Relationships and Equitable Environments: Meeting Young People Where They Are

By the Search Institute

How well is your organization doing at creating an equitable relational climate where all young people have access to the resources and relationships they need to thrive?

Creating more equitable climates in our classrooms and programs takes knowledge, investment, and resources.

Search Institute’s Rooted in Relationships model is a research-based approach for understanding how to build a strong web of relationships that includes youth, teachers, program leaders and staff, families, and other adults. Relationships thrive in this fertile ground.

How do we understand, prioritize, and continuously nurture equity in these contexts?

Why Focus on Equity?

“…one of the most important things is to listen and we aren’t always good listeners, especially when we have a ton going on. We tend to communicate the same way with everyone, it’s our tendency, but really we need to tailor it to individual needs.”— OST staff, Twin Cities metro

Search Institute’s State of Relationships case study examined the quality of relationships in schools and OST programs. The study is based on surveys of 668 school and OST staff and leaders who work with middle and high school-aged students in Minnesota.

The motivation for this study was to deepen our understanding of the actions staff and leaders take (or, do not) to build a relationship-rich culture within their organizations for all young people. Questions of equity were at the center of this work.

Youth of color are more likely than their white peers to experience poverty and trauma. Centuries of systemic racism, as well as racist and discriminatory actions of individuals, have created vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes in education and social capital-building. This includes higher chances of youth of color having under-resourced schools, fewer opportunities to participate in relationship-rich OST programs, and living in poverty, all of which contribute to relational disconnection.

Youth who have their unique needs met do better in nearly every aspect of their development. Thus, the relational gap for marginalized youth presents a significant threat to their well-being. Although macroeconomic policy responses and cultural shifts are needed to end systemic racism, we know that strong youth-adult relational webs are also powerful mechanisms for disrupting inequity.

Meeting Young People Where They Are

“We can do a better job of making sure that the experiences all students have are more equitable. For students who are economically disadvantaged, why is their experience different? Well, if you want to play basketball in our society, your parents have to have financial abilities in order to be able to get you on the traveling team, so you can be competitive enough…So I think, systematically as a society, we could be doing things differently that would provide a more similar experience for all students.” — OST staff Twin Cities metro

What do we mean by “equity” when it comes to positive youth-adult relationships? We mean that each young person gets what they uniquely need to discover who they are, grow their talents and interests, and contribute to the world.

Equity in youth-adult relationships is not the same as equality. Equity means recognizing that some young people begin life in an unfair position through no fault of their own. They experience historic and systemic marginalization that can hold them back unless it is interrupted.

Equity involves sometimes providing more or different kinds of support and opportunities for youth from historically marginalized backgrounds to increase their odds of success.

Equity is negotiated every day in every interaction we have with youth. Nurturing relational equity is an ongoing and continuous process.

3 Strategies for Creating an Equitable Climate

When we looked at the data from the State of Relationships case study, we found that the schools and OST programs focused on creating an equitable climate were doing three things:

  • Intentionally creating an environment where young people feel their individual needs are seen and responded to;
  • Reflecting critically about how to improve organizational policies, programs, and practices to ensure that all young people experience positive relationships with staff;
  • Tailoring their approach to building relationships with each young person based on their unique needs and/or circumstances.

Let’s take a look at how staff felt their schools and programs were doing.

Although the overall numbers indicate that schools and programs are taking steps to create an equitable climate, it’s important to recognize that about 1 in 4 staff felt their organizations were not utilizing these strategies.

Further, only 64% felt these strategies were “very important” in helping their organizations meet their goals.

We can — and must — do better.

Harnessing the Power of Community

Schools and programs can’t do it alone. We are encouraged to learn that 70% of the staff and leaders reported that their organizations were leveraging resources in the wider community.

These partnerships help young people and their families by strengthening that web of relationships. When an entire community is committed to creating a more equitable environment for young people, we all win.

Professional Learning that Promotes Equity

“Another thing we do with our staff is looking at our own culture and our own backgrounds and learning about ourselves and where we come from and taking a deeper look at our story. If you don’t know yourself, how are you going to be able to understand and empathize or be able to be as open to learning about somebody else?”— School staff, Twin Cities metro

One of the most concrete ways to go about creating a more equitable learning environment for young people is for staff and leaders to learn strategies for promoting equity. The majority of staff reported having access to equity-focused professional development opportunities:

  • Trauma. 76% of participants reported their organization had received equity-focused training on trauma and its impact on young people’s physical, social-emotional, and mental health and how to support them.
  • Bias examination. 74% reported their schools and programs had trainings that encouraged them to examine their conscious or unconscious biases and how those biases affect their relationships with youth.
  • Relationship-building. 73% reported their organizations offered training on how to build relationships with youth who have different backgrounds and experiences than staff. And 63% said their organizations trained them to build relationships with young people who may be facing discrimination because of something about them (e.g., ability, race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation).
  • Role of organization in systemic racism. 56% of school and OST staff and leaders said their organizations offered opportunities to critically examine the role their program or school plays in reinforcing or interrupting systemic racism.

Centering Equity Every Single Day

The State of Relationships case study provides a valuable snapshot of the health of organizations and their efforts to build equitable spaces where strong youth-adult relationships thrive.

Our hope is that we all learn from the organizations that are centering equity by tailoring their approach to building relationships with each young person; reflecting critically about how to improve programs, policies, and practices to make sure every young person has a caring adult to connect with; and intentionally creating an environment where all young people are heard, seen, and responded to.

We believe these findings indicate many schools and programs are heading in the right direction. But fair and just climates don’t just happen, they require a relentless focus on equity — on the part of all youth and adults who make up the communities within these organizations.

If we do this, the result will be a better world.

To access the resource, please click here.