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What is the secret sauce to PYE’s work? Presenting, our Theory of Change.

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We envision a world in which all young people lead creative, purposeful lives.

I won’t be the same ever. It was magic,” said 15-year-old Kanisha as she flew into her mother’s arms upon returning from the Power of Hope Camp, a youth leadership program run by Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE). Kanisha’s mom later reported positive changes in her daughter’s self-concept and attitude, way beyond anything she had imagined possible. “For one thing, she talks to me now, a lot, and that’s big!”  

At PYE we take transformative programs out of the realm of “magic”, by designing and leading them informed by principles and practices of our Creative Empowerment Model. We believe that transformative programs—learning experiences that increase young people’s concept of what’s possible for themselves and our world—are crucial for healthy youth development. “Every child needs and deserves transformative learning experiences,” wrote PYE co-founder Charlie Murphy, “and making this happen is not rocket science.”  

 What is the magic sauce that creates transformative outcomes?

The Creative Empowerment Model integrates three bodies of practice–experiential learning,  group facilitation, and the intentional use of arts-based activities. While experiential learning and basic group facilitation techniques are widely used, the intentional addition of arts-based activities is what makes PYE’s model unique. “It’s through imaginative expression that we connect with our creativity, one of our human superpowers and a key lever for developing a sense of empowerment,” says PYE co-founder Peggy Taylor. 

In PYE’s world, every human being is creative. Rather than the long-held view of creativity as solely making great art or social innovations, we define creativity as our ability to think things up in our imaginations and make them happen in the world. In their book Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelly, founders of IDEO concur: “Creativity isn’t some rare gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few–it’s a natural part of human thinking and behavior.” The question is not whether we are creative, but, it is how much access do we have to our creativity. Say the Kellys: “In too many of us, it gets blocked. But unblocking creativity can have far-reaching implications for yourself, your organization, and your community.” 

As we learn to recognize and gain confidence in our creativity, we develop what psychologists and educators call “self-efficacy”--a belief in our ability to positively affect the world around us. And this leads to empowerment, which by our definition is “the ability to envision and enact the life we want for ourselves, our community, and the world”. Through this, we are working for a world in which every young person can participate in transformative experiences that teach key life skills, and develop a sense of empowerment. 

This empowerment begins with adults.

A recent report commissioned by the Aspen Institute identified the lack of educator training as a critical roadblock to successfully implementing social/emotional and life skills programs for their students. “If our goal is for children and youth to learn to be self-aware, to appreciate the perspective of others, to develop character, and to demonstrate integrity, educators—both in and out of school— need to exemplify those behaviors within the learning community,” the 2019 report emphasized. Properly empowering educators to develop these social-emotional skills is not only essential but also improves their wellbeing. 

Thus, our theory of change begins with training adults. In PYE trainings, adults go through a transformative process that enhances their self-efficacy. They learn principles and practices for supporting young people in developing their own self-efficacy, and create highly effective learning environments that engage young people, nurture their creativity, curiosity, sense of connection, and build other crucial life skills.  

Our adult trainings focus on four elements: 

  • Increase self-efficacy through creative engagement. Participants–even those who never thought of themselves as the creative type–connect with their creativity and experience the resulting sense of empowerment. 
  • Learn dynamic group facilitation and program design skills, and build a toolkit of arts-based activities that build group cohesion and foster life skills. 
  • Engage in self-reflection activities that support personal growth and social/emotional skills that allow them to form strong partnerships with youth. 
  • Reframe their view of youth to recognize and build on their strengths rather than focusing on fixing things they think are ‘wrong’ with them.
An illustration of our Theory of Change

Key Characteristics of Transformative Learning Environments

Through PYE’s adult training,  practitioners gain skills in designing learning environments rich in three characteristics central to fostering transformation: psychological safety, shared leadership among youth and adults, and healthy challenge.   

Psychological safety: PYE trainees learn creative techniques and program models for developing a strong sense of safety and community in a group that builds trust and respect. When young people trust and respect one another and themselves, they are able to risk expressing themselves without fear of ridicule or judgment. Research conducted by Harvard Business School’s Dr. Amy Edmondson indicates that psychological safety is the signature trait of successful teams. As echoed by a participant of PYE’s Creative Facilitation training: “I learned very effective tools for creating a safe container in which people can feel creative, confident, and seen. It goes beyond facilitation; it is connection, agency, and lifting up of the community.”

Shared leadership among youth and adults. When youth and adults feel psychologically safe, they become more open to one another’s ideas. This in turn leads to a willingness to share power and leadership-–the second characteristic of a highly effective learning environment. We also refer to this as ‘youth-adult partnerships’, and recognize it in feedback when youth say, “I felt safe with the adults, and I never feel safe with adults,” or “I enjoyed the judgment-free zone. Everyone came as they are, and that was okay!” An accumulating body of evidence demonstrates that youth-adult partnerships contribute to a range of positive youth development outcomes such as agency, identity, civic engagement, mental health, and improvement in organizations and communities. 

The Creative Empowerment Model nurtures partnership among youth and adults by providing both groups a shared language–-the language of the imagination–-through participating together in arts-based activities. A teacher from PYE’s Creative Classroom training puts it this way: “I will listen to my students more, move together with students vs leading them. It is less about learning a skill and more about creating space to safely explore and own our unique selves.

Healthy Challenge: The third and final aspect of a highly effective learning environment is healthy challenge. We provide this by using multi-arts-based activities to give everyone in the group–youth and adults alike–the opportunity to take increasing levels of creative risk.  An early challenge, for example, might be decorating a name-tag. This may be followed by building a group rhythm and then playing easy theater improvisation games to learn names. Each time a person steps up to a creative challenge and is met with the appreciation of the group, their confidence grows. They gain the courage to take bigger and bigger risks. Before you know it, a child with extreme stage fright might find themselves happily performing a spoken word poem to a large crowd at an open-mic session. As participants feel accepted, supported, and heard, they become more willing to say yes to trying new things, and in the process, they discover hidden strengths and talents and develop the courage to more fully participate in their world.  

In their book In Search Of Deeper Learning, researchers Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine point out that “The generation of youth coming of age today will be asked to navigate, survive, and, if they can, help to heal the world they have inherited” (p. 11). We believe that creative efficacy–a combination of creative confidence and self-efficacy–is fundamental to accomplishing these tasks. That’s why we are placing our bets on preparing adults with the skills and tools for creating learning environments that nurture creative efficacy in young people. Our theory of change explains why our model results in transformative impact.

A more detailed version of our theory of change is on its way. Until then experience our programs – register for a training or workshop.

Authors: Andrew Nalani, Nilisha Mohapatra and Peggy Taylor

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