Making the Connection: Engaging Young Women in Community Youth Programs
For the past 10 years, the Jane-Finch Centre’s Youth Department has run a community space called The Spot-Where YOU(th) Want To Be. Conveniently located in a central community location, programming at the Spot includes: drop-in services, socio-recreational and education programming, a youth studio, immigration settlement support, and gender-specific programming by way of a young women’s group, and young men’s group.
Over the years, staff and volunteers have noticed low registration numbers for young women in the after-school programming. Further, while young women will come to the gender-specific program, they rarely use the drop-in space that is equipped with video games, card games, table tennis, dominoes, and computers.
We wanted to understand why young women were not participating in our programs at the same rate as young men.
The York-TD Community Catalyst grant program allowed us to undertake a small research project to explore this issue. Our project, Making the Connection, had three main objectives:
- To develop an understanding of ways to increase the overall participation of young women in youth spaces, with a particular focus on The Spot
- To understand issues, concerns, and hesitations young women face in accessing youth spaces and youth programming
- In partnership with young women, to create strategies of inclusion and engagement of young women in community programs/services and drop-in spaces, supporting young women to envision and articulate their desires for drop-in community spaces
To achieve these goals we convened a Young Women’s Advisory Council who led and conducted the mixed-methods research project. Nine young women between the ages of 18-30 who identify as community residents, met bi-weekly for three months to discuss the Making the Connection grant, and the best way to identify the needs of young women in the community, barriers to their engagement, and ideas for increasing their involvement.
They received research methods training and became the research facilitators for the project. They circulated questionnaires to local high schools and girls group, and developed key questions for focus group sessions, which they also hosted, facilitated and took notes. They also participated in the data analysis and report writing.
What We Learned: Three Main Findings
1. Female Friendly and Safe Spaces
Both focus groups and questionnaire findings suggested that young women place great importance on feeling safe within community and youth spaces. Participants articulated that one of the main reasons they do not access programs and community centres is that these spaces often feel like they are for males only.
Young women said they would like a space for just women, or simply one day a week that is women only. Participants also suggested that more visible and present female staff would help them to feel safer entering on their own or with friends.
Moreover, during both focus groups, young women identified having a relationship with female coordinators is a strong reason for their involvement. Young women suggested community centres build relationships with one another making it easier for young women to feel comfortable in spaces they don’t typically visit or might not feel comfortable accessing for the first time alone.
One young woman stated:
“I come from authoritarian household; when I try to voice my feelings, I often feel like they don’t care. I want somewhere I can go and talk about the thing I can’t at home.”
Young women are looking to be heard. They are looking for staff that they can be open and honest with and staff willing to help them navigate adolescence and coming of age. While their programs allow them a free space to meet and to talk, they believe that is not enough. Many of the programs they attend only meet one or two days a week and there was an expressed need for more.
Young women also expressed their reality of balancing several responsibilities at school and home. A lot of the young women surveyed are tasked with taking care of younger siblings. They articulated how this poses an issue because they can’t always attend programs as often as they’d like because of the responsibilities they have. It is important that when programs are being made, consideration is placed on those who have to care for their siblings. One of the sites we visited allowed for younger siblings to attend depending on the appropriateness of that week’s topic or focus.
Participants expressed looking for more programs that push them to improve themselves (skill-building and empowerment). They would love to be exposed to new activities through excursions and trips outside of the community (NBA, CFL, and NHL games, and camping trips). Many of them are seeking ways to make an income for themselves and ‘be their own boss’.
This research will inform organizational and community planning to create programs that are more inclusive for young women. We learned that young women need safe space, mentorship and empowerment. The Young Women’s Advisory Council will continue meeting and discussing issues and next steps for realizing the vision for inclusion brought forward by the young women who participated in our study. Some first steps include: Team-Building Yoga Sessions for the Advisory Council, mobilizing our findings by meeting with other youth programs to build community capacity, and exploring the possibility of creating a local Advisory Committee on Young Women’s Issues that will include staff who work on female-specific youth programs and initiatives.