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The City of Middletown, Connecticut, established the
Middletown Youth Services Bureau in 1978 to create a centralized office
that could refer young people to local services, identify and fill gaps in
those services, and work to improve overall community
conditions related to youth. The bureau works cooperatively with school personnel,
police, community resources, youth and parents. By directing youth to
resources in their schools and community, the bureau ensures that each and
every child is taking advantage of what their community has to offer.
The bureau’s goals are based on the Developmental Asset
by the Search Institute from extensive research on what kids need to
succeed. The framework is categorized into two groups of 20 assets. The 20 external
assets are the positive experiences young people receive from the world around
them. The 20 internal assets identify those characteristics and behaviors
that reflect positive internal growth and development of young people.
Through the Asset Promise campaign, co:lab, working closely
with the Middletown Youth Services Bureau, designed a solution to bring the concept of
asset building out of the statistical, academic realm and into the community,
where it needs to take root in order to affect positive youth development.
Middletown’s youth is surveyed every two years using the 40 developmental assets as
a benchmark. The feedback from these surveys lets the team know where to set their focus. For example, through statistical evaluation, we learned that about 80 percent of Middletown teens felt undervalued by their community.
can be incredibly persuasive and alter behaviors. It can confirm suspicions,
challenge the status quo and make you curl up and cry. It can’t, however, do
any of these things on its own. The data for this project needed context to convert it into an emotional catalyst that would bring the community together in support of the youth and, through that activation,
enhance the community itself. The challenge came from developing a message so
broad that it could meet a wide range of people where they are, yet so specific
that the community could be moved to action right away. Programs like these
need to show traction in order to survive and secure funding. We had
less than two years to make a difference before the next round of surveys. Also,
fully aware that new survey results could point to new developmental asset
focal points for Middletown, we saw the need to build a program with “legs”
that could continue the citywide dialogue in new directions while building on
the established efforts.
We strategized, developed and deployed a community-wide initiative to help build developmental assets for Middletown’s youth. We targeted teachers, parents, shop owners, the PTA...every adult who could come in contact with kids. We empowered those adults to change their own perceptions by helping them envision how contributing to the developmental assets of youth in the community mirrored the benefits received from their own upbringings. They were encouraged to replicate the best qualities of these relationships on behalf of Middletown kids—to treat them fairly, to hear them, to be positive role models leading by example. Then, we provided adults with the opportunity to make a participatory promise to their community teens where they can visibly affirm their intentions.This multi-faceted campaign included a brochure, posters, postcards, a pin system, website and video. The next round of work is increasing the breadth of stories and encouragements from adults in the community, bolstering the youth leadership stories currently on the website. Simultaneously, we are extending the brand components to include a MYsb logo, stationery, apparel and an interior experience in celebration of the bureau’s official teen center.
Everything we do for Middletown is designed to prompt interaction. As pins and posters are distributed, they spark conversations about assets; the video provokes an honest conversation with teens; the website gives adults a vehicle to make promises about how they will interact with the youth throughout the community. The idea of “making common sense common practice” calls for design restraint; therefore, we intentionally stayed clear of overly glamorized metaphors in favor of messaging that framed a community-wide discussion. However, we packed the details with our energy. For example, if you look carefully at the video, you’ll see that the type on the cardboard boxes was mostly cut by hand, creating a dimensionality to the forms that enhances the importance of simple ideas. These details wouldn’t necessarily jump out at the viewer as much as the energy in the details would be felt. This mindful restraint is important to conversation-starters designed to save communities and young lives.
Through routine surveys, we have measured improvements in developmental assets throughout Middletown. The number of participants in the Asset Promise program is on the rise—which means the community has increased awareness. With this type of generational change initiative, the measurements will take place over an extended time frame. Nevertheless, there has been a significant shift to qualify for the funding to renovate the YSB center and to see the Middletown effort become an extractable model for other Connecticut communities.
$65,000 to date; 75 percent paid, 25 percent pro bono
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Looking for additional ways to design for good? This list of organizations and programs is a great place to start. There are many more opportunities out there—so if you know of a resource we should add here let us know!
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