Building Transformational Relationships With Young People

By Laura Ferguson

At the Indiana Youth Institute’s Because Kids Count conference last month, my coworker and I attended a workshop by Dr. Shawn Ginwright, a professor at San Francisco State University, who is a leading expert on African American youth, youth activism and youth development. Dr. Ginwright’s session brought us face to face with the difference between transactional and transformational relationships.

We paired off with someone we didn’t know in the workshop, sat knee to knee facing each other and asked a series of questions: who are you, who or what do you pretend to be, how do others perceive you to be and where is your life headed. The keys to the exercise were that the partner repeated the question often and after asking the question, listened actively but did not respond or engage in conversation. Each partner answered each question for 90 seconds.

Although we didn’t go from strangers to best friends, I knew more about my partner at the end of the activity than I would had I engaged with her in another setting at the conference. Ginwright challenged us to reframe our view of transformational relationships; they are not as difficult or time-consuming to create as we might believe. He said that our young people, families, friends and coworkers deserve more intentionality from us.

I am lucky to work with hundreds of young leaders each year. Of course, I understand that I can’t know all of Youth Resources’ students on a deeply personal level. That’s why YR has a team of amazing staff and volunteer mentors. My work is to create an environment in which my students feel safe so when they need me or any adult outside of their family they will come to YR to find support and resources.

I still believe in the importance of safe space, but I challenged myself in 2016 to get to know more of my students beyond the usual conversations about school and YR. Because of the transformational relationships I have developed, I am more aware of my students’ everyday experiences and more prepared to support them through challenges.

As the near year begins, I encourage you to start or deepen your transformational relationships with the young people in your lives. You don’t have to sit knee to knee and ask “Who are you?” but you do have to listen, ask questions and give of your own vulnerability. With continuous practice, the outcome will be life-changing – for both of you.

Laura Ferguson is the Executive Director at Youth Resources.