Creating Supportive Communities for our Youth
Sofia Herrera-Maldonado (PhD '99), in the midst of her other academic and professional experience, once spent a year working with the youth group of a church in a disadvantaged Los Angeles neighborhood--and says she learned a lot during that year about what young people really need to thrive. "I saw that kids are more resilient than not," she says, "and that what they really need is supportive adults, and a supportive community, in their lives."
These ideas are in sync with "positive youth development," the philosophy that adults and whole communities need to support and nurture the best in their children, rather than focusing on the problems and how to solve them. Herrera today is working very intentionally with this philosophy in her position as research coordinator of the Fuller Youth Initiative (FYI), a major research project being conducted in Fuller's School of Psychology.
Launched in 2002, FYI seeks to identify critical intervention strategies for youth at risk of violence and other destructive behaviors--but not only strategies that reduce risk, but also those that promote the well-being of youth. It's a significant project, funded by a grant of nearly $2.8 million from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
FYI, which began with a focus on youth in Pasadena and has now been extended to Compton and South Los Angeles, includes practical application phases in addition to the research. Herrera and her colleagues are working directly with local violence prevention programs to apply their research findings, helping these programs learn to more effectively work with their youth using positive youth development principles.
Herrera is excited about FYI and its implications. "Fuller is cutting-edge in this," she says. "It is advancing important notions of violence prevention and development, combining the two models of positive youth development and risk reduction together." The fact that the U.S. government awarded such a significant grant to do this work says a lot, Herrera feels. "Not many places get such a large federal grant," she notes. "As an alum, I'm proud of Fuller!"
On a more personal level, Herrera sees her work with FYI as an important way to integrate her faith with her passion about peace and justice issues. "My work here is an expression of my own spirituality," she says. "As we are advancing this important knowledge about positive youth development and violence prevention, I believe we are doing God's work."
During that year she worked with the local church, Herrera saw for herself how positive youth development could be applied. "The neighborhood teens came to us adults often for advice or just to talk, and I saw how important that was," she says. "I also saw how important faith was, giving these kids meaning in the midst of drive-by shootings." Herrera says her hope is that the FYI work she is doing can be eventually extended beyond the local communities they are targeting now. "I think churches could really benefit from our findings," she asserts. "We are looking hard at the factors that help youth become thrivers. That's something important I think any youth minister would want to know!"