Liberatory Learning Environments for Young People and the Adults Who Support Them

Every Hour Counts
8 min readMar 29, 2023

This is the third post in our series highlighting the promising approaches and insights coming from our Thriving Workforce Work Group, where leaders from our national network of intermediaries share their questions, challenges, and innovations as they work to build, retain, and support a Thriving Out-of-School Time (OST) Workforce that looks like the communities they serve. Read our first two posts here:

Do we really understand critical reflection? Are young people supported in identifying and addressing oppressive systems in their programs, schools, and communities? These are some of the questions brought to the conversation by Meg Blinkiewicz, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Youth Development Network (KYD Network) who is facilitating a journey to critical youth development in Kalamazoo. Blinkiewicz’s multi-year effort to support a liberatory, youth-centered approach to OST, drawn from the work of Dr. Bianca Baldridge and Dr. Shawn Ginwright, has included integrating CASEL’s identity, agency, and belonging framework into their approach for observing and evaluating program quality.

Blinkiewicz and other Every Hour Counts coalition leaders worked to see the challenge and opportunity of the OST workforce crisis through a racial equity lens, knowing that BIPOC leaders, practitioners, and staff members were likely feeling the impact most acutely due to the impact of historical exclusion and marginalization they experience. As efforts across the national network led to new insights and practices, leaders were eager to share and reflect on emerging strategies that could be adopted and adapted for other cities.

“We decided our role is to nurture, support, and build liberatory learning environments so all youth can thrive,” shared Blinkiewicz, whose holistic approach considered how youth, the sector, and adults are viewed according to a deficit thinking model. She is not alone in responding to workforce needs by extending the models that undergird positive learning environments to the adults tasked with building and maintaining those learning environments everyday.

Learn about the CASEL Framework >

CASEL Framework Wheel
Interactive CASEL Wheel

State of the Workforce — Tired and Overburdened

The Thriving Workforce work group began convening in late 2021 as the OST field came into the spotlight for its profound and innovative responsiveness to barriers and challenges brought about by the COVID pandemic. As investment in OST programs soared, the staff capacity needed to expand program access and improve quality was not materializing–instead, staff burnout and stagnant wages seemed to be driving many potential and former youth development workers toward jobs that paid more and asked less of them. Since that initial work group meeting, Every Hour Counts network member organizations have worked to listen to former and current OST staff members, increased wages and developed other supports to respond to staff input, and reviewed their internal practices to identify areas of misalignment between programs and values, including centering racial equity and disrupting inequities experienced by the adults as well as the youth in OST programs.

Lifting Up, Skilling Up

“How do we provide support for the adults who are supporting youth to do what I call soul work: a shift in how we think about our personal values, how we think about how we perceive young people?” asked Alandra Chuney Jackson, co-Executive Director of the Youth Development Research Center (YDRC) in Detroit.

“And then we have to consider, how are we preparing adults, as it relates to their personal, internal skills to support young people?”

The YDRC just wrapped the pilot cohort of a new initiative, the Youth Development Equity Accelerator, which aims to build capacity for BIPOC leaders in the OST sector through a Connect — Advocate — Lead model which stipends leaders and strengthens connection between them as they learn. YDRC leaders recognized that funding in Detroit is primarily distributed to large, white-led organizations; this was an opportunity to advocate for BIPOC leaders, and those who look like the youth they serve. The opportunity was available to BIPOC founders, executive directors, and/or BIPOC leaders who have financial decision-making responsibilities (grant writing, grant/budget administration, fundraising, advocacy, etc.) within an organization. These eligibility requirements gave YDRC the flexibility to support BIPOC leaders on the rise while ensuring that the people at the table had the agency to make a real impact on the Detroit OST landscape.

This first cohort demonstrated that BIPOC founders and executive directors have different needs than those who report to white supervisors, which is an opportunity that will inform how Chuney Jackson updates the model for another cohort this year. And it’s a reminder that skilling up is necessary at all levels of an organization if authentic organizational shifts are going to happen.

“When those at the managerial/director level begin to model confronting and challenging their practices, that creates space for other team members to confront their own,” reflected Aleah Rosario, Co-Executive Director of the Partnership for Children and Youth. “The tough conversations are still challenging but they happen more often and are seen as moments to grow rather than something to fear.”

These challenges were front of mind as Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC) launched their Thriving Leaders of Color Fund. White members of the leadership team opted to remove themselves completely from the decision making process. YDEKC’s network members were engaged at every level of the process, which was devised in collaboration with the Equity and Engagement Program Committee; the Fund Review Committee was also made up of leaders of color from member organizations and YDEKC staff members of color. Anne Arias, YDEKC’s Director of Programs and Partnerships, shared that committee members appreciated the opportunity to learn about the work happening in the area, saying that getting outside of their own organizations and hearing about efforts to support leaders of color was inspiring.

“We had 39 proposals and if we’d had the money it’s likely we would have funded almost all of them,” Arias said.

Ultimately, supporting and retaining OST staff members, especially BIPOC leaders grappling with additional systemic barriers, is really a question of whether communities are willing and able to demonstrate that they believe high-quality OST staff are worthy investments. YDRC’s Youth Development Equity Accelerator provided $5,000 stipends to participating leaders, and the Thriving Leaders of Color Fund provided resources that went toward stipends, retreats that grantees envisioned in their proposals, and coaching and other capacity building for BIPOC leaders.

“We have learned that often leaders in these spaces, when they move they take critical institutional knowledge with them,” reflected Chuney Jackson. She’s launching another cohort of the Youth Development Equity Accelerator this year and prioritizing data collection to be able to tell the story of the Accelerator’s impact. The alumni of the pilot cohort will act as mentors to the second group, ensuring that their voices, perspectives, and expertise aren’t lost and further strengthening community building among Detroit’s BIPOC OST leaders. Upon reflecting on the cohort, participants shared that professional skills and community were the most highly valued aspects of the Accelerator experience.

Among the various exciting products of KYD Network’s journey toward critical youth development, perhaps their boldest effort is a liberatory compensation framework that takes into account the true cost of living in the community, pay ranges within the Kalamazoo OST sector, and the difference between executive director pay and practitioner pay. They used this Living Wage Calculator from MIT and United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) data to further understand the nature of the problem.

Learn more about ALICE >

United for Alice Logo
United for ALICE is a driver of innovation, research, and action to improve life across the country for ALICE and for all.

Blinkiewicz notes that examining pay disparities, which are more acute for Black and Brown people, can be a tense conversation that is only possible because of the trust that comes with years of working together in community and facing tough conversations together.

“We have enough trust that we’ve built over the last 8 years and now it’s going to get real,” said Blinkiewicz.

She recalls that at the end of one such conversation a long-time cohort leader reflected that it’s easy to talk about our aspirations for young people, to envision liberatory spaces for youth and much harder to grapple with extending that aspirational thinking to staff in a budget constrained environment.

Powered by Youth Voice, Supported by Adult Guidance

Just as intermediaries in the Every Hour Counts network are working to extend support and investment to high-quality staff, they are also exploring how to extend meaningful agency and decision making power to the young people these programs are meant to serve. The Powered by Youth Voice initiative recently convened young people from six participating communities to reimagine the future of afterschool so it reflects their needs and priorities.

“Young people have incredible ideas about how they want to change their experiences,” stated Hikma Sherka, Every Hour Counts Director of Youth Engagement. “To not engage them in conversations about systems change would be a huge miss.”

The recent three-part Beyond the Classroom podcast from The Wallace Foundation emphasizes that research shows effective, high-quality OST programs are inclusive, accessible, and rooted in centering the needs of the workforce and the priorities of young people themselves.

“It’s really important to make sure that young people are part of the constitution and design of these out-of-school-time programs. Unsurprisingly, like adults, young people feel more invested and committed to the program if they’re a part of its design,” Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky School of Information Science Daniela DiGiacomo shared during the second episode.

Listen to the Beyond the Classroom Podcast — Episode 2 >

Wallace Podcast
Beyond the Classroom Podcast — Episode 2: Creating Programs Where Everyone Belongs

The convening included a pitch competition with funding decisions made completely by young people, who opted to ensure that every idea got funded, with a ranking system to allocate more of the funds to ideas they collectively liked the most. But before they figured out that they wanted this inclusive and thoughtful process, they first checked in to see when the adults were going to come in and tell them what to do.

Sherka told work group members about how young people were eager to share ideas like providing professional development to staff at every level of youth-serving organizations, advocating for compensating youth who bring their perspectives and ideas to the table, and engaging youth at every level of systems and policy change.

“This is a big learning opportunity for the field,” Sherka noted. “The adults need to be trained to treat young people like partners.”

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Every Hour Counts

National Network of Cities Dedicated to Expanded Learning, Equity, & Making Learning Fun