Seeing is Believing: A Baltimore Team Explores Opportunity Youth Solutions in Mexico

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On the image: (from the left) Kerry Owings, Vira David-Rivera, Jacque Hayden

In their search for effective and innovative approaches that provide opportunity youth with what they truly need—positive experiences, positive relationships, and positive environments—stakeholders in the United States are embracing the idea that inspiration for solutions can come from abroad.

As part of a series of cross-cultural learning exchanges led by IYF's (Re)Connecting Youth initiative, from August 14-16, representatives from the Baltimore City Health Department Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) Re-engagement Center, and the Mayor's Office of Employment Development (M.O.E.D.), Westside Youth Opportunity (YO) Center, crossed the border into Tijuana, Mexico to learn from a fresh, highly interactive program that equips youth at risk with the tools needed to lead healthy, successful lives.

In 2014, Fronteras Unidas Pro Salud, a Mexican NGO supporting the health, wellbeing, and social development of vulnerable populations, successfully adapted the youth employability Órale model for incorporation with its own comprehensive health program, Gente Joven (Young People). The result is a work readiness initiative that combines a dynamic peer-to-peer approach with holistic, youth-friendly health services.

“When you can see young people impacted by a program, that’s what makes it real.”

Kerry Owings, Manager Westside Opportunity Youth Center, Baltimore

This learning exchange seeks to explore whether elements of Pro Salud's approach could be adapted in Baltimore city, which has one of the highest ratios of opportunity youth, with one in five of the city’s 18- to 24-year olds neither working, nor in school.

Here are three key takeaways from this first face-to-face meeting between exchange participants:

  1. Cultural barriers don't have to be an obstacle when it comes to finding solutions for youth reconnection.

    The exchange offered proof that potential solutions for critical issues such as youth disconnection can be found abroad. A diverse group of people from the U.S. and Mexico came together to openly share their own challenges and better understand the complexity of youth disconnection in both cities.

    Both the Tijuana and Baltimore teams were familiar with issues including teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse, and both teams were determined to find solutions that address root causes. Jacque Hayden, who serves as the Instructional Leadership Executive Director at Baltimore City Public Schools, concluded that Pro Salud was successful in selling the Órale approach as a violence prevention initiative and felt the same strategy could be effective in her city.
  2. Shared responsibility is key to advancing comprehensive youth development initiatives.

    During the visit, Pro Salud hosted a thought-provoking session with members of a strong collaborative network that supports and validates the Órale program. Participants included representatives of the State Commission of Human Rights, the State System for Integral Family Development, the Baja California Youth Institute, the Center for Violence and Crime Prevention, the Domestic Violence Unit, and the Training Center for Industrial Work. 

    When asked what attracted them to join with Pro Salud, State Human Rights Commission representative Miguel Mora explained: “In order to achieve our institutional objectives, we need to collaborate with effective, proven initiatives like this. It’s a matter of shared responsibility.” The Baltimore representatives agreed that meaningful collaboration and shared responsibility were essential to Pro Salud’s success in delivering comprehensive wrap-around support services for youth.

    A meeting was also held at the Tijuana City Hall, where Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum, along with the Directors from the Municipal Secretariats of Social and Economic Development, reaffirmed their support for the work of Pro Salud in the border city.
  3. Don't just listen to young people's voices—prioritize them.

    The most uplifting moments of the exchange came when youth demonstrated the powerful role they can play as part of the solution. The Baltimore group had the chance to witness Órale's highly interactive, peer-to-peer training method in different parts of the city, in addition to attending open dialogue sessions with youth beneficiaries.

    “They are a driving force for us,” said Diego, a 22-year-old Órale graduate, of the support, confidence, and friendship offered by the program’s young staff. “You cannot find an environment like this anywhere else.” More than any program evaluation, these youth voices demonstrated best the program´s success. Kerry Owings, Center Manager for the Baltimore City M.O.E.D., noted, “When you can see young people impacted by a program, that’s what makes it real.”

    Vira David-Rivera, who currently leads the citywide Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative to improve the reproductive and sexual health of young people in Baltimore, warmly expressed her appreciation to a young group of facilitators in a closing session: “Thanks to you, we leave with so much hope.”

A second part of this targeted learning exchange is planned for mid-October, when Pro Salud representatives will travel to Baltimore. Both teams will continue the conversation started in Tijuana about how to adapt and incorporate successful practices into strategies for increasing youth reconnection in the U.S. 

Proven positive youth development interventions like Pro Salud’s Órale program, which encompass a holistic health approach and work readiness training, have the potential of highlighting lessons for global, shared challenges. Despite cultural differences and geographic distance, the kind of collaboration and dialogue that took place between U.S. and Mexico will make a positive contribution to the effort—in both countries, and far beyond--of reconnecting opportunity youth.

Click here to learn more about '(Re)Connecting Youth: Exchanging Global Lessons (2016-2019)' Initiative.

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