Adding a Youth 360 Lens to Our Work
By Becca Bolden, Research and Evaluation Manager
November 11, 2015
I had the great opportunity to attend the 2015 Healthy Teen Network Conference last month, called Youth 360: Where Youth Live, Work and Play Matters. Conferences like this one allow our staff to network with and learn from other organizations and agencies across the country committed not only to teen pregnancy prevention but to promoting youth health and well-being in a holistic way, a framework that can be easy to lose sight of in the day-to-day work of grant deliverables and email requests. It’s so important to remember the big picture of why we do what we do, and how to make sure that big picture gets integrated into our daily tasks and projects.
The conference kicked off with Dr. Steve Perry, an innovative educator who is the founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, as well as an Education Contributor for CNN and MSNBC. He spoke about the impact of growing up with a teen mom, and despite his career success, the immense amount of luck he had avoiding young parenthood himself. He urged the audience to consider the fact that we also may have been lucky to have avoided teen parenthood, which I think came as a bit of a surprise to attendees at first. It makes sense that we tend to get caught up in our world of prevention that using a condom every time or getting an IUD or implant may seem like an obvious and beyond-easy choice for every single young person, regardless of their circumstances. Beyond simple – especially when you have fantastic and effective programs like the Colorado Family Planning Initiative in our home state.
But maybe that’s not the case.
Maybe there are much bigger priorities in young people’s lives that we forget to consider, such as family responsibilities, school and neighborhood safety, access to efficient transportation, mental health, jobs and financial commitments, and peer acceptance and validation, just to name a few. All of which can be huge and seemingly insurmountable obstacles when there are systemic barriers in place keeping young people from achieving their full potential. Steve Perry urged our group to consider that, “We are not better than any person who walks through our doors….and you will never empower young people to be something more when you only label them as clients.”
This is what the Youth 360 approach is all about, considering all of the factors that influence a young person’s life and making sure that we are molding our programs and policies to fit their experiences, not the other way around. This is best explained by the social-ecological health promotion model, or the “Spheres of Influence” named in the Youth Sexual Health in Colorado: A Call to Action. Young people are impacted from a variety of levels of influence – their individual behaviors, families and relationships, communities and policies and systems, as shown in the graphic below. If we want to have a holistic and complete impact in a young person’s life, then we need to do intentional and strategic work in each level.
Later on in the conference, we revisited this theme as we played the Youth 360 game, traveling around the board to maneuver and tackle systemic challenges and barriers that young people face in each of these spheres. We came up with some great and innovative ideas such as engaging rec centers as partners to reach youth in places they are compelled to spend their free time, including mental health counseling in any new programming ideas, and incorporating a youth advisory board into all organizational decision-making. Other ideas were shared by conference attendees on the Youth 360 idea wall.
I think it can be easy to talk about holistic approaches in theory – of course we care about everything that impacts the lives of young people. Of course we want to support them and meet ALL of their needs (not just the needs that funders prioritize). Of course we know that it’s about more than condom use. But what do we actually DO?
The Youth 360 Conference gave me some great ideas that I have shared with the Colorado Youth Matter staff, and we are intentionally working and moving in this direction. We want to challenge the idea that youth sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention is all about public health; we believe that youth sexual health is a social justice issue, that just happens to have public health outcomes. Stay tuned and join us in our work to change the landscape and support youth and families in a comprehensive and holistic way.