Youth Reconnection and the Power of Love

Youth Reconnection and the Power of Love

Photo credit: Rede Cidadã

“It was the single most influential, impactful event of my life,” said Jevon. 

“I never felt so much love and care from people I don’t know,” echoed Darren. 

“The exercises showed us how to release stress,” said Landrea. “Now, I feel like I know how to calm myself.” 

“Back in America we’re more private,” added Roneesha. “The hugs made you feel good about yourself.” 

Jevon, Darren, Landrea, and Roneesha are among 19 youth and adult representatives of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), who traveled from New Orleans, USA to São Paulo, Brazil as part of a recent (Re)Connecting Youth learning exchange. Over five days, the YEP team immersed themselves in a youth employability training methodology developed by Rede Cidadã (The Citizen’s Network).

Rede’s model features familiar elements—a self-assessment, life skills development, and job placement support. But that’s where the comparison to more traditional youth employability programs ends. In 2015, Rede made the bold decision to retool its approach to better address the emotional needs of underserved youth. Today, its 40-, 56-, and 90-hour trainings, targeting high school graduates, homeless populations, and juvenile offenders, are rooted in Biocentric Education. Sessions are highly-interactive and incorporate music, movement, mindfulness, and emotional expression.

The results speak for themselves. While 30 percent of youth trained in Rede’s old methodology left their jobs within a year; today, that figure has fallen to 5 percent. 

But just because an approach works in one context, doesn’t mean it will work in another. Would youth from New Orleans participate eagerly in a training that included dance, holding hands in a circle, personal sharing, meditation, and the occasional hug? The YEP team, four of whom had never been on an airplane, flew 4,600 miles to find out. 

Their visit, which included observing Rede’s work with homeless individuals and an afternoon at the Afro-Brazilian Museum, was largely spent at the Mandala Center, a rustic retreat 90 minutes from São Paulo. The YEP team was joined by six young Rede trainees from Brazil, with both groups readily communicating with the help of Google translate on their mobile devices. 

“Our body speaks, but many times we forget we have a body,” said Rede Founder and Executive Director Fernando Alves in welcoming participants. “We think the principal aspect of the human being is the head, but the body is full of senses and is capable of storing emotions.”

We think the principal aspect of the human being is the head, but the body is full of senses and is capable of storing emotions.

Fernando Alves, Executive Director, Rede Cidadã

The Rede curriculum, a hybrid of both original and adapted lessons, develops youth skills across four key relationships—with one’s self, one’s friends and neighbors, one’s professional peers, and the planet. What makes the material stand out, according to Rede facilitators, is the combination of elements and the time devoted to personal and group reflection. Building self-awareness and emotional control is reinforced throughout. “If you’re conscious of your emotions and energy, you can handle things better,” says Alves. 

Over several days, facilitators led YEP participants through carefully choregraphed exercises that form the backbone of Rede’s curriculum. In one exercise, youth took turns guiding their peers through spontaneous dance movements. The result? Participants learned what leadership feels like, including the responsibility, the stress, and the need to stay cool under pressure. In another activity, trainees were instructed to stride across a room making deliberate eye contact in pairs. For those who avoid eye contact, especially with authority figures, the exercise reinforces confidence and connection. Said one Brazilian youth, “Just looking into people’s eyes made me feel like I had known you guys for 50 years.” 

Rede training sessions emphasize cooperation, community, and equality among participants. “We sit in circles, so we can see everybody else,” said Tatiana Carvalho, Rede’s Employability Manager. “We break the pattern that only the educator has the knowledge. Every participant brings experience that’s valuable to the others. This builds a collective culture that has a positive impact.” 

Music is integrated into most sessions, whether its Brazilian folk songs or American pop favorites. “The music energizes young people,” says Carvalho, “they forget their worries.” 

In one exercise, referred to as the Ethnographic Map, participants line up in two rows facing one another. As a facilitator calls out prompts, trainees step forward if their life experience reflects a given theme. “Were you born in Brazil?” “Do you have siblings?” “Are your parents divorced?”  “Do you live at home?” As the exercise continues, the questions grow more personal. “Have you ever been bullied?” “Have you experienced prejudice based on your height? Weight? Musical tastes? Clothing? Skin color?” Afterward, trainees stand arm-in-arm in a circle, reinforcing a sense of safety and security. Should participants wish to elaborate on their experience, facilitators create a safe space for them to do so.

The more we look at our projects and their impact, we realize that what’s missing in preparing young people for their futures is love.

Tatiana Carvalho, Employability Manager, Rede Cidadã

Emotional sharing and vulnerability are encouraged in Rede training settings, along with hugs to express joy and offer comfort. “The more we look at our projects and their impact, we realize that what’s missing in preparing young people for their futures is love,” says Carvalho. 

After participating in a series of Rede activities, Brice White, YEP’s Work & Learn Center Program Director, was quick to agree. “As a young person, I used the term love to describe close relationships with family and friends. Now, the question is how to bring the expression of love into our work without shocking people.”

By the end of their five-day immersion, the YEP team saw real merit in trying to adapt elements of Rede’s approach. “We went on a journey not knowing what would unfold,” said YEP Co-Founder and Executive Director Melissa Sawyer. “We knew there was something powerful that could contribute to our work, our culture, and efforts to employ young people. What wasn’t clear was how youth would respond, the training required, and what elements made sense to bring home.” 

In the weeks to come, YEP will explore what next steps might look like. Irrespective of the future, Jevon and other team members gained new insights with direct relevance to their lives and work today. “The positivity was just beautiful,” he says. “I want to take that back home with me.”