Kalamazoo Youth Development Network brings youth in to help build their own spaces

To put it simply, the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network serves as the intermediary for organizations providing youth with out-of-school time (OST) activities, to put it simply.

To simplify their work even more, as an adult might -- they help get youth connected with activities that might prepare them for society, to get them ready for college, maybe give them something to do to get them off the street --

Wait, stop. That sort of preconceived thinking comes out of what KYD Network executive director Meg Blinkiewicz would call "adultism."

Blinkiewicz explains, "We feel like it's our (adults') agenda, right? That we design things, we facilitate things. That we're doing things to and for youth, not with youth, and not having them build a space where they (youth) design and implement, and we step back to equip them to do the work. It's us thinking that we know what's best." 

Junior Ouf of School Time Program Development Coach Percy Gordon.KYD Net brings the youth in to help build their own spaces, and they coach their cohorts -- partner organizations that provide youth programs -- how to empower youth as well. They've created a culture where "youth feel ownership of the projects," Out-of-School Time program development coach Bailey Crist says.

Second Wave went to their Lincoln Elementary headquarters to meet with Crist and other KYD Net coaches Abra Steppes and Justin Brownlee, along with the person in charge Blinkiewicz --

Ope, there's another preconception. "I'm not in charge," Blinkiewicz counters. "'None of us are in charge of anything,' is my philosophy, and we talk about that a lot... the illusion of control. None of us are really in control of anything, in my opinion."

Everyone laughs. "Live life knowing that!" Crist says.

Youth Ownership Culture

KYD Network is "the umbrella organization for 60 youth-serving organizations in Kalamazoo and Calhoun Counties. Our cohort members do an incredible job of building a high-quality learning environment," Blinkiewicz says.

She points to a poster with a pyramid graphic outlining the Youth Program Quality Intervention method of improving Out-of-School Time programs' quality. The David Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality created the method, and KYD Net contracts with them to use YPQI. 

"It's all about having a safe environment where folks are physically and psychologically safe, a highly productive learning environment so that young people can interact with each other, adults, and the learning materials," she says.

At the top of the pyramid is that goal of engagement, but its foundation is "youth choice and youth voice." 

At a Kalamazoo Youth Development Network meeting at Lincoln Elementary. OST program development coach Bailey Crist, executive director Meg Blinkiewicz (in person), OST coaches Justin Brownlee and Abra Steppes (online).Youth Program Quality Intervention is "a standardized approach to building a high-quality learning environment after-school, built on youth voice and choice," Blinkiewicz says. Young people need to have a voice in the planning and organization around programs aimed at them, because "when you have a voice you're much more likely to be engaged." 

They coach programs to help organizations reach the goal of truly engaging youth. To use one example, Open Roads: The bicycle-oriented non-profit has programs to teach young people bike safety, mechanics, and work experience. None of these programs would be engaging for participants if they felt they had no voice in them.

It's more than a matter of simply listening to kids when they speak -- these are organized young voices. Isaac Green, Open Roads interim executive director, says, as part of the KYD Net method, "We host a Youth Advisory Board which is composed of nine to ten students who have previously participated in a program with us. This Youth Advisory Board acts as an advising body to our organization, and functions to support the organization by making sure our programming and activities are relevant, accessible, and equitable for their peers."

"Because of this YAB, we have a very close-to-the-vest heuristic to ensure we are remaining true to our stated mission, purpose, and maintaining high standards for any program we do implement," Green says. 

KYD Network's Impact on Adults

"We're here to coach organizations through creating these really high-quality, engaging organizations, programs, activities, and being partners and co-creating that space," Blinkiewicz says.

"Part of our approach is to deal with what we call 'adultism,'" she says. A big part of their process is "to help adults get out of the way. Our experience is that young people are more than ready. It's adults who don't know how to get out of the way. They bring adultism into that space."

"Today's young people are more than ready. They've got the skillset, the knowledge, the experience," she says. "We bring our baggage.... So a lot of our coaching is helping adults step back and play that supportive, facilitative role, and not the controlling, directive role."

Blinkiewicz says cohort members have told her, "'I have conversations here that I can't have anywhere else. I can't have these in my home organization, I can only have them here.'" 

KYD Net strives for honest "here's what's going on, here's what needs to change" conversations, she says. 

"However we do it, and I'm not sure what the ingredients of the magic sauce are to this day, but we build those spaces and maintain those spaces where folks can show up as their authentic self, and get down to it." 

They hold discussions on what needs attention -- "like wage equity, like addressing the experiences of black and brown folk in the out of school time sector, how to use data disaggregated by race so we can see how white staff interactions with black and brown youth are different than staff of color interactions, or are the SEL (social emotional learning) skills of white children and youth different than kids of color. All those things which can be uncomfortable conversations to have, that's what we have in our space, so folks can gain those skills and take them back home."

Blinkiewicz says "there's been lots of success with adults," and that "translates to young people."

Steppes, attending the interview online, speaks up to say that her involvement with KYD Network has changed the way she views youth and her involvement with her children.

She's a parent who's been in education and has been with KYD Net for three years. Steppes says that being a coach "immersed in the culture of KYD Network, it causes you to just begin to think about things, think about your own life and your habits, the way that you interact with youth. Personally, it's helped me to even look at the way that I parent and improve that. Now it's just natural, normal for me to ask my kids questions about what they think or their opinion, get their voice in anything that we do, from what they want to eat to what we're going to do over the weekend or summer." 

It's important that she, and her offspring, "recognize how important their voice is and to have the choice and agency. I'm here to help guide them still, but they have a voice," Steppes says. "I didn't necessarily feel like I had one as a kid, so I'm glad I can open that door for them."

For herself, at KYD Network "I was able to truly operate as my authentic self, where in other spaces that wasn't always encouraged or celebrated. This is not a place where you have to fit in, but you are really encouraged and celebrated for being yourself." 

Therefore, one's able to "bring your best self to the table and you're able to learn and grow and explore in ways that you weren't before." 

As a coach, she's "helping organizations to do with youth what we're able to do with each other," she says. "It's family... It's not work, it's not a job, it's what we get to do." 

Bailey, now 23, got involved with KYD as a Western Michigan University intern when she was around 20, she says. "Now I work here. It's just very life-changing, honestly," she says.

Bailey says, "I have neighbors across the street from me who have a ton of kids. The kids are always outside, riding their bikes and stuff. And me two years ago would've looked at one of the kids screaming, riding by and all this, and go 'that's a bad kid.' Me now, sees these kids and think, 'What do they need? Why are they acting out, why are they acting this way, how can I help them?'"

She says emphatically, "Kids see the world in a very honest way! If you want to know the truth about something, ask a kid, they will tell you, they will tell you the truth. And there's something pure and awesome about that."

When they get youth involved in an advisory position in groups and programs, "they're going to be honest with you. You're not going to be dealing with anybody that is just, like, scared of telling the truth," Bailey says.

KYD's newest hire is on-strive

Percy Gordon just got on the staff as KYD's Junior OST Program Development Coach.

He's 16, attends Loy Norrix High School. "He is like a shining success story," Blinkiewicz says. Previously, he was junior staff at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo and participated in KYD cohort programs.

They created the position for him? "Yes, they sure did!" Gordon says proudly over the phone.
"This is a big opportunity with KYD Net," Gordon says. Usually, staff positions go to 18 and over. "For me to get in at 16 -- boom!" 

Gordon hopes to attend WMU and go into teaching. He also says that, due to disabilities, some might not see his potential. "I've been hit by a car and a motorcycle, and that pushed me back mentally and physically about three years," he says. 

"A lot of people that first see me, says 'oh, he can't do it,' because the way that I look, the way that I talk and the way that I walk.... I strive for myself to get my stuff done. And just because I'm not an all-A student doesn't mean I can't do this or that." 

At the moment he's working on the Youth Mobility Fund, the efforts of KYD, the City of Kalamazoo and Metro to provide free Metro transportation to Kalamazoo youth.

"The year before, they did that, and it was kinda rocky," he says. Gordon hopes to encourage more volunteers and participation. "Because there will be less negativity because we have Percy on-strive for less negativity!" Gordon says.

"Negativity is not my thing. If this works, more positive stuff can happen.... So it doesn't have to be a two-hour bus ride, it can be only a 30-minute bus ride." 

Gordon sounds like he's ready to bust up any negative roadblocks. "I really strive for youth, especially black youth, to have a future, like me. It's hard for me to see people struggling, youth struggling -- not just black youth, but all youth. But I strategically go for black youth because, it's a hard world for everybody, but black youth need much more attention," he says.

"I want to tell all the youth that I'm here for them and I've been through the same things they have." 

What makes KYD Net special to him? 

It's a space "that I can go to and say, 'You know what? I'm not myself and I need help'," he says.

"You could be the worst kid on planet Earth, we could help your state of mind," he says. "Even though I was struggling, KYD Net was always at my back, saying 'Percy, you got this. Let's go!' You don't have to be a perfect kid... that perfect person to get help. Nobody's perfect -- if that were the case, the world would be messed up more than it is!" 

When he got involved with KYD Net is "when I started actually understanding the system. Not just being 'Percy,' but to think about everybody else."

Gordon strives to think outside of himself -- "I think, what does my brother need for us both to be successful, what does youth in Kalamazoo need for all of us to be successful? I'm not the selfish one. I'd like to know what does everybody need in Kalamazoo, in the world, actually, what do we all need to be successful." 


Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.