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Community Programs to Promote Youth Development
behavior, and substance abuse and are more likely to delay initiation of sexual intercourse (Blum and Rinehart, 1997). Conversely, students who feel alienated and left out or rejected by their teachers and schools are more likely to drop out of school (Fine, 1991; Roderick, 1991, 1993). Adolescents who perceive peers as prejudiced report higher levels of emotional stress than those who do not (Blum and Rinehart, 1997). Research with American Indians has found that bicultural school curricula that bridge Indian and European cultures had a positive influence (LaFromboise et al., 1993). Gambone and Arbreton (1997) concluded that settings that provide a sense of membership and belonging to a group and allow for adolescents to be recognized and valued decrease the likelihood that they will become involved in high-risk behaviors, increase their sense of responsibility, and improve self-competence, school attitude, and performance. Finally, similar though incomplete findings suggest the value of opportunities to belong in community programs. Programming strategies for positive bonding have proven effective for adolescents at risk for antisocial behavior (Catalano et al., 1999; Dryfoos, 1990; Lipsitz, 1980; Merry, 2000).
In a multicultural society like ours, the issue of belonging is especially important. One of the first issues for an adolescent walking through the door or even thinking about trying a community program is whether he or she can belong to this group of people: “Will I fit in, will I be comfortable?” The adolescent may ask, not only is my ethnic group welcome, but also will the people here accept someone of my gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or the peer crowd that people think I belong to (e.g., jock, nerd)? Research suggests that these considerations can be significant barriers that keep adolescents from joining youth activities (Larson, 1994). Beyond the issue of interpersonal comfort, we also discuss here the constructive role that community programs can play in helping adolescents address underlying developmental issues related to sociocultural belonging. Whether one is a member of a minority group, the dominant culture, or has not decided, there are important issues to be faced about how one fits into the diverse and sometimes conflicting marketplace of cultural messages and identities. Along with schools, community programs provide a particularly valuable setting for youth to work on these important developmental tasks (Merry, 2000; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000a).
The theoretical foundation for this feature lies in a number of cultural theories: anthropologists’ emphasis on intrinsic links between person and culture (LeVine et al., 1988), sociologists’ insights into integra-