A 2019 workshop session at the Rambler in Amsterdam. (Courtesy The Rambler)

Reverse-Engineering Success

An international effort to identify the best ways to help young people

By Pablo Álvarez

On the Lower East Side, Avenue D seems to separate the orange, exposed brick buildings of public housing from the smaller buildings that gentrification has been able to reach.

One of those contemporary-looking buildings belongs to the Lower East Side Girls’ Club, a community center that focuses on bridging that divide.

I came here because I didn’t know what to do after finishing high school. Due to the coronavirus, my parents are working fewer hours, and it’s been stressful at home. But in this place, I’m learning about what I like.


Member, Lower East Side Girls' Club

Laila, 15, was born and raised in Lillian Wald Houses, a 16-building New York City Housing Authority development. The pandemic her family’s finances hard.

Her father works as a line cook in a restaurant that had to reduce its hours because of the lockdown restrictions. Last summer, Laila got involved in a Girls’ Club program, where she found a new love for music, especially singing.

Now, she wants to continue attending this workshop to share tips with other girls and actively search for a college-level music program.

While exploring options for her future, she was able to manage her stress better.

Laila is not an isolated case. Studies show that many children in impoverished circumstances struggle in school and have a harder time finding jobs as young adults. They are also at greater risk of falling into the criminal justice system.

The Lower East Side Girls’ Club is one of eight community-based organizations taking part in Confident Futures, a 24-month research project that started in January. The goal of helping disadvantaged communities is not new. But the way the project’s teams in New York and the Netherlands plan to do explore it is innovative: reverse-engineering.

The technique has been widely used by the military to copy other nations’ technology and by companies trying to replicate a product from the competition.

From “Child Poverty and Adult Success” by Caroline Ratcliffe of the Urban Institute.

It means taking something apart, studying how it works and creating something that does the same thing.

Confident Futures aims to apply this concept to study small community-based organizations that successfully provide the services their communities need. Once they understand how and why they work, they can show the model to other similar organizations.

Workshop at Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy.

The key to their success of small entities seems to be their size. While more prominent and larger organizations have more funds at their disposition, they have to go through a lengthy administrative process to allocate them. Smaller organizations can adapt faster and react almost immediately to their constituency’s needs.

Due to the new challenges of the pandemic, instead of meeting in person at the end of the year to share their work, each organization in the project produces a multimedia piece highlighting their approaches to reach struggling communities successfully.

These initiatives focus on engaging young people and providing more self-confidence through various arts, culture and sports programs. They also help increase access to potential jobs and expand students’ social networks while focusing on a wide range of ages, from kindergarten to high schoolers.

“The word affirmation comes up so often, and it is key to healing and advancing for individual girls, and also for the group,” says Rayna Rapp, a New York University researcher who is a Confident Futures organizer.

This research project is also connecting other small agencies within New York City and Amsterdam that work with adolescents. 

According to an article published by Harvard University, adolescence “is a time of rapid physical and cognitive growth, second only to the first two years of life in the amount of change that takes place in a short time span.”

The selected youth initiatives use arts, sports and other means of developing the self and group connections.  A good example is Rambler, an Amsterdam studio that focuses on streetwise designers and fashion.

“Yes, I was lazy at first. Honestly, I thought it was a phase. Maybe a few weeks or months. Then I’m out of here,” says Albertino, a participant of Rambler. “When I got here, I was expecting a guy in a suit…But he looked like me, and that made me feel like I could be successful too.”

Workshops provide a vital moment of exploration and recognition for students’ creativity. A workshop is a safe place for them to explore avenues that could awaken a productive future.

At the end of the 24 months, Confident Futures will produce academic papers that the participating organizations will use to apply for grants. So far, the only funds they received from the researchers were used to develop the multimedia pieces.