Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Youth-Friendly Focus Groups

Over the past few days DCAYA has facilitated a number of focus groups with young people who utilize the various programs that our member organizations provide. As a strong coalition of youth service providers, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to draw on the thoughts and opinions of a varied and diverse set of the young people that our members serve.

Our focus groups have ranged in size, but most of them have been somewhere between 15 and 20 teenagers and young adults. For this round of focus groups, DCAYA is seeking youth input on is the issue of disconnected youth in DC. (Disconnected youth are youth that are currently not involved or “connected” to any sort of educational, job training, or employment outlet).

What DCAYA wants to know is what do YOUTH think about the causes of the high-school dropout crisis? Or the reasons behind why so many young people in DC are currently unemployed? How do young people that are connected to education or job training programs find those programs and what keeps them enrolled?

The youth in these focus groups have impressed us, both in their ability to speak openly about some of the dire situations they have faced (and are largely still facing) and in their willingness to come up with creative, yet viable solutions to the issues they navigate on a daily basis.

What we’ve heard in these focus groups is that young people, by and large, believe in the power of effective and positive youth programming in combating the above issues. Many of these youth admitted that they came to their respective organizations, as a sort of last resort, that they either had “nothing better to do” or were referred to their programs by a government system of care (DYRS, CFSA etc.) A number of our focus group respondents reported that they felt like nobody at their schools cared about them. And furthermore they postulated that young people who didn’t have good support systems at home would be even more negatively affected by not having good relationships with their teachers or school’s staff.

This news is probably not surprising and it is certainly not encouraging. However, the youth who are served by these programs are overwhelmingly committed to them and we’ve heard over and over (and over) again that without these programs, DC’s problems of high youth unemployment and low educational attainment would only spiral further out of control. Youth rely on community based programming once they’ve already fallen through the cracks and are at a high risk of having no job skills and/or a limited education. By offering alternative pathways to something like a high school diploma or GED, organizations like Sasha Bruce, LAYC, and Covenant House raise young people back up. They literally catch them when they fall.

Another response we’ve heard across the board is that these programs recruit young people because of an obvious need in their communities, but that youth stay in these programs because of the incredible and dedicated staff that the non-profit community chooses to employ.

High-quality programming is an indispensable tool in the positive youth development toolbox and DCAYA cannot stress enough the need for these programs to stay intact in light of the current budget crisis. Of course, we didn’t need to run focus groups to realize the strength of these programs, but hearing the words straight out of the horse’s mouth is (as always) the most convincing argument you will ever hear.

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