Now, if you’d asked me to list the benefits of youth development and peer leadership I could have rambled on all day.  It’s where my career began and I hope I never have to go a year without working in some capacity with teens.  They have energy.  They have spunk. They know they can change the world, and they will.

In planning for a project with the HOPE coalition in Worcester I was so pleased to be introduced to a 2002 article by Shawn Ginwright and Julio Cammarota called “New Terrain in Youth Development: The Promise of a Social Justice Approach” It presents an approach to youth development that places young people squarely in the middle of the many forces that shape their lives and the lives around them.

The authors are more articulate than I am, so I’ll quote them here.  “The lives of urban youth are conceptualized within the terrain of the changing political, economic, and social landscape where they and their families struggle for economic survival, sustainability, and mobility…we recognize how urban youth define, negotiate, and struggle for their identities in oppressive environments…we explore how they, with an awareness of social justice, respond to forces that deem them powerless, develop a sophisticated knowledge of the root causes of social problems, and generate unique ways to contend with the larger political forces. We argue that an effective approach for working with urban youth is through a social justice framework, which accounts for the multiple forms of oppression youth encounter and highlights the strategies they use to address inequities plaguing their communities.”

The article provides a framework through which youth can push back on the influences that need to be changed.  While the practices that they present are not new to youth workers who have been using asset-based youth development approaches for years, the articulation of levels of engagement and the weaving of social justice language into the realm of youth development is valuable.  Sometimes when we look for funding for youth programs we shy away from talking about policy change, advocacy and lobbying. But social justice is really at the heart of all of that work.  And it’s language may be more universally acceptable.  The authors are practical systems thinkers.  They recognize the power of young people to make change and the importance of crafting opportunities for youth to explore their own identities and the way that those identities are tied to the broader social context.  I recommend that you read the article.  It’s great.