Youth Development: Why it is just as important as Early Learning


teenagerFor the past few months, I’ve been thinking. Mainly about a Broadway show highlighting nonprofit work, called “501c3, the Musical.” It’ll be awesome, and I’ve starting coming up with titles and lyrics for potential songs, for examples “Another Evening in the Office” and “I Should Have Listened to Ms. Cleo.” (Hit me up if you have any connections to Broadway producers).

But I’ve also been thinking about the youth development field. Specifically about the difficulties of seeking funding for direct service youth programs as more and more funders shift their focus to collective impact efforts and early learning programs. It is the nature of the work that the funding tides shift back and forth from one worthy concept to another. But still, it has been frustrating and discouraging, and I don’t think I am the only youth development professional who feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, fighting constantly to save programs that serve youth, to convince funders that our society’s well-being depends on our having strong services along the entire continuum of our kids’ journey from birth to adulthood.

Two years ago, I served on the Families and Education Levy advisory committee, which was determining how to allocate the $232 million in funding that we would be asking of Seattle voters. The early learning advocates were organized, providing impressive data on return on investment, showing that a dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs could yield an eight or ten-fold return to society. They had convincing research results on brain development and a compelling argument that an ounce of prevention was so much better than a pound of cure.

No one in their right mind would argue against the importance of early learning, and now that I have a kid, I appreciate it even more. What is alarming, though, is that we have started moving into this zero-sum mentality of funding and programming. I remember during one Levy meeting when someone said, “We don’t have much funding, and if we spread it around too much, it won’t be very effective. I propose we invest all of the funds in early learning.” Several others agreed, and I probably pissed off a few people by opposing that idea, saying that we have to support kids at all points of their lives.

Youth Development, as a field, has many weaknesses. First, the term “Youth Development” is confusing. When we hear “Early Learning,” we instinctively have an image of what that is. It is easy to understand: Children, learning early, and thus getting a head start in life. “Youth Development” meanwhile, what the hell is that? It sounds like we’re trying to reverse aging. What’s the definition of youth? And developing what? What are we trying to develop our youth into?

Second, the field itself is nebulous and disorganized. “Youth Development” encompasses so many things: mentorship, tutoring, extended learning, leadership, arts, sports, media, mental health counseling, identity formation, environmental stewardship, career exploration and job searching, etc. Because the field is so broad, we have only started to pin down our common goals, compelling research, key messages, outcomes, evaluation tools, etc. In fact, Youth Development, as a field, is similar to the lanky, awkward, potential-filled youth that we serve. We are trying to find our identity and our place in the world. We have made great progress working together though organizations like Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC), whose board I am on. Still, we are behind and are playing catch up with other much more well-organized fields.

Third, it sounds crass, but let’s face it, babies and small children are much cuter than the pimply-faced and cranky older kids and adults they grow up to be. Just thinking back on what I was like as a teenager, with the braces and the severe acne and the constant sullenness, I can see why it is just easier to invest in the little kids, with their big adorable eyes, innocence, and endless curiosity. (I still have severe acne, but at least most of it is masked by wrinkles). We are programmed to protect our young, and when we have compelling research on brain development and return on investments, funding early learning programs is a sexy no-brainer.

But we must have a balanced approach. Despite all the weaknesses of the youth development field, or because of them, it is more important than ever to invest in youth programs. Just because we, the adults, have not been the best at organizing ourselves and our work and coming up with a more compelling name than “youth development,” it doesn’t mean our kids should be punished.

But that’s what’s been happening. An Executive Director colleague told me last week several hundred thousand dollars in grant funding was moved from her organization’s youth program to fund early learning. Across the board I hear of more and more youth programs being cut. It is depressing. This approach is discouraging, and it is counterproductive. Usually the first programs we cut are programs that kids love–like art, sports, nature exploration–programs that keep them motivated to learn and to remain in school. We MUST support youth programs as strongly as we support early learning programs, for several reasons.

First, kids get older. They will soon grow out of early learning programs, and life only gets more and more complicated. They may now face bullying, identity issues, clashes with their parents, academic challenges, hormones, discrimination, finding a sense of belonging, comprehending the nature of the world and why awful things happen to good people on the news, and multiple other stuff, usually in a single day. All the gains kids make early on in their lives through great early learning programs will likely fade unless we continue to support them through these turbulent years.

Second, many kids do not have the opportunity to benefit from early learning programs. Many of our struggling kids are immigrants and refugees who arrive to the US when they are older, bypassing early learning programs. The ones who arrive after the age of 12 face the greatest challenges, dealing with the above barriers while also experiencing language problems, cultural adjustment, and parents who work several jobs and are never around and who are also struggling themselves. We cut programs that support these older kids, and we wonder why they keep disproportionately failing in school or ending up in the criminal justice system.

Third, the return on investment for youth programs is just as high as for early learning programs. As this analysis shows, an investment of $1 in youth leads to a benefit to society of $10.51, assuming that the program helps the youth to graduate from high school and get a job and pay taxes and stuff. This doesn’t even yet account for the savings we’ll get by not having the kid going to jail and costing tax payers tons of money in dealing with crimes, etc. Yeah, the analysis is not perfect, but it is a good start. We youth development workers just suck at communicating these types of messages.

I know we’ve been talking about making the choice between prevention and cure. But for a second, let’s stop talking about our children as if they are diseases. Instead, let’s agree that all our kids deserve a good start to their lives, and that’s why we should invest in early learning. High-quality early learning programs are critical to our kids’ success.

But as children grow, things get more complex and more challenging, so in addition to a good start to their lives, they need a good adolescence, and a good bridge to their careers, and that’s why we must all invest in youth programs. With everything that our kids face every day, trying to grow and learn and understand themselves and get along with their friends and family and graduate from high school and take care of their acne problem and apply to college and find a job in this challenging economy, it is more critical than ever that all of us—early learning advocates, youth development advocates, collective impact advocates, funders, policy makers—work together to support our kids throughout their ENTIRE journey from birth to adulthood.

  • OK, you have convinced me. Where should I invest my local youth dollars in Seattle? I’m taking names!!

    • Vu

      Thanks, Nancy. There are lots of great youth organizations. Here’s a few of them: I recommend investing in the smaller organizations, since they face more challenges in funding. Art organizations, too. My organization, VFA, also does a bunch of cool stuff with kids. For example, on Saturday mornings, we have 150 older kids who just arrived to the US from all over the world, learning English and math and leadership for 3 hours. It’s over for the year for now, but we are having summer programs to serve the same kids. Kids lose a lot over the summer.

      • Thanks, Vu. Reviewing the list also reminded me how easy it is to be out of touch with the range of groups working with youth. I used to work locally, now I work in international development (and no, not for a giant funder) and it is shocking how fast one loses touch. Thanks. I’ll add a few more names to my share out list. (I’m working on reconnecting locally). So far in terms of youth, I had only been giving to the Seattle Youth Garden as I have been a fan of theirs for years. As I pass the “mid fifties” I’m trying support young talent in the locations I work in overseas (the travel takes a toll) so they don’t need to hire me any more. Then I’ll have to keep busy locally!

    • Vu

      Nancy, let me know when you’re back locally, and I’ll buy you a drink 🙂

  • I feel blessed to work in a program that combines youth development and early learning. I work for Youth East Services in Bellevue for a program called Healthy Start. Family Support Specialists or trained parent mentors visit parents, age 22 or younger, to help them understand their child’s development, and prepare them for kindergarten. We also help parents access community resources and and set and achieve goals that that lead toward independence. If you’ve interested in being a mentor, call Karen Wherlock at 425.747.4937.

    • Vu

      Thank you, Karen. They sound like great and interconnected programs, which we need more of.