By Keo Xiong, MD Programs Manager
Any space that serves youth and young people should be safe, supportive, and stable. Safety, both physically and emotionally, sets the foundation for youth (and all people) to thrive. Creating a culture of support allows youth to share in each other’s successes, and rally to uplift others in times of difficulty. Stability ensures that youth know they will always have a place to go and trusted people to talk to. When youth feel safe and supported in a stable environment, they can better express themselves, speak and share their truths, and have compassion and empathy for others. At AALEAD, these three priorities define quality out-of-school time programming.
To provide a safe space for youth is not to coddle them, as current opposing rhetoric may purport. On the contrary, safe spaces exist to allow people – especially those whose identities have been marginalized, silenced, or invisibilized – to find a community where they can express their truth, and work together to challenge the status quo that divides people and communities. To suggest that safe spaces present falsehoods about how the real world works (i.e. “youth need to learn how to deal with their problems”) is to accept that prejudices, discrimination, and hate, among other things, are normal. Youth should not have to “deal with” other people negatively, and sometimes violently, targeting their identities. Safe spaces for youth to affirm their identities, connect with peers, and uplift each other is key to their development.
At AALEAD, we like to say, “safety first, fun second.” No matter what activity we are facilitating for youth, safety takes priority. From physical team-building games to intimate group discussions, staff work diligently to ensure that AALEADers are respecting each others’ spaces, bodies, opinions, and feelings. Below is an example of how belonging to a group with an established culture of safety can encourage youth to feel more confident and comfortable sharing who they are:
“Before AALEAD, I was a shy quiet girl who would never dare sing loud enough for someone to hear. But the summer of my freshman year I joined the [AALEAD] summer program. I initially did not believe anything grand was going to happen because I had not known anyone there. I was completely wrong. That summer, I met new people – people I’m still friends with 3 years later. They, along with everyone that summer in AALEAD, helped me to get out of my shell and perform. The community I had helped me in so many ways, and now I perform any chance I get.”
“AALEAD is a fun place to hang and meet people. This is the reason I find myself back here. I love to be a part of a weird yet open group that respects each other…and wants each other to succeed.”
Supporting each other to succeed is important to the culture of any youth-serving space. Supportive environments that embrace linear leadership and community building can cultivate a culture of shared success – what’s mine is yours. When youth can celebrate the success of their peers as if it were their own success, that is a powerful thing. Out-of-school time programs, whether its focus is community service, athletics, art, music, etc., bring together youth who may not otherwise know one another, and encourages the creation of another system of support in their lives. As one AALEAD youth puts it, “I consider AALEAD a second family”:
“I first joined AALEAD in the 6th grade on a whim. I was a shy kid that didn’t really have any friends so I thought joining would be fun. Even though I am not Asian American myself, I was welcomed with open arms and have now been in AALEAD for 4 years now. Because of AALEAD I’m a lot more confident in myself and have made many new friends. I consider AALEAD a second family.”
“When I first heard about AALEAD, I thought it would lead to more work. I needed something to RELIEVE my stress, not add to it. Eventually I joined though and surprisingly enjoyed it. I made so many new friends who filled my afternoon with laughter. I started looking forward to AALEAD even while I was in class. AALEAD easily became a stable source of happiness for me with the fun activities and friends.”
Besides providing safe and supportive environments for youth, another critical component of quality out-of-school time programming is stability. It is important that youth have a stable source of safe and supportive environments. At AALEAD, we often say, “once an AALEADer, always an AALEADer.” There’s a reason that the majority of AALEAD youth are returning members each year. We often have alumni and former youth coming back to check in with staff, attend events, and support the next group of youth. Part of AALEAD’s stability is that youth will always know when and where to find us.
It’s great to know that youth can remain connected to the organization, and not just to the staff with whom they worked or the program in which they were a member. Whether they have just joined or have been a participant for many years, AALEAD youth know that they will always have a safe community of friends and caring adults to support them in their development:
“Back when I first started, I was in 6th grade. When I joined [AALEAD], I didn’t really know what to expect how programs would be like because I’ve never been in a club like this before. Before AALEAD, I saw myself as an under-represented Asian boy – only because there were always clubs for other minorities except Asians. One of the best activities I remember was when we had a small potluck…We all brought food from our countries and learned more about the countries of others in the club…Now, as a senior, AALEAD has always been a fun place I could spend my time at, and helped me be proud to be Asian, as our cultures too are vibrant and rich.”
OUT-OF-SCHOOL TIME PROGRAMS:
Out-of-school time programs play an important role in positive youth development – whereas youth are required to be in school, youth often get to choose how to spend their time outside of school. Out-of-school time professionals have a unique opportunity to provide structured opportunities for youth to continue learning, regardless of the content of our specific programming. If we say that children and youth are our future, then we must provide them with safe, supportive, and stable learning environments that encourage and challenge them to be informed, critical, aware, and compassionate people.