Life is really tough. Life is particularly tough for teenagers who see no future in front of them but death or jail or an endless grind of stress and survival. It is tough for their parents and caregivers. It is tough for the teachers and other adults who work with and care for them, and then see their names on the news and their faces on poster boards behind candles—this child, killed at a pool party; this child, shot by a stray bullet while eating a snack at his kitchen table; this child, arrested for murder.
This flickering out of life and potential creates an ache in individuals and communities that builds into rage and helplessness and grief and numbness. And then it happens again.
It has to stop. We need to make it stop. The world needs to be a place where every child has an equal opportunity not only to survive but also to thrive—to choose and pursue a life that is good for them and good for the people around them.
This drive, to create communities that provide safety and promote thriving, was what prompted a group of us in Mobile, Alabama—including psychologists, community leaders, afterschool sites, a philosopher, and a youth advisory board—to create the Empowered Program for youth.
According to our research, the program helped young people change their perspectives, choose constructive behaviors during problem situations, and improve their relationships with adults. Here’s how it worked—and what we learned about supporting youth along their journey to thriving.
How we created our program
There are already a wealth of programs that promote safety and thriving among youth. The problem is that much of the research on positive youth development comes from work with white youth in middle- to upper-socioeconomic-status families living in the suburbs. And we know that part of what determines the effectiveness of programs is how culturally responsive and relevant they are. Programs often do not work as well if there are foundational mismatches in how the creators think about the problem and goals versus the lived experiences and values of the participants.
In this case, people in wealthy, predominantly white communities may have fundamentally different conceptions of what thriving looks like, and how to promote thriving in youth, compared to people in highly divested, predominantly Black communities. This bias in how these programs were developed raises questions about how relevant they are to youth across communities. We addressed this problem by working collaboratively with our community to develop a culturally grounded intervention focused on promoting character strengths in youth.
Cultural grounding is very important for character strengths, or virtue-based, programs. When we think of virtues, we think of character traits that enable individuals to live lives that are good for them and good for the people around them. What a community counts as “good” is heavily rooted in culture, which holds the values and beliefs systems that are passed between generations. For example, one culture may value generosity over prudence. How virtues “look” also very heavily depends on the cultural context. For example, in some cultures, love looks like honest feedback and teasing. In other cultures, love looks like focusing on the positive and avoiding any criticism.
In our development process, we learned that our community partners believed that, as a crucial foundation, youth need a sense of purpose and hope in order to thrive. Youth need to believe that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and that sense of meaning guides decision making, in the big and the small decisions, which eventually creates a pattern of behavior that solidifies into a stable, values-based identity. We called this idea of purpose and meaning “big values,” which we defined as “something bigger than what you can see, that helps you hold on to who you can be.” Those big values help youth hold on to hope, make wise decisions, choose internal peace, and forgive themselves and others.
Based on these insights, we built Empowered, a positive youth development program for ages 11 to 14 that focuses on empowering youth to pursue good lives by developing their own sense of purpose and providing motivation and tools to promote hope, wisdom, peace, and forgiveness. Empowered includes 18 modules that can be implemented in any order, designed to take between 30 and 45 minutes per session, and to be shared in groups or classrooms. It also includes training for teachers and facilitators around supporting youth within the daily problems they encounter.
Each module includes an introduction to an idea, a story or example, and an activity that gives an opportunity to practice and discuss. All of the stories are based on real stories in the community that we learned about from our partners, and facilitators are encouraged to share other stories that they think would be relevant and engaging to the youth with whom they work.
So, for example, one of youth participants’ favorite modules was “Imagine Possibilities,” which was designed to promote hope. In the beginning of the session, they learn that hope is “seeing the future you want, and moving to make it come true.” Then the facilitator shares a story of a child who dreamed of becoming a reporter and then made a plan to make it happen—all the way up to becoming a news director at a TV station, where she could choose what stories were important to focus on for the good of her community. Finally, youth are encouraged to imagine what they want their lives to look like 25 years from now—their family, their friends, their reputation, their job, their home, their community, the world—and then they each put together a vision board using magazines and art supplies. The session ends by leading students in a discussion around the question, “What do you think would happen if everyone in this room was able to have the future they imagined?”
When we evaluated Empowered, we found that it had an impact. According to teachers’ observations, youth who participated in Empowered were significantly more likely to use effective nonviolent responses to problems than youth who did not participate. The facilitators and afterschool site director thought that it changed the climate and the quality of the relationships between the adults and youth at the site. Youth reported that it shifted the way they thought about things—sometimes in unexpected ways.
For example, one boy told us that he used to want to be a rapper, but then he realized rappers got into a lot of trouble, so he was going to have to pick a new thing he wanted to be. A girl told us that her favorite part was when the facilitator’s husband came into the room (this was not part of the curriculum), because he was always nice to the facilitator, and she had never seen married people be nice to each other like that. For us, this was a big reminder that we need to practice what we teach—and sometimes that the things that are not in the program are the most important part of the program.
Lessons for empowering youth
All the Empowered materials, including the curriculum and posters we developed with our youth advisory board, are free and publicly available at empoweredprogram.org. For folks who are interested in developing or implementing similar programs, here are some key principles that might help to increase the impact of the program.
Be aware of history and context. There are current and historic, long-lasting injustices based on race that continue to threaten the safety of many communities. In fact, even the idea of a character strengths–based intervention to reduce violence in Black communities can echo centuries of white supremacy perpetrated to condone violence against Black people, including the framing of Black people as lazy, violent, and criminal. It is a moral necessity that any strategies for supporting youths’ development co-occur with collective action against systems of injustice and inequity that have deliberately segregated people and divested them of resources for centuries.
More proximally, youth are under a lot of stress. During the time we were working to develop and implement Empowered, a youth at one of our partnering sites was killed, one was jumped, one’s brother went to jail, and one lost his home. And these are the events we know about. We need to constantly remind ourselves that many of the youth with whom we work may already be under the maximum amount of stress they can deal with, and we need to default to kindness.
Invest in relationships. As adults who work with youth, it is unreasonable to expect youth to trust us unless we have demonstrated our trustworthiness. We build trust by being present, consistent, honest, predictable, and respectful—not for an hour or for a day, but for months and even years.
Create space for exploration. Rather than impose our own values on youth, we need to meet youth where they are. Adults who work with youth can guide them through the process of exploring what their values are and who they want to be in the world. We also need to create space for them to imagine their future possibilities and how they can move toward the future they want.
For example, one boy told us he wanted to be an NFL player. Instead of citing statistics about the low odds of becoming an NFL player, we encouraged him to think through what he needed to do to become an NFL player—like passing his classes, increasing his physical activity, and trying out for the high school team—all of which would benefit his future whether or not he made it to the NFL.
Build agency in youth—both an internal sense of power and the lived experiences of seeing their actions change their environment in a positive way. One of our advisory board members described this as “seeing the spark and calling it out.” We see the spark by noticing youths’ strengths and values and labeling them. For example, an adult could say, “You got angry because you saw that someone wasn’t getting treated fairly. That shows how important justice is to you.” We call the spark out by providing support and reinforcement for youth to act in a values-congruent way.
Serve as positive role models. If we want to help youth hold on to their values and move toward a good future, we need to be people who model values-congruent behavior—like hope and forgiveness and wisdom and peace. Teenagers are not interested in hypocrites, so let’s not be that. One advisory board member said, “We need to hold on to the hope for our children when they can’t hold on for themselves.” Another person asked, “How can we expect teens to forgive each other if they have never been forgiven?” We can make each youth’s world a better and safer place simply by practicing what we teach.
In the end, life is tough for most of us. I hope that we can share our grief, harness our rage into collective action, and move together toward a future that is good for all of us, but most especially for our children.