Pieces of the Whole: Looking at the Puzzle of Youth and Community Development
by Jessica Noble
Central Hub Manager, YouthREX
I like to imagine community development as a large puzzle, with multiple layers, perspectives, and players working together to create this masterpiece.
Grassroots youth initiatives are similar to the outer pieces of the puzzle, helping to provide shape and structure. YouthREX is like one of the inner puzzle pieces that provides connective supports that contribute to the ways in which the different pieces connect and for explaining the who, what, why, and how of youth program impacts. Grassroots youth initiatives and co-existing support networks make critical contributions to the overall work of community development.
Evaluation is also part of the puzzle. YouthREX’s contribution to the puzzle of community development is to work collaboratively with grassroots youth programs through our
Customized Evaluation Supports (CES) to help youth programs understand and improve their program processes and outcomes.
As YouthREX’s Central Hub Manager, I have had the privilege of working with these puzzle pieces and contributing to seeing the overall big picture emerge for both grassroots youth organizations and the sector. In less than a year, I have worked with over 25 impactful youth programs, including those that provide mentorship, teach expression through art, offer entrepreneurial supports and services, provide client-centered peer counseling, and offer educational-based programs, just to name a few.
I like to imagine the youth sector and all the incredible community development work happening throughout, as a tapestry puzzle that integrates the strengths and diversity of all of Ontario’s youth programs! A consistent and critical piece of the puzzle that I’ve noticed is the dedication and passion of program coordinators and volunteers, often devoting many unpaid hours to operate the program. Additionally, through evaluations of these programs, I’ve also learned about the ripple effects of youth programming from the actual program participants to the broader community (e.g., sharing of knowledge, increased sense of belonging within the community, community-building through volunteer opportunities and program events).
As we work through an evaluation, we often gain unexpected insights. For example, after working with YouthREX to create a program logic model, one CES organization decided to stop program operations and revamp their program because they realized how far their activities had drifted from their original plan and objectives. Their puzzle pieces weren’t matching up! They needed to re-define their outer pieces as well as sort through their inner ones. The learning-focused approach employed by CES helps organizations to match up their big picture and component pieces (during the Discovery phase) before embarking on an evaluation plan. In reflecting on this, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned through this work, and some of the pieces of the puzzle that I see as important.
Putting the youth community development puzzle together: Five key pieces
1. Engage youth in the evaluation process: Youth hold important pieces of the community development puzzle. They have vital knowledge and unique experiences to contribute, including providing feedback on program activities and evaluation methods, and reviewing tools to ensure they are youth-friendly. Evaluations of youth programs are stronger when they engage youth. This is why one of the six standards that guide YouthREX’s evaluation work with the youth sector is a commitment to meaningfully engage youth in our evaluation processes. More importantly, including youth in evaluation and program planning provides them with opportunities for skill-building. It’s not always an easy sell to include youth in evaluation but requires extra thought. Take a look at some of our youth engagement resources for more tips on this!
2. Value the time and work of youth: It is important to show youth that their contribution to the community development puzzle is vital by valuing their time and work. Providing youth with honorariums, gift cards, or even food during a work session shows them that their contribution is necessary and valued. Additionally, as programs implement recommendations produced from evaluations, it is important for youth to see that their input and voice are contributing to the changes they advocated for. Watch this webinar featuring Visions of Science CEO, Eugenia Duodu, speaking on this topic.
3. Take evaluation step-by-step: Evaluation can seem overwhelming, especially for small but complex programs with limited staffing. However, many programs already have pieces of the evaluation puzzle in place (e.g., collecting intake information, documenting program activities)! I support programs to start small and begin to build an infrastructure for integrating evaluation into programming over time. Take evaluation step-by-step. Begin with one component of evaluation (e.g. intake form) and really nail down what information you need to collect, the purpose of collecting this information, and how this information can be used to better understand and improve your program. Eventually, evaluation will seem less overwhelming and will simply become a part of program practice. Take a look at this blog post written by one of YouthREX’s research assistants, Sidney Shapiro, for more tips on this, and check out his webinar on data wrangling as well!
4. Value mutual learning: Here at YouthREX, we take a collaborative approach in co-creating evaluation processes with youth programs. Each of our CES organizations helps us to engage in reciprocal learning and feedback loops. We are consistently learning from and sharing with others across the youth sector. Make sure that you take the time to connect with similar programs and build a network of support and community resources. Remember, everyone brings their own experience and knowledge to the table, so capitalize on that!
5. Build your own capacity: A wise professor once told me, “You know more than you think you know”. Be confident in the skills and knowledge you possess and start there. For example, maybe you have never created a survey before but have great communication skills and enjoy face-to-face interactions. You can use that skill in an interview setting. One of the ten recommendations from YouthREX’s study, Beyond Measure: The State of Evaluation and Action in Ontario’s Youth Sector is that youth sector programs should provide professional development opportunities for frontline staff to learn the fundamentals of evaluation. YouthREX therefore has an array of accessible resources about evaluation (e.g., an online evaluation certificate, evaluation toolkit, eXchange library, measures inventory) that are available to you at no-charge. Evaluation is a really great skill so do all that you can to build your own evaluation capacity.