Youth Empowering Parents

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I work in Canada’s largest, oldest and poorest social housing complex. A large newcomer population and high rates of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, violence, drug abuse and social ills distinguish this neighborhood. There are approximately 5000 residents squeezed into 69 acres of land; and the average household income is $14,000 per year.engaging young people

Interestingly, more than $50 million (USD) goes into this neighborhood for social programming each year. Put another way, $10,000 per person, ($25,000 per household). Personally, I think if you simply gave $10,000 every year to each person in this neighborhood, many of the issues — the poverty, the unemployment, the violence, etc — would go away, or at least not be so discerning.

It would seem then that a handful of people or agencies are not doing their jobs well. A social return on investment analysis, although not best indicator of value, would highlight poor outcomes: a near $1:$1 social return for some, or even worse for others, suggesting that people may perhaps be better off by just handing them money instead of engaging them in these programs. Generally, these are programs that have low enrollment, contain little substance, or are similar to other programs that already exist in the neighborhood  (resulting in unnecessarily higher overhead).

In the summer of 2010, a small amount of funding was set aside to establish a Social Investment Fund: financial support to any resident(s) of this neighborhood who could devise something innovative and beneficial for the neighborhood. A few unique programs came out of this fund, but the one I want to highlight is Youth Empowering Parents (www.yepeducation.com), established by a group of youth in their early 20s. This project aimed to challenge to traditional thinking of youth as service-receivers, and turned them into service-providers. It trains volunteer youth to be able to provide one-on-one tutoring, and then facilitates classrooms whereby youth are teaching basic language and computer literacy to either their own parents or other adults.  Imagine, for example, a 14-year old teaching a 45-year old how to use an email account, how to fill out a basic job application, or, for those with weak English speaking abilities, how to have a basic conversation in English or how to communicate symptoms to a doctor, among many other useful life skills.

It seems so simple to operate. Bring an adult learner and a young person together, provide a bit of training to the latter, and trust that the young person would be able to teach someone two, three, four, or five times their age. The one’s who worked in the neighborhood for many years (the so-called “community experts”)  dismissed the idea, whereas youth praised it. Some 2.5 years after the program was created,  over 200 youth have helped over 200 adults and, in the process, have created over $100,000 of value by way of free private tutoring.  And after just its first year, the project was awarded the Intercultural Innovation Award, a partnership between the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations & BMW Group, given to  innovative  grassroots projects that have the potential to be replicated in other communities around the world. This summer, the group of youth in their early 20s who devised this program will indeed be replicating it in other Canadian communities.

My hope in writing this is to encourage you to think deeply about ways to engage youth in unique ways. Generally, the usual limits to engaging youth in providing teaching is 1) what are they able to teach, and 2) what are they willing to teach. Youth Empowering Parents has found success with basic language and computer literacy. Surely, there must be others.

Broadly, engaging young people in higher-level planning and development can have tremendous value. The Learners’ Voice program with the World Innovation Summit of Education is one such example of where this is currently taking place. Youth from around the world who collaborate to devise something many young people aspire to do: create something that can change the world.

About the Author: Agazi Afewerki, whose family originates from Eritrea, was born in Germany. After his law degree at the University of London, he moved to Toronto, Canada where he now dedicates much of his time to helping others in his Regent Park community, which has a large population of newcomers and high rates of poverty, unemployment, violence, crime, drug abuse and social ills.