A Guide to Creating an Equitable Youth Ecosystem of Belonging

Posted September 28, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A group of young people — including a young Black man and woman, a young Hispanic man, and a young white woman — gather outside; they are all smiling, and have their arms around each other.

Through­out their child­hood and into young adult­hood, young peo­ple may inter­act with var­i­ous sys­tems — schools, youth cen­ters, health care, fos­ter care and oth­ers. What if those sys­tems could improve the work they do and help build an ecosys­tem of belong­ing” that is cen­tered on the young peo­ple they serve?

Designed for lead­ers of pub­lic- and pri­vate-sec­tor ser­vices, a new action guide pro­vides rec­om­men­da­tions and tools for strength­en­ing efforts to sup­port the well-being and devel­op­ment of youth. Cre­at­ing Equi­table Ecosys­tems of Belong­ing and Oppor­tu­ni­ty for Youth reflects insight from lead­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers and empha­sizes the per­spec­tives and expe­ri­ences of young peo­ple. The Forum for Youth Invest­ment pro­duced the guide with sup­port from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The guide rec­om­mends that, for each sys­tem and set­ting that serves young peo­ple, lead­ers ensure they incor­po­rate belong­ing” — a feel­ing of being secure, val­ued and con­nect­ed with oth­ers — for youth. This feel­ing of belong­ing affects youths’ over­all abil­i­ty to thrive. For exam­ple, when a young per­son enters a new school or meets a new ser­vice provider, this can prompt a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in the young per­son. A sense of belong­ing, how­ev­er, can pro­duce feel­ings of reas­sur­ance, safe­ty and understanding.

This guide is a valu­able resource for coor­di­nat­ed ini­tia­tives in which mul­ti­ple agen­cies and orga­ni­za­tions work togeth­er on behalf of youth,” says Lau­ra Speer, direc­tor of strat­e­gy for the Casey Foun­da­tion, who con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of the guide with oth­er col­leagues. It iden­ti­fies oppor­tu­ni­ties and actions to equi­tably sup­port young peo­ple with­in and across sys­tems and help them real­ize their full potential.”

Cre­at­ing an Ecosys­tem by Con­nect­ing Youth-Serv­ing Sys­tems and Settings

A key con­cept of the guide is the youth devel­op­ment ecosys­tem, defined as the range of youth-serv­ing sys­tems and set­tings — from schools to fos­ter homes to youth cen­ters — that young peo­ple may move through dur­ing their devel­op­ment. This ecosys­tem fea­tures a com­plex, dynam­ic set of rela­tion­ships with­in and across edu­ca­tion, child wel­fare, com­mu­ni­ty-based youth devel­op­ment and oth­er systems.

A reimag­ined youth devel­op­ment ecosys­tem would cre­ate an enabling envi­ron­ment for pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with teach­ers, social work­ers and oth­er adults as young peo­ple expe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent sys­tems and set­tings. Such an envi­ron­ment would pro­vide youth with oppor­tu­ni­ties to plan and make choic­es, reflect on their expe­ri­ences and cul­ti­vate skills for thriv­ing in edu­ca­tion, work and life.

The guide stress­es that advanc­ing equi­ty is cen­tral to build­ing an ecosys­tem where all youth, regard­less of their iden­ti­ty or cir­cum­stances, should have oppor­tu­ni­ties to expe­ri­ence a sense of belong­ing that sup­ports their devel­op­ment with­in and across systems.

A Map for Belong­ing and Opportunity

The guide fea­tures the Youth Jour­ney Map for Belong­ing and Oppor­tu­ni­ty, which illustrates:

  • Young people’s jour­ney through var­i­ous settings.
  • The agen­cies pri­mar­i­ly respon­si­ble for each setting.
  • Actions for chang­ing and improv­ing the systems.

The jour­ney map encour­ages sys­tem lead­ers to put them­selves in youth’s mind space” to iden­ti­fy chal­lenges and pain points posed by their orga­ni­za­tions. Invit­ing youth to par­tic­i­pate in agency dis­cus­sions and pro­vide insights into their expe­ri­ences is strong­ly recommended.

Con­ver­sa­tions on Belonging

The guide includes a tool for sys­tem lead­ers to reflect on the essen­tial com­po­nents of an equi­table youth devel­op­ment ecosys­tem to sup­port belong­ing, oppor­tu­ni­ties for pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with adults and healthy youth tran­si­tions. The tool allows them to rate their prac­tices in three areas:

  1. Cul­ti­vat­ing safe­ty and con­sis­ten­cy — for exam­ple, imple­ment­ing prac­tices and rou­tines that sup­port risk tak­ing and make young peo­ple feel phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly safe.
  2. Build­ing com­mu­ni­ty — for exam­ple, devel­op­ing pro­gram expec­ta­tions with young people.
  3. Being cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive and inclu­sive — for exam­ple, build­ing on the diver­si­ty and cul­tur­al knowl­edge of young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies to make learn­ing engaging.

Find more resources on cre­at­ing a sense of belong­ing for youth

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