The Case for Cross-Border Learning: 4 Key Takeaways

The Case for Cross-Border Learning: 4 Key Takeaways

Three years ago, (Re)Connecting Youth (RCY) set out to test a hypothesis: Could innovative global solutions be identified and shared to better meet the needs of the 4.6 million youth in the United States who are not in school, work, or training? The short answer from a new report, “Lessons Across Borders: The Promise of Integrated Approaches and Young Protagonists in Fostering Youth Reconnection” is a resounding, yes.

The report highlights innovative global practices identified by RCY that address youth needs across four thematic areas: social-emotional learning, youth as assets, creative outreach and recruitment, and employer engagement. Such practices are described in a host of blogs, case studies, and videos.

To test the practical application of these global lessons, RCY facilitated three cross-border learning partnerships between youth-serving organizations in the U.S. and peer organizations in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Following successful pilot projects, youth in New Orleans are now benefiting from mindfulness and movement-based approaches to promoting trauma-centered healing; youth in Baltimore are gaining essential life skills and reproductive health education through a peer-to-peer model; and a new statewide youth advisory board in Nebraska is working to strengthen policies and practices for young people transitioning out of foster care. 

In each case, RCY sought—not to replicate programs from abroad—but to identify innovative strategies that could inform and complement U.S. practices.  In the area of social-emotional learning, for example, RCY identified programs in the global south that utilized creative delivery mechanisms such as movement, meditation, and breathwork to engage and inspire youth. 

The report distills the initiative’s learnings into four key takeaways: 

1 - Whole person approaches work best. From São Paulo, Brazil to Tijuana, Mexico, RCY discovered integrated approaches that encompass the complexity of youth needs—for skill development, health education, emotional healing, connection, and more. Such programs recognize the delicate interplay of the mind, body, and emotions; take an expansive view of health and wellbeing; and encourage emotional and physical expression among youth. Each of the models RCY uplifted place a premium on strengthening young people’s self-worth while nurturing a sense of possibility and hope for the future. 

2 - Youth have essential roles to play. While talk of youth engagement abounds, the reality often falls short of the rhetoric. In the programs RCY documented, youth assumed valuable roles—as trainers, peer mentors, researchers, advocates, innovators, and movement builders. Youth protagonists excelled at building trust with peers, making their case to legislators, and pioneering youth-friendly solutions. Their fresh approaches left a lasting impression on U.S. exchange participants like Sarah Riffel, Associate Vice President of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation (NCFF). “No matter what happens in the future, NCFF is a better organization because of this experience,” she said. “Staff and young people have renewed energy and spirt to make changes to increase authentic youth engagement because of what we learned.”

3 - Strengthening social cohesion lies at the heart of long-term solutions. RCY exchange partners emphasized that equipping youth experiencing disconnection with employability skills alone is not enough. Greater attention must be placed on reinforcing the social fabric in affected communities and the willingness of individuals and institutions to be part of the solution. To illustrate this point, the report cites Fundación Pescar’s efforts to bridge social and economic divides in Argentina. Through establishing youth employability training centers within major companies, Pescar creates spaces where youth from marginalized communities learn from and forge relationships with professionals in a corporate environment. “We want people to feel not only that they can integrate but it’s going to be much better for society as a whole,” said Florencia Renda, RSE Project Manager at Banco Santander Rio, a Pescar partner.

4 - Cross-border learning offers programs a fresh look at their work.  Through their immersion in new organizational and cultural contexts, U.S. exchange participants reflected on deeper questions within their programs and embraced new ways of approaching problems. Exchange partners found common ground in examining the roots of youth disconnection in their societies and their shared passion for being a force for change. Melissa Sawyer, Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) in New Orleans, summed it up best: “Too often in the U.S. we think we have all the answers and we’re doing it better than anyone else.” Through the exchange, Sawyer and her team took stock of YEP’s many successes, while recognizing there was something they were missing out on. “I think a lot of that is working on the whole person,” reflects Sawyer, “working on self-value, on supporting one another, on building a true sense of community.” 

In addition to these learnings, the report surfaces critical questions with relevance for practitioners, funders, and policymakers. Among these are how to counteract resistance among U.S. practitioners in learning from programs abroad; how to pursue more integrative approaches within a resource-constrained environment; and how to create more space for innovation given funder preferences for programs with evidence-based outcomes.

The report concludes by emphasizing the profound role of empathy and emotional connection in helping vulnerable youth re-write the narratives they hold about themselves, while fostering more inclusive societal narratives. In the programs it identified, RCY found visionary leaders—both youth and adults—who are illuminating the way forward, with many more like them around the globe with valuable lessons to be shared.

With Phase One of (Re)Connecting Youth drawing to a close, the International Youth Foundation seeks partners to continue RCY’s efforts to facilitate the sharing and application of promising practices across borders. To learn more, contact Shannon McGarry, IYF Program Director, United States (