The benefits of after-school community building programs for young kids are usually hard to measure. Typically, organizations will follow students who have gone through their programs and show how they may have a slightly lower dropout rate or higher grades than their peers.
But those statistics are just proxies, and they also miss many benefits that don’t relate to school, such as empowering kids to feel confident about their identities, participate in volunteer work, or pursue social good careers. These sorts of things are usually reduced to a series of anecdotes or quotes in a report that get quickly tossed aside.
This becomes a problem when it comes to fundraising. “They’ll get funded but they’ll maybe get more modest funding because the results are very hard to report back on,” says Deepthi Welaratna, the founder of a New York startup called Thicket Labs, which bills itself as a laboratory for creative problem solvers.
Thicket Labs, which focuses on building tools to visualize the “unseen infrastructure that guides social systems,” is developing a new way to quantitatively measure the beneficial effects of such programs, which it calls “fuzzy cognitive mapping.” The startup recently tested its method with the Chinatown Youth Initiatives, a New York City nonprofit that works with Asian American kids as well as other underrepresented minorities. Every year, the group holds Chinatown Beautification Day and puts together a youth conference at the same time to foster youth leadership in their communities.
To measure the benefits of the program, Thicket Labs looks at the relationship between personal identity and the spaces in the kids’ lives, such as school, home, social groups, and the Chinatown Youth Initiative (CYI) events. They selected 20 emotional states, such as “disconnected,” “at ease,” “anxious” or “free,” that positively or negatively impact a teen’s ability to engage in larger communities, and gave surveys to the youth at the conference. Eighteen students took the most detailed version of the survey on their mobile devices and talked about the results with Thicket Labs at an “identity workshop” held for them.
The results, shown and mapped above, show how students feel better at CYI than in any other space, including with friends or at school. The contrast of CYI with the negative feelings the students experienced at school were particularly noteworthy, says Welaratna. As the report notes:
The stark difference between the positive impact of CYI and detrimental impact of school points to the critical role CYI and similar youth community groups can play in fostering agency in the lives of young participants.
Going forward, Thicket Labs hopes to develop a broader cognitive mapping tool that, along with the identity workshop, could be used for monitoring emotional health in all kinds of settings. At a college campus, for example, Welaratna says it might be interesting to monitor a class over its four years and map out their “emotional arc.”
“The types of wayfinding tools and cues we find so helpful in navigating physical terrain may find their analogues in the social worlds we traverse, and we believe cognitive mapping could help us bridge these worlds more wisely,” the report says.