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Culturally responsive programs for immigrant youth

What it is

Culturally responsive youth programs are non-formal learning environments in which young people feel safe, valued and empowered, as their cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives are represented and included in program structure and staffing.

Culture is a way of being, thinking, organizing knowledge, and relating to others. It can shape one’s attitude toward people from different cultures.

Immigrant origin youth are children of immigrants. They may be first-generation (born in different country) or second-generation (born in the U.S. with a  parent from a different country).

Why it matters

Twenty-six percent of school-aged children today are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Immigrant origin youth tend to have educational aspirations that are ultimately unmet. This is because structural inequalities in society keep immigrant origin youth from gaining resources (e.g. material, financial, and social) that could help them achieve the lives they aspire for themselves and their families. 

These inequitable social conditions create a lack of social and cultural belonging among immigrant origin youth in U.S. society. A lack of belonging promotes a false sense of inferiority that strips away youths’ sense of hope and their agency to redress the inequalities along their pathways towards thriving futures.  

Immigrant-origin youth need opportunities to assess their lives, reclaim hope, dignity, and make a plan to achieve the lives they want for themselves and for their communities.

What effective practice looks like

High quality, organized youth programs are well positioned to be the opportunity-making spaces immigrant origin youth because they:

When these elements are in place, research suggests that youth become more prepared to chart their pathways to valued futures and make a difference in their communities. But youth only experience the benefits of youth programming when they participate in programs that value and match their culture. If their culture is absent from their youth program experience, they are likely to feel socially isolated and inferior to others. This requires that program staff take on the critical role in making sure these program elements are culturally responsive for immigrant origin youth by:

By participating in culturally relevant youth programs, immigrant origin youth are more likely to develop a strong sense of self-worth and agency (an ability to take action on their world in order to achieve future aspirations).

Tips for program staff

Author: Joanna Tzenis, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2020

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