Happy New Year! As we welcome 2024, we continue to bridge the gap between research and practice, with a commitment to provide actionable knowledge and solutions that help build strong connections between youth-serving practitioners and young people, and a concerted effort to increase the number of high-quality developmental relationships in young people’s lives.

As we continue this work, an integral part of this community-wide conversation is how to ensure equity and cultural responsiveness in everything we do — prioritizing inclusive practices that help young people feel safe, acknowledged and respected —  to create relationship-rich environments that encourage thriving.

The Power of Connections and Relationships

In May 2023, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy released an eye-opening advisory titled, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. The advisory outlines the twin crises that afflict our society. 

Although this crisis is real, a danger exists when people focus on the problem and create a deficit or risk narrative that can be widely found in the popular press, research articles, and intervention efforts. 

However, a careful read of the advisory shows that the document goes beyond this simplification to prescribe the antidote to loneliness: social connection.

This resonates deeply with the work Search Institute has been doing to approach youth development from a strength-based perspective. A strength-based approach recognizes the incredible potential, passion, and impact that young people can have on the world right now.

Mind the Gaps, Fill the Void

When I ask practitioners what they admire about the young people they serve, they express a huge amount of understanding of young people’s strengths. They believe in the potential of these young people. They talk about challenges, to some degree, but they also focus on what young people offer the world. More than ever, we need to fill the void between the challenges that can sometimes overshadow amazing potential.

Provided with the right conditions, young people can thrive.

No Single Approach

However, there is no single formula or approach that will solve all our challenges; it’s never formulaic. We need to capture the complexity of these challenges while including tangible goals. 

The path forward means not making assumptions that people know what’s necessary to create relationship-rich environments. 

We all agree relationships are important, but how do you live it day to day?  How do we measure it and have a mindset around growth?

A Shared Purpose

In 2023 we witnessed a genuine craving for shared purpose, for hope, for coming together around these challenges. Youth-serving organizations and schools are reaching a critical understanding that we have to approach this differently and collaboratively — and it can’t be one person who is responsible.

It’s impossible to be all things to all young people as one adult, but as a community, we can. That’s where people can think about shared purpose. 

The Wisdom of Practitioners

The other factor that crystallized in 2023 is the need to honor and respect the knowledge and wisdom of the amazing practitioners doing this work. We can do more to elevate their voices and amplify their wisdom. 

I’m always honored to hear the stories of practitioners as I travel; they are using our work and advancing what we can do as an organization. 2023 was about holding up a mirror as an organization and asking who we are and who we want to be. We want to elevate the voices of people who encourage hope and solutions. 

Not only does Search Institute serve those people, we design solutions with them. 

A Healthy Forest

One of our favorite metaphors to represent our work is that we can grow a healthy tree, but a tree is not a forest. If we are doing this right, we hope to cultivate a healthy, thriving forest.

2024 is full of possibilities for partnership and collective action. As an organization we are seeking ways to scale our impact in sustainable ways — the focus on our impact is significant this year.

We want to lift up the expertise of our youth-serving partners to be the deliverers of the work — the ones on the ground. We want to support and build up communities, fill the capacity of the people on the ground, make their jobs easier, reduce friction, and reinforce that they are heroes of this narrative.

That is the challenge going into 2024 — to make sure we are responding to the pulse and the beat of the people on the ground; we are truly here to serve them, and that is our mission. 

A More Equitable Future

I look forward to continuing to develop this shared purpose by engaging in collective action and movement building. We are poised to amplify the message and stories of our partners and the practitioners who are building the developmental relationships that can help all young people have a seat at the table.

In order to do this, we have to center cultural responsiveness and equity.

Our decades of research on youth development demonstrate that relationships are fundamental and critical, but relationships alone are not sufficient. Real transformation requires taking an equitable approach and thinking about access to resources and opportunity. 

As we think about relationships, they need to be embedded in community and culture. That’s an area that I’m excited about as we discover adaptations to our models and meet people where they are with regard to contexts and settings.

New Tools and Partnerships

As we launch into a new year, we are looking forward to sharing new resources to help practitioners with their day-to-day work with young people. These resources include toolkits, measurement opportunities and professional development.  

We will continue to explore the intersection of rigorous research, practitioner and community insights and the voices of youth — because we believe this is the space where transformation can flourish.

We are also excited about working with national partners such as the America’s Promise Alliance and the National Partnership for Student Success to collaborate on this equity-  and strengths-based approach to youth development. 

When we work together with this shared purpose and vision, we create the kinds of lasting, equitable relationships that can be transformational — in 2024 and beyond.



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