Toolbox: Getting Parents, Community Onboard With Youth Employment Programming

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The poet William Ross Wallace wisely observed that “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Nowhere would this be truer than in youth employment programming; a fact we ignore at our peril. Getting and keeping parents/guardians and the community engaged in youth employment programs goes well beyond just getting parental consent on permission forms and work permits. Remember “It takes a village …”?

What’s not to like? Surely helping a youth get a job, especially a commercial one, is a win-win situation for all the stakeholders involved. And this is not to imply that parents actively try to undermine program objectives. Rather, it’s more a matter of everyone pulling in the same direction, with a clear common understanding of the goals, expectations and procedures that lead to successful outcomes.

Helping parents understand, for example, that keeping their child home from work as a disciplinary measure has serious unintended consequences for all the other stakeholders. Likewise, helping youth meet workplace expectations, as with clean uniforms, keeping work schedules straight and making positive behavioral choices on the job, are aspects of employment for which parents are ideally suited.

Parents can also provide indispensable support when they take time to discuss their child’s work experience and, even more, share their own past and current experiences in the workplace. Role-modeling is perhaps the most important contribution a parent can make to their child’s developmental maturity and employment success. As we’ve been told, youth may not always listen to everything we say, but may well watch everything we do.

Clarify expectations

One of the major complaints made about parent-teacher relationships is that parents only hear from schools when their child has messed up. What parent wouldn’t be a bit defensive when they get an unexpected note or call from program staff or a work supervisor? Getting and keeping the support of parents (and youth) means being clear about expectations, from Day One. Without being heavy-handed, referencing the consequences for noncompliance is also essential. Can we really hold people accountable if we haven’t explained the expectations, options and consequences of behavioral choices?

Conversely, building in recognition incentives like certificates, plaques and cash awards for exceptional performance encourages youth and parents to support program goals. In work team settings, giving work mates the opportunity to vote for “Best in Leadership,” “Hardest Worker” and “Best in Team Spirit” is an ideal way to use peer pressure to positive advantage. This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone gets an A for effort. All this is part of a constructive, creative and proactive management mindset. It’s also a common characteristic of the more successful youth employment programs.

Developing a keen sense for unspoken personal/institutional power differentials is mandatory in getting parental buy-in, especially with court-supervised participants. Something as seemingly minor as addressing a parent as “Mrs. /Mr. Jones,” rather than going immediately to a first-name basis, can convey an attitude of respect and equality. This is especially true if a substantial age, racial, cultural or other significant differential is involved. This can be particularly welcoming to parents who may feel a bit “beaten up” by many legal/educational/social service systems that demand compliance at the expense of participation. Honoring parents/guardians as capable, empowered and fully invested stakeholders is the foundation of reaching and involving the community at large.

Communication isn’t optional

Getting the support of the community, be it a neighborhood, a school district or an entire municipality is, however, more than scaling-up the parental/guardian relationship.

As has been said with regard to funders, “out of sight is out of mind, and out of mind means out of money.” We might modify this to read “out of business,” as community support is critical in creating buzz and keeping youth employment in the public eye. Keep in mind that we live in the Communications Age. Timely and consistent communication, through various media and at all levels, is a mandatory, not optional, component of programming. Called marketing, advertising or public relations in other organizations, quality communications can’t be an afterthought.

Yes, it takes time and talent to keep the lines of communication open with the community. However, this doesn’t mean that programs have to turn out monthly glossy newsletters. If youth work activities have high public visibility as a group, brightly colored T-shirts (or in agency colors), with the imprinted program logo, can build positive public recognition. Just remind youth of this fact and help them self-monitor their personal behavior. This is especially true for youth involved in food drives, street clean-up or other community service activities. Some programs have even enlisted outdoor advertising companies to donate space on their otherwise empty billboards to get the message out.

Sponsoring community festivals, sporting activities and entertainment events reach communities where they live and play. Creating (and protecting the confidentiality of) a community contact database, plus a modest website, are ideal for both active and passive communications. Weekly email blasts (with a subscriber button) are easy ways to keep everyone current on program activities and status. Giving awards to community supporters for their volunteerism, in-kind donations or financial support has a ripple effect, and encourages others to participate in programming.

However community communications are executed, it’s critical to take the long view and build support over time. This can’t be an 11th hour afterthought. Waiting for a funding crisis to go running to the community for support is a mission doomed to failure. Develop a short list of “talking points” that highlight the essential ideas about the program’s vision, mission, activities and outcomes. Then make sure staff consistently stays on message as they interact with the public.

Can’t spare the staff time? Seek out volunteers or interns (like college students or retired professionals), with specific skills sets, to assist in the technical formatting and execution of the agency communications. Likewise, seek out in-kind donations of staff time and creative resources from local advertising and graphics agencies. This helps in making sure that bulletins are of consistent high quality, accurate and attractive. A poorly executed, rushed and jumbled message is worse than no message at all. If your program or agency doesn’t have a logo, these same people can help you develop one.

Remember, the root of “community” is the word “common.” Let them know what they have in common with youth employment programming, and support is almost assured.

Identifying, reaching, involving and recognizing all the stakeholder groups involved with youth employment programming is the keystone of success. Securing funding, creating structure, finding hard and soft support/resources, and enlisting participation; all support successful outcomes and program durability over time.

Youth employment programs are one of the most effective ways to assist disadvantaged youth, especially those in the juvenile justice system, in developing life competencies. Competent youth have a better chance of becoming competent adults. Competent adults, in turn, have a better chance of raising competent children.

Competency development is almost the only hope of breaking the transgenerational cycle of delayed emotional, cognitive and behavioral development. Only fully mature and self-actualizing adults can overcome social, economic and personal adversity. As a democratic society, we owe every person the chance to be all that they can be. Anything less is to betray our highest calling as individuals and a nation.

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Michael Mitchell is a first vice president, online publications editor and membership services chair for the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. He has worked with 2,000-plus juvenile court-supervised, at-risk, special ed teens and adolescents with clinical mental health issues and holds a master's degree in secondary education. He has won numerous awards for his work with youth, a major percentage of which were youth of color. Write to him at propman46@gmail.com