St. Stephen’s Youth Programs: Striving to Thrive – Feeling Safe, Feeling Big, Feeling Connected

This post is part of a series about the workshop presentations delivered at the ACT Skills Summit.


St. Stephen’s Youth Programs serve approximately 850 students in grades K-12. Through St. Stephen’s programming,students access academic support, employment and job training, college and career mentoring, and a supportive and nurturing community. Teens in St. Stephen’s youth Programs also have opportunities to participate in community organizing through the St. Stephen’s Teen Organizers program. Teens in this program have organized to support the sanctuary schools movement and laws to reduce gun violence in Massachusetts, and created Friends of Ramsay Park, a coalition of community organizations, residents, law enforcement, and other stakeholders that worked to secure 2 million dollars from the city of Boston to ensure the park could be safer and healthier for young people and families.

During the ACT Summit, Kasey Boston, Director of Youth Development, Sarah O’Connor, Coordinator of the Teen Organizers Program, and Megan Doe, St. Stephen’s Americorps Massachusetts Promise Fellow, demonstrated how St. Stephen’s core philosophy, “Feel Safe, Feel Big, Feel Connected,” supports students in developing Thrive Skills: Growth Mindset, Self Efficacy, and Self Regulation. Attendees at this workshop practiced creating a community agreement, implemented St. Stephen’s restorative justice model in mock scenarios featuring students of varying ages, and learned about the organizing work of St. Stephen’s Teens.

“Unless we are organizing to dismantle the root causes of inequality,” says, O’Connor, “we will not be able to affect who has access to resources and power and solve the problems our students and their communities face.”

Strategy 1: Create an “Excellence Pact”

Students in St. Stephen’s programs collaborate to create an excellence pact, a community agreement that establishes a set of expectations group members must abide by. After students have created the pact, they all sign it. When a dispute arises, this pact can be referred back to. Because all students had a hand in creating the pact, students feel a sense of ownership over group rules and are more likely to embrace them.

Strategy 2: Ask “what” questions

St. Stephen’s staff members are trained to conduct “peel-offs,” or non-confrontational one-on-one interactions during which they meet with youth to assess situations and develop solutions. During peel-offs, staff members may rely on a series of pre scripted questions to ask youth, avoiding “why” questions – “Why did you do that?” in favor of “what” questions – “What happened?”

Strategy 3: Embrace restorative justice

St. Stephen’s does not use prizes or punishments to affect student behavior. When problems arise, they work with students to develop solutions that remedy any harm that a particular student may have caused. In certain cases where the whole group was affected, one student may have to ask the group for forgiveness and work with the group towards an acceptable solution to the issue.

Strategy 4: Help students organize to affect change in their communities

In St. Stephen’s programs, students working as change makers in their communities develop leadership skills and their sense of self efficacy while addressing issues at the root of inequality. Their successes help them to “feel big” and “feel connected” to their community and their city.

The materials from the ACT Summit workshops can all be found here.