October 20, 2021

Asset-Based Youth Development

What does it mean to focus on assets rather than deficits when creating curriculum, programs and activities for youth?

There is a too-easy tendency among people in community-serving roles to focus on deficits in the local community and in the lives of families, children and youth in our community. For many who choose professional, volunteer, and informal work that is aimed at helping others, it is natural to look for problems that need to be fixed. But the more we focus on the deficits in the community, the more we might reinforce those deficits through negative messaging, low expectations, or services and programming that might backfire.

It sometimes takes a deliberate effort to shift one’s mindset to focus on the assets and strengths of the community, to move away from a mindset that you are going to fix things, but instead to seek to simply contribute to good work that is already taking place in the community. Focusing on assets rather than deficits doesn’t mean that we ignore the problems in the community. Instead, it just means that we frame our solutions around a positive vision of the community; use positive messaging; and structure programs to maximize collaboration with others who are doing good work in the community.

What does “asset-based youth development” suggest for career development programs? I approach the concept of “asset-based youth development” through an emphasis on how a healthy community supports teens and young adults in shaping a career path.

People build interesting careers that grow from their early experiences, from the interests and passions they develop, and from volunteer and internship experiences, college, career training, apprenticeships and other postsecondary education experiences and first jobs. In the way that one thing often leads to another, people may follow a linear or less-than-linear path from high school to long-term careers.

Typically and ideally, youth and adults are supported by a mixture of formal and informal experiences along the way, with experiences that draw on the strengths and assets of their communities. Formal experiences include career exploration
programming through school and community: career speakers, career-related workshops, resume writing and interviewing workshops, internship programs, summer jobs programs and the like. Informal experiences can include a variety of
experiences and conversations with family and friends, career-related classroom experiences, after-school clubs and activities, community activities and informal networks that allow students to develop interests and passions and learn about
opportunities in their communities and beyond. Each set of experiences provides ways for community members to support local youth and for youth to build skills and explore future career options.

A positive asset-focused lens is important. Youth can be dis-empowered by messages that emphasize lack of opportunity. Youth are empowered by learning about the wide variety of opportunities that are available and the wide variety of people and programs that can help with first career steps. An open mind to many opportunities is important as well. In contrast to approaches that focus on just a few key industries that will provide the “jobs of the future,” the concept of a mosaic economy suggests that good careers can be found in many different sectors of the economy. It is exciting to approach the future with the idea that the skills and experiences you gain now can lead an interesting career path, with many different great opportunities along the way.


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