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In Binghamton, New York, at-risk youth are learning to take charge of their lives by working on a variety of community improvement projects that they design and carry out.
“CITIZEN U stands for Citizen You and Citizen University,” said Dr. June Mead, director of New York’s Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) program. “(It’s) a metaphor for creating a university environment in which teens are empowered to become community change agents and graduate from high school prepared for college, careers, and citizenship. Through their involvement, teen leaders gain knowledge and real-world application of civic engagement.”
CITIZEN U uses Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H signature program, Youth Community Action, to promote civic engagement and workforce development among underserved youth. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture in 2011 provided $628,000 to fund the 5-year project through its Smith-Lever grant program.
The most recent community improvement project CITIZEN U undertook was to help feed homeless youth in Binghamton. All of the youth involved CITIZEN U had friends or family members who had benefitted from the local food pantries and they wanted to give back to the community through this project. The teen leaders of CITIZEN U partnered with the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse to restock food pantry shelves with non-perishable food items in time for the holidays. These 4-H’ers are now developing a project called “Knowledge for College” to help high school students apply for college and financial aid and prepare for life in college.
This new project may, in fact, come in handy for CITIZEN U senior high schoolers: Every teen leader who has completed two years in the program has graduated high school and been accepted to college on either full or partial scholarships.
According to Mead, employment is another of the program’s benefits.
“Evaluation of CITIZEN U’s Summer Employment Program demonstrates that good youth development is good economic development,” she said. “Evaluation results show significant increases in workforce readiness skills among the youth participants.”
The program has been so successful in promoting young people’s ability to lead, plan, communicate, organize, and build self-confidence that the CITIZEN U team has expanded programming to youth in one of New York’s poorest urban centers in downtown Syracuse. In addition, the CITIZEN U model forms the foundation for New York’s other CYFAR project, NY 4-H Youth CAN (Community Action Network), which operates in Buffalo and Albany.
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