News from the Field: Youth and Opportunity United Focuses on Values

Last year, 21st CCLC programs across the country adapted their programming. The Out of School Time (OST) Grades 3–8 Program at Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) faced the same daunting situation. The OST Grades 3–8 Program, whose responsibilities include managing 21st CCLC grants, responded to the many challenges of 2020. Instead of waiting for the return of what they remembered as normal life, however, the team embraced 2020 as a year of transition and updated the program’s statement of values. 

Y.O.U.’s OST Grades 3–8 team began considering updating their program’s values before 2020. Then the pandemic and newly heightened concerns about racial justice intensified the importance of adopting afterschool values that would help support youth through 2020 and beyond. “I think 2020 has been a year for everyone to strategize and reset . . . in order to figure out a new way of working,” says Dr. Esmeralda Rodriguez, Y.O.U.’s senior afterschool program manager for middle school programs. “We go through this period of turmoil and denial [but] we have to keep moving forward, because we are working in the service of others.” 

As the OST Grades 3–8 team worked on their program’s values over the summer, team members intentionally aligned them with those of their organization and the community they serve. The Y.O.U. organization operates around four values, and in 2020 the organization also made public commitments to racial justice and serving the community during COVID-19. The OST Grades 3–8 team also recognized that their students’ experiences reflected long-standing systemic inequities in the community. “Some of our kids were personally . . . impacted [by COVID and protests against racial injustice],” says Rodriguez. “Some people were seeing it happen outside their windows and asking, ‘What does this moment in time mean for us? What is this moment in time asking us to do?’” says Rodriguez. “This time is asking us to have a clear vision and be fearless in our commitment to anti-racism and to equity.”  

The new values the OST Grades 3–8 Program developed included a renewed focus on culturally relevant programming and a commitment to strengths-based practices. “I don’t think anything in our values is brand new to us,” says Rodriguez. Culturally relevant programming has been part of Y.O.U.’s mission historically, but the afterschool team wanted to ensure these values were explicit in their 21st CCLC work. The strengths-based approach represented a commitment to building on the social and emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed care that Y.O.U. offered

The Y.O.U. OST Grades 3–8 team wanted their values to acknowledge that while youth and their families were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism, they were also working to create change in their communities. The new values reflected a commitment to helping students build the skills and experiences needed for those endeavors. By being explicit about this vision, the OST Grades 3–8 Program could also ensure that everyone would understand their intentions and hold each other accountable for upholding the vision. 

As the OST Grades 3–8 team prepared for the 2020–21 school year, the new values informed all aspects of their work. Y.O.U. recruits AmeriCorps members to work in the organization’s 21st CCLC program, and when new service members joined the team, they learned about the program’s values during the onboarding process. When afterschool programming began in the fall, afterschool leaders and staff used the statement of values to guide staff manager check-in meetings. 

Recently developed afterschool curricula and activities also reflect the new program values. In the Artivist class, for example, students explored the intersection of art and social movements, learning how artists use media like music, painting, or poetry to deliver a social message. The class culminated with students researching a social movement and creating a work of art that reflected what they had learned and their own views on the topic. Another afterschool class offered a greater focus on poetry and its role in social change. The 21st CCLC offered both of the programs as part of its online programming in the fall. A third program, Climate Avengers, is scheduled to be offered in 2021. In this course, students will learn about the climate and how it affects different communities, emphasizing local food and sustainable living. 

Y.O.U. serves three different school districts, and implementation of the programs varied among the districts depending on each district’s online learning platform and related student participation requirements (video, chat, etc.); however, all of the 21st CCLC activities were relevant to students’ experiences and cultures, validating their experiences and empowering them to draw on their strengths to engage with and change their communities. “These really beautiful curricula were completely grounded in [academic] content with an infusion of SEL that kept exploration of identity, society, and community completely at the center of student learning,” says Rodriguez. 

As 2020 drew to a close, Y.O.U. was preparing for in-person programming to begin in January, but, like many 21st CCLC teams, the team members realized plans may change. Whether offered in person or online, 21st CCLC programming will be grounded in the OST Grades 3–8 Program’s new values. Acknowledging the ongoing change, Rodriguez sees the statement of values as a way for afterschool staff and students to stay grounded. “There is so much information that we don’t have,” says Rodriguez. “As leaders, we have the responsibility to locate solid ground and lead our teams to stand on solid ground, . . . to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. . . .’ and to keep floating.”