Building a Culture for Community Resilience: Safe Spaces and Small Acts to Increase Youth Mattering

Photo by Alex Grodkiewicz on Unsplash

In an ideal world, every child would feel seen, heard, and valued at home and at school. In the real world, this is not the case. Fortunately, communities have the power to provide a buffer. Psychologist and Mattering researcher Gordon Flett explains, “Imagine the adolescent who doesn’t have a sense of Mattering at home but also doesn’t have a sense that they matter in the community. Where are they going to go?”

The state of Maine uses Mattering—the sense of being seen, heard, and valued—as one measure of well-being in the biennial Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. In the 2019 survey, more than 40 percent of middle and high school students said they don’t feel they matter in their communities. Given that Mattering is a protective factor for mental health issues and diseases of despair, that statistic is particularly alarming in a state that leads the nation in youth diagnosed with anxiety and where an increasing number of young people report considering suicide.

The Maine Resilience Building Network (MRBN) launched Cultivating Mattering for Maine Youth in response to the data and research that builds a compelling case for the need for communities to ensure that young people feel that they Matter. 

In wide-ranging discussions of strategies and successes, the two overarching themes that emerged are the need for safe spaces and the power of small acts.

In early 2021, MRBN hosted a series of virtual Community Conversations across Maine. We cast a wide net, inviting public health organizations, lawmakers, businesspeople, educators, public safety leaders and staff, civic leaders, and community members to participate. Nearly 500 people, most of whom work directly with youth, answered the call. Our next phase will include targeted recruitment efforts in the business community, and with local leaders (city councils, school boards, municipal employees), sectors where participation was light.

Most attended just their local conversation, several were present for multiple sessions, and a few hardy souls attended all nine. While we had a facilitator guide the conversation using thought-provoking questions, community members decided the direction based on what resonated with them. In one case, the juvenile justice system was a dominant theme, while some of the most rural areas of the state did a deep dive on supporting LGBTQIA+ youth.

In wide-ranging discussions of strategies and successes, the two overarching themes that emerged are the need for safe spaces and the power of small acts. In this context, our crowd-sourced definition of a safe space for youth is one created with, by, and for young people. It involves them from the very beginning. Youth are not only offered a seat at the table; they helped design and build the table. 

Small acts refer to the words, symbols, and everyday interactions that community members and even systems can engage in and highlight to increase a sense of Mattering. From rainbow flags and pins to simple conversations in public places, every community member has a potentially impactful role to play. 

MRBN is now working to develop communication guidance and toolkits for communities to use as the work takes hold at the grassroots level. In the meantime, the feedback has been enthusiastic, as newly connected adults are energized to find ways to collaborate. 

Youth are not only offered a seat at the table; they helped design and build the table. 

Some are already making substantial changes. Alicia Heyburn, executive director of the Maine nonprofit Teens to Trails, told us the Community Conversations opened her eyes to the need for fundamental changes within her organization. “We are developing a youth advisory council. The members will take part in designing or informing all of our program decisions. They will receive a stipend,” she said, citing specific strategies that were suggested during many of the discussions. “We are rewriting the leadership portion of our Outing Club Guide to put much more emphasis on youth leadership. We are reviewing the LBGTQ Best Practices for Inclusion guide from OUT Maine, to see how we can improve our programs for this significant segment of our community. I was unaware of OUT Maine before the Mattering series.”

Incremental change is worth celebrating, but to truly elevate Youth Mattering communities, governments, schools, businesses, and organizations must commit to change systems and policies to create environments where youth can thrive. The Maine Resilience Building Network is making a long-term commitment to this through Cultivating Mattering for Maine Youth and calling on leaders from all sectors to invest in primary prevention strategies that improve the health and well-being of our youth. These investments are not just monetary. Individuals, organizations and systems must invest time, energy, and caring into ensuring that every youth understands how much they matter to their community.

Written by: 

Maureen O'Brien, Development and Communications Director of Maine Resilience Building Network. 

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