Sharing Global Lessons In Youth Work

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Here at Brandeis University, I teach a graduate course on national and international youth policies. My students range from youth workers at American community-based organizations to leaders of nongovernmental organizations around the world.

My hypothesis in designing the course was that the differences among students would be an asset in the classroom. That’s because whatever their nationalities, people at these organizations grapple with common issues, such as training youth workers, surviving on underfunded budgets, conducting evaluations, boosting youth participation and dealing with government policies that aren’t linked to on-the-ground realities.

I knew this band of future leaders would share a passion to confront these challenges, based on their fervent belief in the mantra of positive youth development.

It worked.

In reading the graduate student papers, I learned over and over again that the youth field is truly a global enterprise and that lessons are (or should be) migrating back and forth across borders. For example:

• One student writes about Vietnam, and how a generation of youth is aging out of orphanages (i.e., foster care) without being prepared for independent living. Some innovators are helping these youths start businesses.

Sound familiar? Does Vietnam need its own version of our Chafee Independent Living Act, and should we find out how entrepreneurial alumni of orphanages worldwide are doing in business development?

• Another student writes about Oportunidades in Mexico, a government program that will be replicated in New York City under the auspices of the city, private foundations, MDRC and others.

What is this model program that has worked with millions people in thousands of Mexican municipalities? It provides cash transfers to poor people under age 22, as long as they stay in school and as they meet certain benchmarks. The cash awards to the families rise as the youths age, beginning at $10.50 and going to $58 for high school boys and $66 for high school girls. Other versions of the model target pregnant girls, who become eligible for conditional cash transfers if they spend the funds in healthy ways (such as eating well or seeking health advice).

Oportunidades is probably the most impressive example of a social program being imported into the United States that I have encountered in decades.

• A third student passionately describes how the Tibetan government in exile grapples with the challenge of dropouts. Consulting the American literature on “frame analysis” – which uses perceptions of words and media images as a guide to social change strategies – this student wonders if specific actions can be taken to reframe the issue from one of personal choice (or obligation to support a family) to more of a community-building perspective. Frame analysis sweeps the world!

• Gangs are found nearly everywhere in the world, and countries can learn from each other about how to guide progressive anti-gang policies. For example, one student raises questions about how to define a gang. Should the definition include requiring members to wear gang colors? If we can’t define gangs, we can’t promote policies to reduce gang participation and activities.

The student went through the tedious but important task of reviewing anti-gang policies in U.S. states, concluding that Mississippi, Florida, California, Oklahoma and Illinois have the most extensive and detailed definitions for anti-gang policies. She finds Virginia law to have the clearest definition, and it identifies youth gangs as a special challenge.

What do these student examples mean for youth workers?

When seeking innovative program models and “best practices,” don’t restrict your search to your own city or town, or even to comparable programs in neighboring localities. Think expansively. You just might find inspiration in a model from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe or Latin America.

Youth issues from an international perspective received unprecedented attention in the World Bank’s 2007 Social Development Report. Build on that. Learn about the work of groups working on the same issues you are, but internationally. Innovations in Civic Participation (, for example, covers service and civic participation developments in the United States and other nations. The Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation ( works around the world, including in the United States, on a range of youth development strategies. YouthBuild USA ( is increasing its international work.

Join global groups, read websites, visit programs when you travel for pleasure, and bring visitors to your programs.

Graduate school is a great place to have these horizon-expanding experiences, but it’s not the only place.