Using Photos to Capture Young Adults’ Experiences with Positive Youth Development

November 9, 2021
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    • Abigail
    • Cheyenne
    • Donovan
    • Dontre
    • Kenneth
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While some job training programs have employed Positive Youth Development (PYD) as an approach for working with young adult clients and their unique situations, qualitative research on PYD has generally not incorporated these young people’s own perspectives. For this project, Child Trends has used photovoice—a method that draws out youth voice through photo-based prompts—to learn how young people themselves feel about their experiences with Positive Youth Development.

  • Child Trends used the qualitative research method of photovoice to develop five profiles of young adult participants in a job training program partnership—Generation Work—that highlight real, youth-focused experiences with positive youth development (PYD) supports in job training programs). Photovoice allows each participant to provide examples, in their own words, of how individualized supports from programs can increase their sense of empowerment and give them a feeling of belonging. For program staff and organizational leaders, the profiles can help more concretely define how ideal PYD approaches should look—perhaps as part of an actionable training or manual on PYD.

    The profiles appear below. Each profile highlights specific experiences raised by young adult Generation Work program participants when asked about program supports that had helped them. In addition to highlighting experiences with Generation Work supports, the profiles offer intimate insight into participants’ lives. Each of these young people arrived at their respective program with unique needs, experiences, and goals. Each struggled in school or lacked the support that all young people need in their transition from high school to the next step in their lives, and each completed programming that helped them follow their own path and create their own goals along the way.

What is Positive Youth Development?

Positive youth development (PYD) is an approach that encourages providers of services for youth to focus on their clients’ unique attributes. Programs that incorporate a PYD approach are youth-oriented and aim to be responsive to a young person’s goals and circumstances. Many youth practitioners refer to this practice as “meeting young people where they are.”

While this approach may seem challenging to many staff, programs that focus on young people’s individual needs, goals, and strengths can better facilitate their participants’ completion of a program, training, or other initiative. PYD approaches can help program staff better meet the needs of individual participants by supporting the development of positive relationships with young people; ensuring physically and emotionally safe environments; strengthening linkages between organizations, families, and communities; and improving youth’s developmentally appropriate skills (both their soft skills and their academic and technical competencies). Each of these principles is defined further in the PILOT tool.

Key photovoice session themes

  • In their profiles, each young person describes PYD supports that were critical to their success and growth—often without knowing that these approaches fit under a term called “PYD.” Young people’s relationships with program staff members made them feel seen, supported their self-care strategies, helped them identify goals for themselves, and ultimately made them feel more full and more human. Participants described relationships with staff that were positive, supportive, and affirming, and told us about environments that were safe for learning, in which they could ask for and receive help, and where bullying was not tolerated. They used words like “family” or “loved” to describe the feeling of being a part of a program, spoke about how prior educational environments had made them feel not smart or not competent, and remarked that their program staff’s faith and belief in them had allowed them to dream bigger. The young people also spoke to the fact that—after years of traumas or unreliable adults in their lives (abusive parents, social workers who weren’t present, or teachers who exacerbated feelings of inadequacy)—staff in these programs showed patience and kindness and allowed them to begin to heal.

    • Each participant developed positive relationships with staff in their programs that allowed them to receive individualized attention and feel cared for.
    • Participants felt that the environments in their respective programs were more supportive than those in other educational settings.
    • Each program was committed to helping participants experience a sense of belonging. This sense was different for each participant but, collectively, the feeling of belonging helped all participants persevere in the face of program challenges or difficult life circumstances. Several young adults even referred to the programs as feeling “like family.”
    • Programs placed participants in positions where they could feel empowered to give back to their communities and to those in need. Several participants sought jobs that would allow them to help others in the way they had been helped.
    • Participants reported few conversations about race equity. While each program focuses on incorporating racial equity approaches into their work, most participants did not recall explicit conversations about racism.

    Photovoice and interview themes are shared in more detail in a separate brief (PDF).

Youth profiles

Abigail - PYD helped a young mom finish school and find a promising career

  • Following the suicide of a close friend, Abigail struggled in her traditional public school and needed a program that would help her stay on track academically. In her junior year of high school, Abigail enrolled in the program at the Excel Center—charter high schools operated by Goodwill in and around Indianapolis that provide training and certification and link young adults to services and continuing education. She finished the program, graduating before she would have in traditional high school, and went on to study nursing at Ivy Tech. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Abigail struggled with online classes and switched into a program to become a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, which was quicker to complete and more hands-on; this helped her stay motivated and on course. Her guide from the Excel Center helped her find a scholarship to cover the cost of the program so that it remained an affordable, quick path toward hands-on, interesting paid work. Now a single mom, Abigail works in an industry with room for growth that builds on her desire to help people and her strong interpersonal skills.

  • Abigail’s relationship with her son is a source of motivation and challenge

    Two pairs of shoes—one large, one small—next to each otherIn the initial interview, Abigail did not mention her son. In one of her first  photos, though, her shoes and her son’s shoes were posed next to each other. Abigail is like many adults in job skills training programs who care for family members—their own kids, siblings, parents, or grandparents—and this caretaking is an important part of her responsibilities. She shared that being a single mom with a young child has strengthened her resolve to succeed and care for her son, but has also required that she be very good at managing her time and dealing with emergencies. The picture of her shoes and her son’s shoes reminds her that they are safe and that she is succeeding at caring for him, with the help of her family, her church, and her community. Abigail’s guide at the Excel Center has been very supportive as she navigates both her professional goals and her goal of being a good mom.

  • Abigail draws strength from her peer relationships and from her own potential

    A wrist with a bracelet with a butterfly charmMany of our young participants had big dreams—jobs that are interesting and make them happy, educational pursuits, or businesses they wanted to start. Abigail shared this photo of a butterfly bracelet that was a meaningful gift from a friend; to her, this photo captures not only the importance of strong peer relationships, but also her own potential. When she wears it, it reminds her of that positive relationship with her friend. However, the symbolism of the butterfly is also important. Specifically, Abigail spoke about the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly and the beauty and magic of that change. She likes to think that she can acquire the competencies to become something more accomplished, beautiful, and strong.

  • Abigail values self-care and care for others

    A scented candleOne topic that emerged across multiple conversations and photos for this project was the ways in which different respondents practice self-care. Abigail took a picture of a candle that she likes to light, noting that the look and smell of the candle helps her relax. As she has grown up, Abigail has realized the importance of prioritizing self-care, and has learned that if she doesn’t care for herself, then she loses the emotional bandwidth to be there for others.

    Abigail's face wearing a maskAbigail also shared a photo of herself wearing a mask and commented that the act of wearing a mask helped others in two ways: both physically protecting them from COVID-19 and preventing them from feeling like they needed to ask her to wear a mask. Her act ensured that people could trust her to protect both their physical and emotional safety while they were in the hospital, where she was training.

  • Abigail’s car feels like a safe place of her own

    The interior of a car

    In Abigail’s final photo, she shared an image of the inside of her car. She shared this photo in response to a prompt to show a place where she feels most like herself. Abigail noted that her car meets many of her unique personal needs. She has many memories of places she has gone in her car, but it is also a place where she is free to be herself: to listen to her own music and dance, take a moment before she transitions into her day, or drive and only think about what is in front of her—rather than about her anxieties or stressors. Abigail also talked about how her car is a place where she can care for her son—making sure he is safe in his car seat, has snacks, etc.—and know that she’s taking him places he needs to be. Additionally, as a tool over which she has control, Abigail’s car is a space where she recognizes and feels a sense of control over her own life.

  • Abigail’s photos demonstrate the value of holistic and trusting relationships

    The pictures that Abigail took, and the way in which she talked about choosing them, highlight several key PYD practices. Specifically, many of Abigail’s photos spoke to the importance of program staff getting to know participants as whole people. Rather than using the same “cookie-cutter” approach with everyone, staff in programs that serve young adults should instead work to understand each person’s unique motivations and struggles, what stresses them, how they care for themselves, and what makes them feel like their most authentic selves. Abigail’s photos also highlight the importance of both providing and benefiting from trusting and supportive relationships. Her photo narratives emphasized the value of recognizing and building positive linkages across multiple types of commitments, and visualized a positive path to reaching one’s goals. Additionally, the fact that themes such as motherhood only emerged through photos (and not during interviews) suggests that some young adults may feel more comfortable opening up about themselves, their needs, their goals, and their struggles through nontraditional or more creative avenues.

Cheyenne - PYD helped a young woman build confidence, support others

  • Despite being a straight-A student, the teachers at Cheyenne’s traditional high school did not support her learning disabilities and her need for extra time on exams. She also reported being bullied and that the construction in her school building was causing her asthma to flare up regularly, which made her frequently miss class. These factors combined to make it impossible for Cheyenne to graduate on time. In her junior year of high school, Cheyenne enrolled in the program at the Excel Center—charter high schools operated by Goodwill in and around Indianapolis that provide training and certification and link young adults to services and continuing education.

    At the Excel Center, Cheyenne was able to get her diploma, earn several college credits, and graduate cum laude. She was very shy when she started at the Excel Center, and she credits her coach and another teacher with helping her build confidence. Cheyenne learned to do job interviews and speak up more often. While her initial plan was to apply for a four-year college program, she ultimately applied to Ivy Tech and intends to transfer to a four-year college. Cheyenne is currently doing a social work internship and aims to continue to study social work. Overall, the Excel Center has allowed Cheyenne to blossom. While she once would likely have been too shy to sit for an interview with us, she now leads workshops with military veterans at her social work placement site and hopes to continue in the field of social work.

  • Cheyenne uses art and creative expression as a de-stressing tool

    A colorful mandalaCheyenne shared the image of a mandala to talk about two topics in her life: the importance of art and creativity and the way in which creating art helps her deal with stress. Each student at the Excel Center is assigned a coach who helps them set and attain goals. Cheyenne’s coach connected her to an affordable art class during a particularly stressful period in her life; she appreciated that her coach knew that this was something she would enjoy and thought to connect her to the opportunity. While the art class has ended, Cheyenne still regularly draws or otherwise exercises her creativity. The mandala image is from a coloring book that Cheyenne uses. She told us that doing this kind of detailed coloring is one way for her to de-stress at the end of a busy day or week. While the exercise is a little bit mindless, it helps her focus and think about the day.

  • Cheyenne’s grandparents are a source of motivation and comfort

    Cheyenne’s second shared photo was of a sunset in a winter landscape. She took this photo because she used to go for walks with her grandfather while the sun was setting, before he passed. Cheyenne grew up with both of her grandparents and continues to care for her grandmother. She spoke of her grandfather as someone who took care of her throughout her life and who was good at helping her become less shy. Cheyenne’s grandfather reminded her regularly of her self-worth, even when she was being bullied at school or struggling with health issues. Therefore, these walks in the evening continue to remind her of him and motivate her to continue to succeed. They also are a way to help her slow down and think or reflect on her day when she has been busy and has not had a chance to stop and breathe. Learning about the people in Cheyenne’s life, and how those people helped—and continue to help—her set goals and achieve those goals is important context for her coach and other Excel Center staff. With this knowledge, they can better help her learn to de-stress and find motivation on challenging days.

  • Cheyenne values her social work career

    When prompted to take a picture of the best part of her day, Cheyenne shared this image of herself. She had just parked in the parking lot of her internship, and has said that the beginning of her work day is her favorite part of the day. Cheyenne works in an organization that supports veterans who need help finding housing, jobs, mental health care, and other services. She loves her work and has even brought some lessons from her art classes into the program. She introduces these art classes as a way to support veterans to learn more about self-care and to slow down and focus when their minds are racing. Cheyenne has drawn on the support that she herself has received from staff at the Excel Center to make people feel like they belong and are accepted for who they are.

  • Cheyenne’s ability to adapt to change has led to opportunities

    A picture of a banner for Ivy Tech Community CollegeWhen Cheyenne graduated with her high school diploma, she intended to continue on to college. This was a lifelong goal, and she applied to several four-year programs. However, there was a delay in receiving the financial aid package for the school she intended to attend, so she was unable to start on time. Her coach at the Excel Center helped her apply quickly to Ivy Tech and to receive financial support. While she was initially disappointed in herself and in the need to change her plans, Cheyenne quickly adapted and began to look at the positive side of this shift. She knew this was a more affordable option, that it would allow her to explore what areas of study were most interesting, and that it would give her real-world experience in an internship. Now she plans to complete her associate’s degree at Ivy Tech and then transfer to a four-year college or university. The support from her coach at the Excel Center made it easier for her to quickly change directions and to emotionally adapt.

  • Cheyenne’s photos demonstrate the value of relationships and individualized support

    Cheyenne’s photos, and the way in which she discussed them, highlight several key PYD practices. Two of her photos show how her Excel Center coach’s attention to her individual situation and needs has been critical to her continued success. In the first picture, her coach helped her find an opportunity to make art—something she values and enjoys. Art helps her reduce her stress and feel like a more complete human. Cheyenne’s explanation for her fourth picture (the Ivy Tech banner) emphasized how her coach helped her change paths when the financial support for college did not come through in time. This support helped her make a satisfying second choice that still helped her work toward her long-term goals. The fact that her internship is the best part of Cheyenne’s day, and that she described how she has overcome some of her shyness at work to start new initiatives like art programming, also suggests the importance of building skills and placing young people in positions that interest them. Finally, Cheyenne was very close to her grandfather, and the memory of his kindnesses and care for her helps her stay motivated to succeed. Knowing more about young people’s families and the people who are important to them is a key way to connect with and motivate them.

Donovan - PYD supports helped a young man feel cared for and valued

  • Donovan grew up in the child welfare system, spending time in both foster homes and group homes. After a recent experience in a group home that felt unsafe, he was moved to a foster home in Hartford. In October 2020, Donovan’s social worker connected him to Our Piece of the Pie (OPP), a youth-serving organization in Hartford, CT focused on education, training, and career readiness. Donovan needed support to apply to college, and his therapist suggested that OPP could also help him find a job to gain additional work skills and experience. Donovan is interested in going into social work and plans to attend college after he graduates from high school. Having worked in an afterschool program as a counselor, and at his church, Donovan hopes to work in youth development or counseling in the future.

    While Donovan feels that he lacks confidence in approaching the difficult college application process, he has started looking into universities and conducting virtual tours. At OPP, a youth development specialist helped Donovan find employment, receive needed support, and set goals and strategies to achieve them; this specialist also helps him troubleshoot specific challenges now that he is employed. To this end, Donovan’s youth development specialist is helping him edit his college essay, apply to waive the fee for the SAT, and prepare his FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms.

  • Caring relationships matter to Donovan

    Donovan explained that the handwritten holiday card from his case manager is proof of people going above and beyond to create a relationship. From Donovan’s experiences, it is often difficult to trust social workers and teachers: In the past, both have expressed a desire to support him but have not always followed through, or have made him jump through hoops that satisfy their systems’ needs rather than his own. In contrast to those experiences, Donovan saw this card as an example of his case manager, who connected him to OPP, doing something simple to build their relationship and be reliable. This made him feel cared for and attended to, which had a large impact on him. Donovan noted that making an extra effort doesn’t have to be a huge effort, expensive, or time-consuming; it simply needs to be genuine.

  • Donovan values accommodating diverse learning styles

     Image in a restaurant with instructions about how to care for someone chokingDonovan shared this instructional poster as an example of accommodating different people’s learning needs. It was hung in a place where the public would be able to see it, allowing everyone—those who can read and those who learn better visually—to know how to assist someone who is choking. Donovan commented that, in his experience, many programs only focus on one type of learning style and aren’t supportive of young people who learn orally, of those who learn visually, or of those who need to learn by doing, practicing, or trying something out. Program staff may be frustrated by students who appear unmotivated, when such students actually need help learning in the style that best meets their needs. For example, supporting a student’s individualized education plan (IEP) could be a way to understand how their motivation changes when they are supported to learn in the ways that work best for them.

  • Donovan believes in looking past first impressions

    The respondent's bedroomWhen discussing this photo, Donovan described it as “my messy room; but if you look closely, you can see my work clothes laid out for tomorrow.” He noted that, as a child who grew up in foster care, having a safe and comfortable room of his own is something he is thankful for and doesn’t take for granted. To Donovan, it was important that OPP staff recognized this aspect of his background—what his experiences have been and what is important to him—in an effort to better understand his behaviors and needs. While Donovan noted that this room was a space that was physically safe for him, we also discussed how it can be easy to make assumptions about people based on first impressions. For Donovan, calling attention to his preparation for work the next day was a way to challenge people’s assumptions about him being a disorganized teenager. Even in the messiness of his teenage room, he is ready and prepared to be responsible.

  • Donovan’s relationship with music inspires him and helps him connect with others

    A Digital Audio WorkstationDonovan has always been inspired by music. He knew that learning to work in a Digital Audio Workspace would require time and dedication. Toward that end, Donovan has been working on his music mixing skills for over a year and, after a lot of trial and error, he feels good about his successes. Making music is fun for Donovan, and he wants to reach out to others and make connections with people through music. He doesn’t create music because he sees a career in it; instead, he does it to express creativity, relax, and connect. While Donovan may not become a professional musician or creator of music, it is easy to see how he could use this experience in his future work in youth development or counseling. When program staff who work with Donovan in other contexts learn about his interest in music and how it affects his life and outlook, it helps them better understand his priorities, goals, and motivations. In turn, this allows them to better connect with him as a whole person.

  • Donovan’s photos illustrate the important of flexibility and looking past first impressions

    Donovan’s pictures illustrate the impact of PYD approaches for young adults, and are powerful and instructive for program staff in highlighting the importance of key PYD practices. Specifically, developing genuine relationships can make a young person feel cared about and included. Getting to know participants as individuals can help staff link participants’ goals and interests, help them feel seen as whole persons, or help them learn coping strategies for stress and anxiety. For many young people in employment programs, their lives inside and outside of the program may feel completely separate. They participate in the program to gain skills, and then return to their friends, families, hobbies, and interests outside the program; these factors influence participants even though they are not part of the job training space. For many young people, sharing aspects of their “outside” lives inside the program can be an important way to feel seen as a person. Recognizing different learning styles and strengths can represent the difference between success (attaining a high school diploma or being professionally successful) and failure in a program. Finally, it is important that programs avoid assumptions based on first impressions. Everyone is unique and everyone faces challenges, but even with challenges, participants are capable of success.

Dontre - PYD helped a “social butterfly” build trust and confidence

  • Dontre dropped out of high school in the 12th grade: At that time, he didn’t feel supported by his teachers and often felt unliked and intellectually incapable of finishing school. Dontre learned about the Excel Center right around the time that he dropped out, but it took him seven more years to reach out to staff to enroll. During those seven years, Dontre struggled with housing instability. He moved from place to place and, at a low point, was living on a friend’s couch. He started at the Excel Center because he wanted to complete the training to get a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. Dontre started the program in January 2019 and graduated in May 2020 with both his high school diploma (required before the license) and his CNA license.

    In addition to helping him complete his degree and licensure, the staff at the Excel Center also helped Dontre find stable housing and obtain a bus pass to get to and from school and interviews. Most importantly, the staff at the Excel Center helped Dontre realize that he could trust them: When staff said that he was smart enough to finish school and persevere, he believed them. Through this support, Dontre now has a new sense of confidence in himself.

  • Dontre’s relationship with his goddaughter is a personal motivator

    A little girl watching televisionOne of Dontre’s motivators was and continues to be his goddaughter. As other young adults shared with us, Dontre values being able to care for and be responsible for someone important. In every one of his conversations with us, he mentioned his goddaughter and described how his role in her life was important to him. He said, “I take great pride in being in my godchild’s life, and I believe I do it pretty well.” Finding stable housing so that he could help care for her was important to Dontre and, to do that, he knew he needed a job. Dontre also recognized that he liked to care for other people and that nursing might be a job that built on his strengths. Once he identified these three drivers—housing, his goddaughter, and caring relationships—he knew he would need to succeed at school, and subsequently used that motivation to do so. Dontre often brought his goddaughter with him to the Excel Center, where the staff knew that she was a source of motivation for him and welcomed her presence. They also made sure to remind Dontre of this motivation source when he was having a hard time.

  • Affirmations of support helped Dontre build trust

    A text message exchangeDontre did not share much with us about his distance from his own biological family, but it was clear that, at times, he needed to test whether people were really supportive of him. Dontre noted that it took him a while to trust that Excel Center staff cared about him and really wanted him to succeed. The image to the left—one of Dontre’s photos—is a screenshot of a response from a staff member to a text message Dontre had sent when he was having a bad day. In his original message, Dontre said that he felt like no one cared about him.

    The staff member’s response, shown here, helped him realize three things: 1) that she did care about him, 2) that his own words could be hurtful (and that he didn’t want to hurt this person), and 3) that he could trust people at the Excel Center to be consistent, reliable, and present even when he tried to push them away. Dontre, like many young adults in job skills programs, has faced numerous challenges and traumas that can make it even more difficult to succeed in a program or training. One such challenge is Dontre’s need to test the strength of his relationships, since far too many people in his life have not been reliable or present. The staff at the Excel Center gave Dontre the space to learn to trust, to make mistakes, and to still rely on them. This did not mean ignoring his sometimes hurtful or—in his words—”childlike” behaviors; as this staff member told him in her response, she was hurt by his original text. But instead of giving up on him, yelling at him, or just walking away, she engaged Dontre, reminding him that he mattered. By doing so, she showed him what caring looked like in an adult friendship and helped him learn more about how he himself wanted to behave. This patience was a powerful motivator to Dontre to continue working hard.

  • Small reminders of his worth motivate Dontre

    A rock with the letter "U" on itThis image shows a “U” rock. The director of the Excel Center program gave Dontre this rock with the letter “U” painted on it to remind him that “you rock.” Dontre told us that he carries this rock around with him regularly and puts it on his bedside table each night before he goes to sleep. This highlights two things.

    First, this small act by the program director was really a profound gesture to Dontre, a message also heard from other young people—that showing someone that you care does not have to be a big event and does not need to require a lot of effort or time. Small gestures—cards on holidays, gift cards, a text message check-in after a difficult day, or a “love emoji” in response to a cute picture—matter, as long as these gestures are genuine.

    Second, the gesture showed Dontre, again, that the director believed he mattered—something that Dontre needed, as it represented a small mantra that he could repeat to himself. Because Dontre struggles to remember that he’s capable and smart, it’s important for him to carry this rock with him as a tangible reminder of his worth. He shared with us that it meant so much that he wanted to make a similar rock for his goddaughter and for staff at the Excel Center.

  • Dontre’s dynamic relationships define his social outlook

    A self-portrait with butterfliesDontre told us that he thinks of himself as being like a butterfly. In other words, much like a butterfly, Dontre flies around from flower to flower; he said he can sometimes be perceived as a “social butterfly”—or as part of many different social groups. When we told Dontre that another young adult in Generation Work had spoken about their transformation from a metaphorical caterpillar to butterfly, he commented that the imagery spoke to him as well. Dontre hopes that he is on his transformation journey toward becoming a beautiful butterfly who can fly many miles. To support Dontre effectively, Excel Center staff had to recognize that this part of his personality—his interest in different topics and people and his need for social connection—is what drives him. He is not a person who can be tied down and, to help him succeed, staff needed to support him in his variety of interests and through his exploration. This included ups and downs and an abundance of challenges, but Dontre is driven by his curiosity and love for the people in his life. He has thrived at the Excel Center in part because he has learned to see this trait as an opportunity and not just as something he needs to change about himself.

  • Excel Center staff were patient with Dontre and helped him find stability

    Dontre’s pictures illustrate what PYD approaches mean for young adults and highlight the importance of key PYD practices. Specifically, genuine relationships can make a young person feel cared about, valuable, capable, and included. Dontre’s descriptions of his relationship with his goddaughter and the ways that the staff member showed her care for him in the text message illustrated how important significant and meaningful relationships can be in creating motivation. It was important that staff members recognize some of the difficult exchanges as moments for growth for Dontre when responded to in the right way. Dontre was used to not doing well in school and had internalized that identity. He needed to trust staff before they could push him to challenge that narrative. Other profiles in this series have addressed the importance of not making judgments after first impressions, and Dontre’s experience highlights the importance of looking beyond single impressions. If staff had responded with offense or anger when Dontre tested boundaries, he could have dropped out of the program. However, when staff were patient, showed consistency, were emotionally available, and responded in real ways, Dontre was able to trust and then learn from staff.

    Getting to know participants and their unique personalities can help staff support participants as they identify goals and paths to reach those goals. Finally, working with Dontre’s personality—his many interests and friends and his ability to be easily distracted—was important for his success, but so was helping him find stability through safe housing and food. The latter helped Dontre begin to build on his identity, and allowed staff to help him focus on his transformation from caterpillar to butterfly.

Kenneth - PYD’s emphasis on personal connections helped a young refugee pursue his dreams

  • Kenneth is originally from Venezuela and came to the United States to visit his sister and her husband. In Venezuela, he worked as a translator, and his primary goal for his visit was to improve his English so that he would be able to serve as an English translator when he went back to Venezuela. However, during his time in the United States, the instability in Venezuela became too great to return home, and Kenneth applied for asylum as a refugee.

    In 2018, once it became clear that he would remain in the United States, Kenneth enrolled in the program at the Excel Center—charter high schools operated by Goodwill in and around Indianapolis that provide training and certification and link young adults to services and continuing education—after his brother-in-law connected him to the program. At the Excel Center, Kenneth continued to learn English and, after encouragement from his teachers and coaches, he also decided to finish his high school degree and enroll in college. Kenneth is now studying in a college program in the United States and working in a restaurant, and hopes to someday start his own business.

  • Kenneth’s self-care routines help him persevere through challenges

    Programs like the Excel Center support young people who have struggled or failed at school in the past for some reason. These young adults often work hard to succeed at tasks that may nevertheless bring up feelings of failure, low confidence, disbelief in their abilities, or frustration. Staff members can help them work through some of these emotions, but can also help them identify ways to care for themselves—to be patient and gentle with themselves not only as they learn new academic or technical skills but also as they learn to push through some of these fears of inadequacy. When working to reach these challenging goals, self-care is an important way to reset and persevere. For Kenneth, taking long baths helps him relax. He shared this photo of a rubber ducky to capture his specific tactic for relaxation and to emphasize the importance of self-care. Although we did not provide any prompts specifically about self-care, this theme arose for all participants in the photovoice project, highlighting how program staff might support young people by identifying safe and constructive ways to relax and take care of themselves when something is difficult.

  • A cup of tea symbolizes Kenneth’s ideal learning environment

    Chinese teapot, tea, and small cakeKenneth also provided another concrete example of how he mentally slows down and resets with his photo of a teacup and cake. While originally from Venezuela, Kenneth’s family is Chinese, and this image shows one of his favorite Chinese desserts and a cup of Chinese tea. He noted that he took this picture when he was stuck on one particularly challenging math problem in his homework. In that moment of frustration, he recognized that he needed a break. Kenneth prefers a quiet environment when he studies, and the tea and cake helped him be calmer and more focused. Specifically, he commented that taking a break for something relaxing and enjoyable can help him slow down his thoughts and step away from a moment of stress.

    This change of pace helps Kenneth work through a challenge and see the bigger picture. He reminds himself to “take small steps towards great successes” and that he needs to “take [his] time and do it piece by piece. Take baby steps.” It’s important for staff to provide opportunities to practice this kind of exercise in the program and to reinforce self-care at home. When a participant expresses frustration in the program, harsh disciplinary action may not help them learn to cope with their emotions or address the root causes of those emotions.

  • Global citizenship is part of Kenneth’s identity

    View of the sunset through an airplane windowKenneth shared this image of the view out of an airplane window to discuss how he thinks about the concept of belonging. Even in Venezuela, Kenneth was always viewed as Chinese; now, in the United States, he’s a refugee. He recognized that he doesn’t belong to only one country but, rather, that he is a citizen of the world. Kenneth’s openness is part of what has allowed him to succeed in the United States, where he has learned a third language and set out on a new life path. One thing that made him feel that he belonged at the Excel Center was that the staff there knew his journey, respected his successes, and recognized the multiple cultures that shaped his identity—and how those could be a strength for him.

  • Small highlights can change Kenneth’s day

    In Spring 2021, Kenneth came down with pneumonia and was sick for a few weeks. It is possible that Kenneth was dealing with a symptom of COVID-19, which highlights how many young people working in restaurants (like Kenneth) were at risk of catching the disease. The picture of a coffee cup was taken on Kenneth’s first trip outside once he finally felt better. He went to run errands and get a cup of coffee, and later reported that sitting down with the cup of coffee was the best part of his day. This picture captures how small, fairly normal activities and/or gestures can have a big impact on someone’s day.

    Even though Kenneth’s coffee indicated his own improved health, routine activities can have this effect even during more regular life. Kenneth wanted to highlight how a small gesture, a meaningful conversation, or support from a coach or teacher could have a large influence on his day and his overall well-being. Staff should not underestimate their power to impact someone’s day.

  • Family connections are powerful for Kenneth

    This image is of the entry space of the apartment that Kenneth shares with his sister and brother-in-law. He commented that, each time he comes home, this small, welcoming space reminds him of his family’s role in supporting him. They have helped him get settled and succeed in this new country. Each item on the table has meaning for Kenneth or one of his family members.

    He shared this photo to highlight that staff members can help motivate, connect, or support participants by knowing who in the participant’s family is important to them and what joint values they share.

  • Kenneth’s pictures illustrate the importance of personal connections in PYD approaches

    Kenneth’s pictures illustrate how personal connections and recognition of the whole person are key components of PYD approaches, and how meaningful this recognition can be for young adults . Beyond the classroom—where they helped Kenneth learn English language skills—staff who specifically help young people create healthy systems for self-care and stress management can also help them persevere through challenging tasks. Kenneth’s images of his family and his sense of belonging to the world highlight how getting to know participants as individuals can help staff identify participants’ goals and motivations and acknowledge their unique life journeys. Finally, for many young people, small gestures and actions can make a large difference in their lives. Kenneth—along with other photovoice participants—noted his appreciation for some of the small ways that staff members showed support: food; small gifts or pictures; check-ins about something that had happened a few days prior; or linkages to a different program, scholarship, or mentor.

Summary of Generation Work and the photovoice methodology

  • As part of the Generation Work Initiative, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, five local partnerships around the country committed to incorporating PYD approaches into job skills training programs for young adults (ages 18-29). Over three years, Child Trends developed an organizational reflection tool (the PILOT tool), which facilitates internal discussions about how programs incorporate PYD approaches. Child Trends then developed case studies highlighting unique efforts to incorporate a PYD approach within each partnership. In 2020 and 2021, Child Trends shifted from collecting data from programs and staff members to collecting data directly from young adults who participated in the programs.

    For this product, the five study participants profiled below completed a multi-month photovoice activity. In addition, seven other individuals participated in a single interview. These interview response data were collected from September 2020 to May 2021. Collecting qualitative data directly from young adults had two purposes. First, participants themselves are best able to recount their own experiences and to describe how, or whether, they benefited from the positive environment, services, and relationships fostered through the program. Photovoice allowed us to collect information from youth themselves about their experiences. Second, providing examples of PYD approaches could be useful for additional practitioners in the field by illustrating how a program can implement an individualized PYD approach for young adult participants. Further details about the methods of the photovoice activity are shared in another brief (PDF).