Helping young people understand themselves, their potential, and the world around them is crucial to sustaining strong communities. Community-based programs striving to achieve those goals need consistent, trusted leaders who can keep young people engaged and ensure the programming is meaningful.
For programs like Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS)—a community-based program in Washington, DC, that aims to improve young people's knowledge of sensitive subjects such as sexual health and safety, self-confidence, and cultural pride—establishing trust is even more important. Core to PASS are its facilitators, curriculum content, community setting, and inclusive approach. Urban Institute researchers developed the PASS curriculum and an evaluation of it in partnership with DC residents and community-based organizations using a collaborative process called community-based participatory research.
A youth program needs more than a strong curriculum to be effective: it needs dedicated facilitators who bring the curriculum to life and shape young people’s experience with it. Most PASS facilitators are from DC, serving the communities they come from and leaning on their own lived experience to relate to the young people they work with. A few are newcomers to DC who were drawn to the opportunity to work with young people and share their own coming-of-age experiences with them. The facilitators all demonstrate the importance of having trusted adults lead community-based programs and serve as role models to ensure young people feel safe, supported, and set up for success.
We talked with five program facilitators: four who work with Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a service provider in DC that implements the PASS curriculum, and one who works with Yaay Me!, which offers other similar community-based youth programming in the city. To learn more about their experiences, we asked them all the same question:
Why are community-based facilitators crucial to the success of youth programs?
Their answers emphasize the importance of investing in community-based facilitators who lead with relatability, consistency, and sincerity as they set an example for the young people they work with.
Cameron Brannum, facilitator at Sasha Bruce Youthwork
“It is effective to see somebody that looks like them because they might not have seen how to conduct themselves as a young man or young lady. When they see Cam, Cam is not going to feed into the frustration. He won’t try to have a power struggle, he’ll stay calm. When I’m facilitating, I hope the young guys can look at me and say, ‘This brother is a model for how a man is supposed to move.’ You cuss me out, that’s on you. You talk trash to me, that’s on you. I’m going to keep my composure and let you know I care about you. Whenever we get new guys in the group, the guys tell them ‘Cam ain’t going to budge.’ And I’m not. Because I know that if I break stride, they’ll be able to say he’s just like this person or that person. I try to be an example for them. And hopefully when they see me, they see love.
“My passion comes from being a part of the community that I’m now serving. But while I grew up in these communities, I haven’t gone through all of the things they’ve gone through. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of things, but my story and their story is not exactly the same. What makes me successful I believe is having the heart and compassion for them, and at the same time having skill. Some people believe it’s enough to either have a master’s degree or to be part of the streets, but I think both of those things—education, whether it’s learned education or experience—all that really helps.”
Arun Ramkissoon, lead facilitator at Sasha Bruce Youthwork
“I'm an immigrant, and I grew up finding it hard when I first moved here, and I understood the importance of adult role models in my life. So, that was really cool that I could be that to students. Especially with some issues and topics, when it comes to gender roles and stereotypes, sexuality, LGBTQ education, that was not provided to me. And that's something I want to provide to the youth I work with, because absence of that can lead to poor decisionmaking.
“For them to feel comfortable to share, they need to feel comfortable with you as a facilitator. To develop that trust from the beginning, you should also think about stuff you've gone through as a facilitator, hardships you've faced, and be vulnerable to share that with the youth. If you're able as a facilitator to have these lived experiences and to share them with youth, it comes across more genuine and authentic, and I think the youth also realize that, and the lesson hits home more for them.”
Victor Battle, lead community navigator at Yaay Me!
“I have a vested interest in making communities in the city a safer place. I’ve got nine kids, and I don’t want to get a phone call saying somebody that I could’ve reached out to killed my child and I did nothing about it. DC’s low-income communities are high-violence zones, so those are the people that really need it the most. Because I came from that environment, it’s easier for me to go back in. It’s difficult for you to tell young people how to navigate something you’ve never been through. If you can show them, ‘If you do this, I guarantee you this is going to happen.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I did it already. But if you do this just a little bit different, you won’t have to worry about that.’
“In the community, most of the kids look up to the people that dress nice. So I tend to buy nice things. When the new Jordans come out, they know they’re sold out and they couldn’t get them, but I walk up with them, and they’re like, ‘But he don’t sell drugs though, how’d he get them?’ Sometimes it gives you a level of respect, too. They say, ‘I’m going to talk to Mr. Battle because he’s got the new Jordans on.’ That’s all I need is a way in. Once you got a way in, the little kids are going to be like, ‘Oh OK, Mr. Battle is doing something different, isn’t he?’ I’m big on showing them another way. I get up every day and put my feet on the ground trying to change another young person’s life, to be that example. Every day, that’s my passion. Whoever it is, go change his life.”
Ronyae Bellamy, cofacilitator at Sasha Bruce Youthwork
“I was a participant at first before I got offered a job. I was in the program for a year or two before I was asked for the position. When I was in the program, I liked how they came into a community that a lot of people don’t want to come into at all. They came in, they showed they cared. Not just saying that because it was their job, but they actually care for the people they were teaching and helping. That’s what made me want to be with them even more. They became a family. They were my friends and they were my mentors as well. They were telling me when I was right and when I was wrong. That made me feel that they were trying to help me be a better me.
“So I was in the program, and now I’m working for it. Some of the kids connect to me because I’m young, and I’m kind of like them in a working form. By them knowing you, that builds the trust just a little bit. Because they knew you from just constantly seeing your face around, they feel like they know you without really knowing you.”
Will Anderson, facilitator at Sasha Bruce Youthwork
“The things that I've learned through this program, I grew right along with the youth. It’s important for us to be sincere, to let them know that there are certain things we don’t know and just empathize with them. And making that space feel safe, judgment free, because if you have somebody that's sincere with you that can share similar experiences, it shows support and it makes you feel less judged, because we were once there where you are. So, I think that's cool because they are able to see that you can relate. And then you can kind of pull from that space and provide them with resources so they don't repeat some of the decisions that they made, so they don’t have the same consequences.
“I feel like sometimes people that are too close to a frame, they don't see the whole picture. With us having the ability to be another resource and mentor for them, we can step back and see that their future is brighter. They need somebody to remind them outside of parents or family that, ‘Hey, look, there are other caring adults out here in the world that want to see a better version of you.’ And having that encouragement come from not just your family, but outside of your household too shows, ‘OK, this is intentional, but also at the same time, this is real. This is not artificial. This is real.’ It's that saying, right? It takes a village.”
This feature was funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration on Children, Youth and Families. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Zach VeShancey
PHOTOGRAPHY AND DESIGN Rhiannon Newman
WRITING Emily Peiffer
To learn more about the PASS project and for additional resources, visit our project page.