How well does your community engage and empower its youth?

Essex CHIPS executive director David Voegele hopes his local nonprofit can help answer that question with a new designation known as the Quality Youth Development credential.

The credential process offers 10 benchmarks for communities to gauge their current offerings and identify ways to create a more youth-centric environment. Voegele said the criteria are based on the Search Institute’s 40-point framework that’s been the focus of youth development work for decades.

After seeking to establish such a credential for much of his 20-year youth services career, Voegele credited Essex for inspiring him to finally finish the project because of “what I see around me on a daily basis.”

But he said the process can apply to towns, cities and villages throughout the county, noting he believes it would be the first credential of its kind in the U.S.

“Wouldn’t communities not be better off if they … were assured they’re having a positive impact on their youth?” Voegele asked.

The QYD benchmarks range from requiring a certain number of youth-only seats on community or nonprofit boards to a minimum fiscal contribution from the municipality in support of youth program or services. Voegele said he’s working to finalize the document outlining each of the 10 standards.

Voegele sees several incentives for communities to become QYD certified. On the community side, the designation recognizes its investments and shows that it’s a good place to raise a family.

And for youth, it shows them that their communities respect their contribution and want them engaged. “When a youth is treated like an adult, they’re less likely to be seeking ways to obstruct life and get in trouble,” Voegele said.

Voegele believes that increases the likelihood they will return after college – an especially important prospect for Vermont, given the exodus of young professionals – and that message appears to be picking up steam. He’s been invited to speak about the QYD project during a panel discussion next month centered on attracting and cultivating youth and young professionals in Vermont.

“That couple hundred thousand dollars of investment by a community in a youth, wouldn’t it be great if the product resulting from that – a thriving youth – is back in the community to be a leader someday?” he asked.

Voegele has received feedback on the system from his nonprofit’s board of directors and local youth. He’s since passed the design along to a newly formed credentialing committee, comprised of independent youth professionals from outside of Vermont, which will review applications and determine if communities meet the criteria.

The committee will then issue a star-based ranking: Those that meet seven of the 10 benchmarks receive one star; those that meet all 10 receive all four stars.

Communities looking to pursue a QYD credential must start with a letter of intent. Voegele envisions a steering committee will complete that work and then host a meeting at which people can learn about the benchmarks and decide what ones they’d like to work on. The committee would then task work groups with researching how their community stands now and where there’s room for improvement.

Voegele believes most communities could achieve the benchmarks within nine months.

Essex is already on its way to becoming the first QYD credentialed community; a steering committee of 12 people, including four under the age of 18, have authored a letter on behalf of the communities served by the Essex Westford School district.

Kim Gleason, a member of the EWSD school board who’s co-chairing the committee alongside Westford seventh-grader Shea Andrews, said the QYD process seemed like an “ideal opportunity look at the multiple ways our communities currently support our youth in a more comprehensive manner.”

Gleason said they held their first meeting last week. Once it hears back from the credential committee, the local group will then look to bring in the broader communities and start culling data necessary for each benchmark.

“We’re just really excited about this framework to really allow us to shine a spotlight on where we are already working well on behalf of youth and where we can expand what we offer for them,” Gleason said.

To qualify for the designation, communities check off at least seven of the following 10 criteria:

  1. Welcoming, inclusive and accessible space outside of school for any youth (including LBGTQ youth, youth of color, disadvantaged youth)
  2. Funding in support of youth programs
  3. A professional youth-mentoring program
  4. An elected community youth council comprised of high school students to advise the community on youth issues
  5. “Youth Are Welcome!” posters displayed by downtown businesses
  6. Youth board members on local nonprofits that provide youth services
  7. Youth access to social services and resources outside of a school setting
  8. An annual conference or legislative forum for middle- and high-school students
  9. Effective recruitment of young people for local community-wide committees
  10. Internship/employment opportunities for youth in local government and businesses