When Impact started ramping up its resiliency-focused youth development activities (most evidently with the 2014-2016 Health Canada DSCIF-funded VYPER [Valley Youth partnership for Engagement and Respect] project), it wasn’t immediately clear—our partners recall—what was happening, how, or especially why. Things began clarifying when partners had the opportunity to directly and viscerally experience young people who were not only members of marginalized populations, but who were often the specific youth that many service providers despaired over… in a completely different light. VYPER’s youth-adult-partnership activities (e.g. VYPERences, “Real Talk” Q&A meetings) highlighted young people’s abundant strengths and capabilities (despite many of them still working, with various levels of immediate and durable success, to untangle themselves from personal, interpersonal, familial, social, structural and intergenerational complications and trauma).
With Impact’s subsequent Youth-Elder Partnership (YEP), and its current FLOH (Foster System, Life Promotion, Opioid Dialogue, Harm Reduction/Homelessness) projects, at the insistence of our involved youth, we have been transitioning from a youth-adult-partnership model to a youth-led, adult-supported model. For many youths, while youth-adult-partnership was life-changing, this switch has been profound, as it has given them concrete and evident responsibility for the program. The program is what they make it… or don’t make it.
Youth have uncovered a surprising paradox by taking on this hefty responsibility… that responsibility can lead to new forms of freedom. Youth report finding themselves gradually more-capable of improving their sleep habits, adjusting their partying schedules, reorganizing their social networks, re-orienting themselves to strained relationships, seeking counselling, adjusting their substance use… all because they are now responsible for their own program and its success.
The youth-led, adult-supported model has as its hallmark that it is not just meant to be strength-based, but—more-profoundly—based on its participants’ strengths. Because youth want their program to be strong, this has provided motivation… a reason… for them to stretch and challenge themselves to grow stronger, more functional and dependable.
Often, we think the useful question, when it comes to troubling behaviours, is not “Why do people do what they do?” The answer to this is usually self-evident—centred around experiences of physical/emotional/social discomfort or pain—which we all experience to some extent. That’s life! Focusing on this question can lead to a sense of hopelessness. There’s no way to take the experience of discomfort or pain out of life (even drugs, self-harm or other obsessive behaviours or thoughts can just mask it for a while).
What might be a more-useful question is: “Why wouldn’t they?” What opportunities do people have where they are going to feel they matter—or will be missed if they are too out of it to show up? We think this provides a much more-hopeful focus. We can all do things that build connection and make people feel like they matter and will be missed when they aren’t around.
Increasingly, not only have the young people involved demonstrated surprising (to themselves and their communities) capabilities, but when exposed to naturalistic research on resiliency factors (e.g. Brown, Gaetane & Beck, 2010), they have been able to explore, discern and then articulate and advocate for the factors that led to their own improved resiliency.