns was that “A lot of our schools don’t seem to recognize the variety of students and what students need. There’s not a one-size-fits-all option.” Racial prejudice, economic variety, family circumstances and disabilities keep certain students from succeeding in the traditional systems. For instance, Jade Richardson Bock with the Children’s Grief Network described how students who have lost a loved one often have difficulty finding safe spaces on campus or friends who can understand their unique circumstances. Other organizations confront the institutionalized racism that sets students of color apart from their peers. The schools in the Center use hefty student support programs and nontraditional—ie: rigorous but way more fun—pathways to graduation in hopes of capturing those whom traditional schools serve poorly.
Listening to youth voices gives youth a say in their education and outside of school. The New Mexico Center for School Leadership cluster aims to do just that. Designed around student and community recommendations, these charter schools encourage ongoing community engagement through service learning projects that get students out of the classroom. Schools that connect students with community amplify youth voices so that they resonate in the adult world. In the coming weeks, you will hear from a variety of youth developers in our community. Read what they have to say and listen to their wisdom to learn how we can better respond to Christina’s dream.