Welcome: Why Youth Development Is Our Business

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Why did we decide to produce an issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, which is meant to address the entirety of the sector, on the subject of youth development? Our reason is simple. We see it as a topic that cuts across the boundaries of fields of practice and geography impacting such core concerns as the sustainability of our work, the depth and diversity of our leadership, and the energy, power and vision with which we pursue our work.

We have only recently come to understand some of the reasons for what appear to be serious age based divisions in our organizations and our work. We want to draw you into a conversation with those who are most closely involved with youth-about where the divisions began, how they have continued and worsened and what we can do now to redress the problem.

Until the last decade, much of the focus of U.S. youth work has been on intervening with troubled young people-youth considered to be a problem to themselves or society. Recently, the orientation of the field has been changing to a more asset-based approach to young people. Sometimes called positive youth development, this approach is oriented to work more broadly with young people to help them develop both their personal identities and their abilities to contribute productively to civil society.

This issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly explores the link between positive youth development and the development of our organizations, our communities, the sector, and civil society as a whole. As our sector perceives our potential in a new world, our ability to become increasingly powerful in realizing that potential will be dependent on the degree to which we engage young people. What’s at stake for the sector? Nothing less than our own relevance.

Because we are facing a new future, springing forth from new knowledge and technology, new relationships that cross past boundaries of culture and nation state, and new power relationships between the corporate sector, governments and the third sector, working primarily from an understanding of historical patterns will only take us so far. Recent research which has been done with chess masters shows that they are able to see the range of patterns of whole games emerge from information provided by a single chess move and that this capacity is built over significant periods of time with practice and study.

This means we can see patterns and predict. This then means that we tend to act with certainty and like the chess master have a level of confidence and authority.

But our world is not a finite closed system like a chessboard. Its complexity is infinite and much of what determines the way we function with one another is changing at an unprecedented rate. Mastery in this realm requires “first, continuous clarification of what is important, and, second, continuous learning to see current reality more clearly. Mastery is a process that both maps the past and plans for the future. Not a definitive statement of the truth, mastery is, rather, rigorous inquiry into what is and the conflicts and dilemmas that limit the potential for desired change.”

Young people are a resource for the sector because they can key into our new reality in a different way, often taking less as givens in any situation. Because they are not as rooted in the past, they may see the same circumstances that we see but come up with a different interpretation and entirely different solutions.

Now, many young people are building their own organizations to reflect their particular view of the world. Our question is: what would happen if we took advantage of this historical moment and made the effort to work together?

In fact, youth development is about the whole of our development. It is about the development of multi-dimensional thinking that takes into account a full understanding of the realities and cultures of the world we live in, it is about decreasing our unnecessary alienation from each other-created through social history we only just barely understand. Most of all, this issue is about developing the power and influence of the sector and the sustainability of our work.