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23 May 2013

25 May 2013

Think Big, Get Big’; the words of a late night cab driver in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, earlier this month, when talking about his ambitions for his yacht and real estate business.

More than just an insight into the American Dream, is this the kick that we in the youth sector need if we’re really going to support and challenge all young people to become the best they can be?

In May, I was invited to attend the national Boys and Girls Clubs of America conference in Orlando, and to visit a number of youth clubs in nearby Broward County.

The familiarity of the experience was overwhelming; sport, music and arts as a means of engagement; the positive relationships between the youth workers and the young people, the sense of a home from home for the boys and girls and a shared set of values and purpose. And when I talked with the youth workers in the clubs and at the conference, it was clear that the core message from London Youth’s Hunch – that young people will flourish with support from trusted adults to develop confidence and character, resilience and relationships – was central to their thinking too.  

Like in the UK, the argument has been made in the US that good youth work works and needs investment and support. The difference in the States is that it is being heard. “The Movement” – as the Boys and Girls Club community call themselves – has high level support from politicians, celebrities and household brands. General Colin Powell was the keynote speaker at the conference; Denzel Washington and J-Lo prominent supporters and Disney sponsored the lavish final night conference party.

As importantly, every shopkeeper or barman we spoke to said they knew the Boys and Girls Clubs’ brand, what it stood for and the difference it made to young people.

Of course, it was heartening to see that there are many things that I believe we do equally well if not better in the UK. When we told our American colleagues about the ways we engage young people in social action, in leadership, in decision making in clubs and programmes for example, they were impressed, and agreed that their own model – for all its strengths – was very top down. So we hope we left them with something positive to think about.

From everything we learnt – and all of the brilliant people that we met out there – I think the most valuable thing was the simplicity with which they communicate the difference they are trying to make through three clear strategic outcomes underpinning everything they do:

  • Educational attainment– homework clubs and literacy and numeracy programmes designed to support improved school performance
  • Healthy lifestyles– diet and sport-based activities
  • Character and good citizenship– leadership and community activities

This doesn’t mean all clubs are the same – in fact, like in this country, we found a real diversity of delivery to meet local need: from cooking and healthy eating programmes; to woodworking and craft skills; mental health outreach and even the provision of primary health care such as dentistry. But all of it was presented – and measured – in terms of its impact on those three core outcomes.

In our programmes and across London Youth’s network of member clubs there are outstanding examples of work on education, health and citizenship. But the idea of all youth clubs offering all three to a similar standard starts to really be an exciting model for changing the lives of young people.

We’re operating in a challenging financial context right now, and it would be easy to think of all the reasons why we couldn’t get to this kind of coherence of offer and standards.

But then I look out of the window of my office and see a group of 13 year olds sitting on a bench, with all the potential and just a need for some structure and support – and I think we owe it to them to be ambitious. We need to start thinking like a movement; being clear about the value of what we do – and making it even better and more consistent for young people.

So we’re going to start looking at best practice across all three of these outcomes; understand what we do well and then work in partnership with other agencies and our members to deliver attainment (and employability), health and character development to all young Londoners. And we’re going to be telling people about what we do, why we do it, and how important it is.

Think Big Get Big.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our learning from the US, or even how we may be able to work together to better achieve these outcomes, please contact hello@londonyouth.org.uk.

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