Opportunities to Belong

Promoting a sense of belonging is fundamental to attracting and retaining the participation of young people, as well as helping them develop confidence and a personal identity. Young people need to feel included, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, personality, or physical, intellectual, or social limitations.

A program’s curriculum and strategy describe what it does and how it carries out its mission and goals. A number of things about the nature of a program’s curriculum and strategy matter for youth involvement, the benefits youth derive from participation, and the sense of belonging that is nurtured. One is the quality of program content; another is the extent to which activities embed various learning goals. At the most basic level, a sense of belonging and inclusion requires that the program strategy attract and interest young people. “Activities for youth need to be attractive to the youth audience. This means having fun, fresh, and interactive things to do” (Morley and Rossman, 1997). Youth want challenging, age-appropriate programming.

A program’s size and membership may also fundamentally shape its design and operation and its ability to adequately offer opportunities that promote meaningful inclusion. Membership matters not only to its approach to youth development but also to how it organizes itself to facilitate opportunities for youth. The target membership for a program may be broad or it may focus on a particular ethnic or religious group. It may be only for boys or only for girls. It may be restricted to a particular age group. Some programs reach out to disenfranchised or at-risk youth; others limit participation to young people who have maintained a certain grade point average or have applied or auditioned to participate in the program. Many programs seek a heterogeneous set of participants to build understanding and tolerance among young people. Many of the national organizations, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, focus their activities on a large, diverse group of community participants. Some other programs are targeted toward homogeneous groups in order to offer specific support, cultural awareness, a sense of belonging, and pride to a particular subgroup of youth.

Both the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) and the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC), for example, are organizations that nurture belonging among youth with particular histories and experiences. They are committed to offering supports and opportunities to socially marginalized youth—in the case of CYWD to young female prostitutes in San Francisco, and in the case of

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