The Wisdom of Youth by Richard Chase

Richard Chase
Richard Chase

I’m Richard Chase. Greetings from Wilder Research in St. Paul, where I have been involved in youth-focused evaluations for about 35 years.

When it comes to youth programs, we’ve known for a long time that successful programs both prevent problems and promote development. Consequently, I use the risk and protective factor framework for evaluating youth development programs.

In my work with culturally specific youth development programs, I have viewed and measured culture as a protective factor. Research presented at the 2000 AEA conference asserted that cultural identity may serve as a buffer against risks, be a source of strength, and amplify the positive effects of other protective factors.

Hot Tip: Select outcomes measures that are reasonable for the program

I urge youth programs to not over-promise results. Instead, I remind them that their activities take place in the contexts of families, schools, and neighborhoods. Youth programs can only do so much, and the keys to reducing negative behavior and promoting positive behavior must also take into account ways to bolster positive people, places, and opportunities that surround youth. If the schools are failing to teach youth reading and math during the 8 hour school day, can the after-school program youth workers reasonably be expected to increase test scores or graduation rates in 2 hours at the end of the day?

Cool trick: Focus on assets

In this new era of return on investment (ROI) mania, of course the outcomes with the biggest “bang for the buck” come from reducing expensive downstream interventions, especially incarceration (which is not a great message or marketing tool for youth engagement: “Come to our program and you’ll be more likely to stay out of prison over the next 40 years.”) To address this concern, I recently wrote an article for a local paper about the importance of using an asset-based (vs. deficit-focused) lens when evaluating youth programs.

Lesson Learned: Youth may be more engaged than they seem

Across my career, using Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), I have included youth in the development of their program’s logic model and in defining what outcomes are reasonable to achieve given the time and resources. I also have engaged youth in deciding what evidence is credible to them, and to learn more about how the opportunities and activities provided by the program have prevented or reduced risks and increased skills and assets.

This point can be illustrated with a career highlight of mine. A few days after an American Indian youth program participatory logic modeling session, I encountered one of the youth from the program. Actually, he was mostly sullen and a non-participating youth. He was on a smoke break outside, leaning against the building. At first glance, he fit the part of the menacing youth who would be saved by the program from a future trip to prison. As I entered the building, I was greeted by his friendly, stereotype-smashing quip, “Nice logic model yesterday, Dr. Chase.”

“When it comes to youth programs, we’ve known for a long time that successful programs both prevent problems and promote development.”

-Richard Chase

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