In the Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES) program, we pride ourselves on teaching young people how to build on assets.
We do this by teaching them about assets and liabilities through teacher instruction, exercises and activities. We then lead them on windshield tours and photovoice projects, having them take note of assets and liabilities in their neighborhood. They work in groups and with the whole class, carefully identifying all of the assets and liabilities that they found.
Most often these assets and liabilities take the form of physical things in their neighborhood. The assets may be a school or hospital or a park or a store. The liabilities may take the form of vacant houses, illegal dumping, burned out houses, litter, etc. They then figure out how to use the assets they have found to develop their community project.
A few days ago, I was at a school observing one of our programs when the young people went on a walking windshield tour. They walked around the outside of the school. They pointed out a half-finished gardening program, some rather bland raised bed gardens made to beautify the school, and some well used outdoor furniture, i.e. picnic tables and benches.
I was thinking that this was a typical windshield tour, the young people picking the usual assets and liabilities around their school, when I begin to see another asset in what the young people were saying.
Everywhere we went the young people wanted to paint things red and white (their school colors) and put a picture of a buccaneer (their school mascot) somewhere. They even wanted to craft a sculpture of a buccaneer by the pathway leading into the garden.
It occurred to me, that taken individually, they were pointing out projects that would add to existing assets around the school, but in reality the underlying asset in all of their suggestions was an incredibly high level of school spirit. Coming from a low income area and going to a school that is often looked down upon by the rest of the county, these young people were saying that they were proud of their school and were glad to be there.
I then realized the importance of being able to express their school spirit through whatever project they ended up choosing. I also began to realize that in the YES program, the strongest assets in a community may not be physical at all; they may be an attitude or a spirit within the young people.
It was this reality that led me to understand that as leaders of these young people we must look deep into their hearts to identify what they really believe are assets and incorporate that into the foundation of their projects. I also now believe that this is one of the key factors involved in student engagement as well as youth empowerment.