K-12 education in the U.S. is designed to transmit to our young people the knowledge and skills that our society deems important. Community-based youth development programs are often designed to teach knowledge and skills that are not addressed in school, and sometimes to give young people experiences that take them out of their neighborhoods into the wider world. But knowledge and skill development are still the goals. But if one of our larger social goals is to expand opportunity rather than perpetuating inequality, schools and community-based youth development programs must focus more explicitly on helping young people build their social networks.
Even if a young person’s only interaction with their parents’ friends and colleagues is social—through church, their parents’ parties, or running into one another at the grocery store, for example—these interactions provide opportunities for the children of successful parents to observe and interact with other successful adults. These interactions, coupled with the role modeling their parents do, help children learn how successful people communicate, what topics they are interested in, what they do for a living and how they became successful. Over time, these interactions help young people learn about opportunities that are available to them, and they learn how to communicate in ways that successful adults understand and appreciate. Successful adults, with their wide social and professional networks, can help their own children and those of their friends and colleagues to make their own connections and take advantage of opportunities that less advantaged youth rarely hear about. As these lucky young people grow older, they are more likely than their working-class peers to be exposed to conversations about politics and decision-making. They learn how to advocate for their own needs and those of their communities, and they develop their own networks of influence.
Poor or working class youth may work hard in school and participate in local youth development programs, including job training programs, but they do not have the day-to-day access to the world of successful adults—and the opportunities that such access affords—that their middle-class and upper-middle-class peers have. In schools, for example, the main role models are teachers. While teachers may have wide social networks, the structure of the school day and the nature of the teacher-student relationship rarely provide students with access to these networks. Youth-serving programs in the community may provide more access to adult role models, especially those programs that offer internships, vocational training or community service opportunities. But these programs still do not provide the sheer quantity of opportunities for interaction and relationship building that are available to the children of well-connected parents virtually every day.
Communities, however, can provide more opportunities for young people to develop such networks. To do this, schools and community-based organizations must make network development an explicit part of their mission.
Education and youth development in the U.S. is based on the meritocratic ideal that if young people are provided with knowledge and skills, they will develop their own networks—that hard work and persistence can compensate for economic and social disadvantage. The ability to develop networks can certainly be learned, but it is difficult for many youth, no matter how well they network, to identify access points to the networks they need. So it is important for schools and youth service providers to provide those access points. This means bringing young people together with community leaders and other successful adults whenever possible, and focusing explicitly on cultivating meaningful relationships between youth and successful adults.
Many schools and community-based organizations maintain intergenerational mentoring and volunteer programs. Such programs are clearly valuable to young people with few role models. But often the adults who are part of these initiatives are retired, and no longer in a position to provide access to decision-makers and community leaders. In addition, such programs do not often challenge the participants to work together to solve problems outside of the classroom.
Service-learning, of course, provides one way to cultivate intergenerational relationships and address community challenges. But service-learning is often a one-off experience, designed by a teacher with little student input, and resulting in little lasting change.
A better way for communities to connect disadvantaged youth with influential adults is to create opportunities for young people to participate together with adults in decision-making within youth-serving organizations, schools and the wider community. When young people are invited to participate in decisions that have consequences for others—their communities, their friends and parents—they take the opportunity seriously, and they work hard to do a good job. When they do this with adults, they learn how decisions are made, they are exposed to influential role models and they have the opportunity to demonstrate to adults outside their immediate social circle their competence and their ability to contribute. In this way they are able to expand their own networks and strengthen their ability to advocate for changes that benefit their communities.
In real life this can mean adding students to school boards or nonprofit boards of directors, inviting youth to participate in developing a community’s strategic plan. It can mean helping youth develop a survey and bringing them together with adults to analyze the findings and develop recommendations. One real-life example of this is a program in the United Kingdom called Young Advisors, which trains disadvantaged youth aged 15-21 to act as youth engagement consultants. Young Advisors evaluate youth services, train adults or provide assistance with youth outreach strategies, serve as ad hoc youth advisory groups, consult with other youth on the development of public spaces, etc.
There are a variety of ways to engage young people in decision-making, and the reasons for doing so include enhancing their skills and knowledge of how communities work. But knowledge and skills are not enough to help disadvantaged youth escape the cycle of inequality. We must provide opportunities for them to work in meaningful ways with adults outside their existing networks, and we must guide them to such opportunities. This will not happen automatically. It will also not be easy, because as adults we have been conditioned to see youth development as the responsibility of schools and youth service providers. We have to start seeing it as a shared responsibility.