Friday, May 02, 2014

Wilder Research Staff Sharing Globally, Acting Locally

How do youth development and education issues in other countries resemble those of our own? Have our international peers developed programs or strategies that we ought to consider here?

Richard Chase and I traveled in different directions out of the U.S. last month, to learn, share, reflect, and return to Saint Paul with information that might have value for promoting healthy youth development.

Rick, a senior research manager at Wilder Research, jetted westward with Betty Emarita, an ideation and strategic change consultant, to the Global Summit on Childhood, in Vancouver, Canada.  Their presentation – Promoting and measuring family and community engagement for healthy early childhood development – was part of a roundtable discussion with other presenters under the heading Family, Home, and Indigenous Knowledge.

Rick and Betty have developed two tools – an Early Childhood Assessment; and an Early Childhood Program Quality Rating – that blend family and community knowledge systems (indigenous knowledge) into measures of child development and program quality. When used together, these tools can promote and measure family and community engagement that goes deeper than language and logistics and is based upon valuing and respecting family and community wisdom and including families as an integral part of program design and decisions.  They informed the audience as to how the use of the assessment and the quality rating and the information from those tools empower immigrant and rural communities and communities of color that often feel that mainstream institutions and programs do not support or reflect their own knowledge, experience, and values. If interested, take a look at an overview of their work.

During the Summit, Rick learned about how central governments in developing African, Asian, and Latin American countries, with the support of UNESCO, are investing in early childhood education as a key economic development and nation-building strategy. Invariably, early education programs begin with curriculum and methods based on western standards of quality but then experience push-back from local and indigenous communities who find those standards biased, and even harmful, as they struggle to preserve their traditional, holistic practices under the pressures of globalization. Rick also learned that the use of these tools resonated with researchers and educators working in developing countries to produce culturally supportive early education experiences. 

I jetted eastward to Dublin, Ireland, to present at a conference on What’s Working for Young People, and then to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for meetings and to do a presentation at Stormont, the Parliament building.

Northern Ireland, while past “The Troubles” in some respects, still retains a significant legacy of conflict. I’ve been working on research and development of a project called WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant). This project attempts to change young people’s political knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors within a culture which is deeply segregated (in housing, education, etc.), which runs on a tribal form of party politics, and where young people too often must choose between allegiance to paramilitary groups and participation in civil, democratic forms of community decision-making.

WIMPS involves young people in educational and experiential activities, to increase their understanding of politics and to develop their skills in media production. They put what they learn to use in “campaigns” intended to change public knowledge, attitudes, and government policies. For example, during the past few years, WIMPS participants engaged in successful campaigns to end paramilitary beatings and shootings known as “punishment attacks;” they successfully persuaded the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate voting at age 16; they campaigned for suicide prevention in schools and for better rural transportation services.

Evidence shows that the program significantly increases the knowledge and skills of young people, promotes the development of “social capital,” and increases young people’s interaction with public officials at all levels. It was worthwhile to talk with an international audience about our findings to date and to hear their suggestions for program improvement and additional research.

While at the conference, I also had the opportunity to learn from international colleagues about “what’s working for young people.” Much of the research pointed to programs which can influence features of children’s environments that Ann Masten placed on her “short list of resilience factors,” things like caring parents and other adults, prosocial peers, effective teachers, and safe communities. The culture and activities within some communities create these features naturally. Other communities need help, which various programs/interventions in a number of countries have provided. Similarities across national boundaries – both negative, such as issues related to inequality, achievement gaps, etc., and positive, such as a focus on outcomes and improved understanding of what can promote healthy youth development – stood out more than the differences among people living within different borders.

International conversation with colleagues who pursue similar aims always offers insights and encourages thinking outside of the box. We returned intellectually enriched, ready to share knowledge and engage in community-building efforts here, and of course, appreciating that there’s no place like home.