Guest Post from Maher Budeir from Balanced Leadership Institute, a nonprofit board training firm.
This article was partially inspired by a speech delivered by Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda delivered at the Second Annual ISNA Masjid Forum, which was held in Dearborn, MI, on May 10, 2014.
The Good News
We hear it in many mosques all over the US these days. Every community is realizing that serving the youth requires different resources and methodology than what it took to serve their parents. We are realizing that the youth will quickly find other ways to grow and other places to hang out if they are not served within our community.
This is an important step and level of thinking for the community. Even the more “traditional” Mosques are coming to this realization. It is unfortunate that it took a couple of decades for our community to finally get to this place. The good news is that we are there, and the majority of the mosques, if not all, recognize the need to allocate some resources specifically to meet this need of serving the youth adequately so that they may voluntarily continue their involvement and engagement in the community even through their most difficult years of development.
The Not So Good News
Let’s face it, when it comes to community development our community has not proven to be very sophisticated. Like what my friend Ibrahim often says, “we seem to define success by square footage.”So naturally, when the question about incorporating the youth comes up most communities resort to the seemingly easy answer: let’s build a gymnasium. Youth like basketball. They will have a place to hang out. What we do not consider is: human beings are most impacted by social interaction. A gymnasium may attract a few teenagers for a while but without proper guidance that strategy may fire back. Without the appropriate human resources a gym does not do much good. Without a youth specialist who understands the youth needs at different phases of development, and understands the different needs of each gender, the youth will not going hang out for long. Our unsophisticated, knee-jerk reaction to try to answer the call for serving the youth, ignores that human beings are social beings. What they need in their early adulthood is someone to steward their socialization and development. Someone to be the role model and to be the listening ear. Someone to give them a slight nudge to redirect them on the right path, rather than the normally confrontational clash that they likely face at home. What we need to invest in is highly skilled young Muslim leaders who are professionally trained to provide guidance. They need the big sister and big brother who was in their place a few years ago, and have managed to avoid pitfalls and survive the generational devide that may exist between them and their parents. They need someone to teach them the life skills to help them overcome the challenges of being a young adult in this materialistic world full of temptations and challenges.
The fact is building a gymnasium will likely consume $2 to %5 million in funds, 1 to 2 years of time, and consume so much energy from the community. Our communities can’t afford to waste the time or the money. Our investments should be directed towards skilled and talented young professionals who can guide our youth. This investment will, in turn, encourage the bright young people to be in those professions. We need our brightest students to specialize in sociology, psychology, counseling, and leadership. We need them to advance their Islamic knowledge and strengthen their foundation so they can become the leaders to lift our youth and empower them. In terms of facilities, if you live in any large metro area or even a nice smaller city chances are you have already paid for basketball courts to be built. You should also have football fields, tennis courts and community rooms. You have paid for them through your property and local taxes. In return you can use the facilities at the park down the street or the school around the corner. Our taxes are funding these places, so why should we be paying for facilities again when the fund raiser for the gym comes around. In this time and age, we need to work smarter. We need to be creative. Our centers are not defined by walls anymore. It is the people and action, the companionship, and the interaction that defines community. All of which does not need to be within the 4 walls of the mosque or community center. The youth we are trying to serve are well adapted to working and communicating virtually, they are comfortable redefining what is a community center. It is the parents’ generation that needs to breakdown the walls and widen its horizons. We need to become more strategic and more intelligent about where we invest, what results are we looking for, and what is the most effective way to get us there. We can not try to solve the youth engagement question in the same way we would have solved it in the 1970’s.
The bottom line. Getting the youth engaged is not about square footage. There is no silver bullet that will solve the problem overnight. There is no amount of money we can through at the problem to make it instantaneously disappear. Like every challenge that faces our community, methodical, scientifically based problem solving, and professional implementation are all necessary ingredients:
1. Make the strategic commitment to seek and hire the best talent, male and female, you can find to guide the youth and nurture their development. Be prepared to compensate these leaders well.
2. If you believe you do not have the funds to hire and adequately compensate these leaders, think again. Just remember how the same community that would have rallies to raise the millions needed for the gym. That community should definitely be able to fund a couple of positions instead. The cost of a gymnasium can pay full compensation for three professionals for more than ten years.
3. Realize that we can engage the youth by connecting with them and teaching them life skills. A skilled youth director will know how to create the connection and how to work on life skills through the Islamic lens.
4. Make use of the local facilities you already have in your community. Not only you will save on having to build facilities, but it also provides the youth with the opportunity to go out in the community as a group and learn how to properly engage with the larger community.
5. Parental education about the norms of youth development, and about communication is essential. Engage a professional family specialist to help.
6. Listen to the youth themselves. We under estimate their capability. Usually, young adults have an incredible combination of creativity and competitiveness. If facilitated well, it can yield some amazing ideas.
7. Pause ones or twice a year and evaluate the outcome. Do a methodical assessment of results and make the necessary adjustments. Youth development is an ongoing process.