We have identified four guiding principles upon which VYPER is based (summarized below and explored in more detail in the full report).
1. Building on what already exists
As our review of the literature on resilience will suggest—in most cases, resilience triumphs, and this is not simply because “most people are resilient,” but because of a complex constellation of factors that exist in individuals, in families, in communities, and in societies that already (one could say, naturally) support resilience. Just because many of these factors may not have been intentionally put in place to support resilience does not mean that they cannot be capitalized upon to do just that.
2. Clarifying specific opportunities and available supports
Through experience, we have learned that there is an art to determining when and how to start bringing youth into projects.
If there is nothing specific to work toward, the risk is that youth gatherings become simply social in nature. While this may support developing caring and connected relationships, it can also result in the opposite—an environment ripe for cliques that may contribute to isolation. Without something tangible to invite youth to participate in and contribute to—nothing hangs in the balance and there can be no rationale for ensuring everyone has the opportunity to be included (i.e. “This is something that may affect everyone here, so we want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to contribute any ideas or thoughts they may have—now and in the future.”)
By the same token, if youth are brought in too late in the game—when the ball is already rolling in a specific direction (based on adult decisions)—while there is again the potential for the development of caring and connected relationships, there is also the risk of an opposite result. Without feeling that they have contributed and participated in a way that represents some level of personal investment in or ownership of the results, it will be very hard for youth to develop high expectations about the way in which they engage. They may disengage or fail to follow through with the things they have committed to (or, in this case, that may have been more-or-less assigned to them). In this way, both the way young people think of themselves and the way adults think of them can actually be degraded.
To be empowered and to act responsibly with that power, youth must actually have power—and this relies heavily on when and how adults engage them.
3. Working with an anti-oppression/allyship lens
The lived experience of many young people is that adults neither listen nor learn (Tiet, Huizinga, & Byrnes, 2010). The adults in their lives are interested in demanding compliance, taking them away from their peer group and culture, and assimilating them into the mainstream adult culture. When historians or anthropologists encounter a process where systems function to support one group to dominate and assimilate another—at a minimum, they call it oppression, a phenomena that limits connection and learning opportunities for everyone, and has negative correlations with a wide range of health and quality of life outcomes.
A different relational process is possible. When adults make themselves available to be informed by and responsive to the lived experiences of young people, they engage in an anti-oppressive process that makes space for youth to explore, develop and articulate their perspectives—and for adults and adult systems to benefit from exposure to this inherently novel youth lens. At the core of this process is that allyship values not only what the young people do and think and feel, it also values the presence of young people and sees any level of connection as a contribution (Wong, 2008).
An alliance relationship is focused on the needs of the youth, and, in general, those needs have to do with identity development, building self-efficacy, creating realistic efficacy expectations, and sustaining supportive relationships. These are all core features of social and emotional development, they are cornerstones of resilience, and they underlie creativity and the enjoyment of life.
4. Get ready to hit the ground running!
While it is technically a stereotype that adolescence is filled with energy and idealism, we have found—once the conditions above are in place—that stereotype roughly describes our experience of working in partnership with young people. Not only have we found that, from the perspective of an adolescent, a week is a very long time, during which a lot of great work can get done—they have also shown us, from what they have been able to accomplish in the span of a week, how accurate that perspective can be.
We have seen adult committees that had been meeting to discuss certain issues for years—with little to no progress—suddenly spring into action the moment a young person who has personally experienced the consequences of the issue being mulled over has the opportunity to ask the committee, more-or-less, “What’s the hold up?” And especially when, as we have seen them almost unfailingly do, young people follow that up by asking, “What can I do to help?”