Nov. 1, 2006

ACT for Youth involves communities to help keep young people away from violence, abuse and risky sex

ACT for Youth views young people as resources to be nurtured, rather than problems to be fixed.

An innovative Cornell project, ACT (Assets Coming Together) builds community partnerships to promote adolescent health and well-being, and help youths, ages 10 to 19, with such challenges as violence, abuse, risky sex and pregnancy. The program focuses on changing environments youth live in by supporting communities to create more opportunities for young people to thrive.

Jefferson County's probation department, for example, has replaced language in youth assessments that inadvertently reinforced delinquency with more holistic phrasing that builds on strengths. In Otsego County a small-grant program for youth-centered projects allows young people to decide where money gets allocated.

Launched in 2000 as a New York State Department of Health initiative, ACT entered its second phase July 1 with a new five-year state grant for $850,000 annually that will support expansion into the New York City metropolitan area. Cornell's Family Life Development Center (FLDC) leads ACT, including the project's Center of Excellence, which provides technical assistance, training and resources so that communities can promote positive youth development.

This positive model asks, "How can we promote thriving, caring and compassionate behavior in our young people?" said Jane Powers, project director for the ACT Center of Excellence. Powers said a paradigm shift must occur away from models aimed at reducing risk and problems to approaches that foster positive behaviors and build on young people's strengths. The model promotes youth/adult partnerships and creates structural changes in communities and their programs. Currently, 12 such partnerships are funded throughout the state.

In Erie County, ACT acted as consultant to the Buffalo Public Schools helping youth and school administrators work together to create and conduct a survey to identify ways to make the schools safer, and more supportive and engaging places to learn. The survey is now being used to determine what kinds of structural changes might need to take place. Eventually, students may have a seat at school board meetings and a voice in curriculum decisions and become part of their own educational process. The survey data also will help determine which schools are flexible enough to allow such shifts to occur.

In Jefferson County, a youth/adult community council recruited more young people to help plan community service projects, repair playgrounds, and develop intergenerational activities and a winter festival.

Such changes, however, require time and sustained effort to succeed, according to extensive evaluations of the organizations and communities involved.

"We have learned that the local organizations we work with have to reorganize themselves to operate in this youth development mode," said Stephen Hamilton, co-principal investigator for the ACT program and associate director of FLDC. "They really have to change the way they function to make that happen."

In addition to Cornell, the Center of Excellence during the first phase included the University of Rochester Medical Center's Division of Adolescent Medicine and the New York State Center for School Safety in New Paltz. The second phase has added Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of New York City.

"We'll be providing training and technical assistance for the three partner sites in the New York City area, which include Staten Island, Queens and Nassau County," said Jackie Davis-Manigaulte, a senior extension associate with CCE-NYC. "A major part of the work we are doing is to provide the resources so the community partners can use them to make things happen for youth within their communities."