John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann at the Asset Based Community Development Program at Northwestern University bring a slightly different perspective to development issues, leading the YMCA to examine how it works with other institutions in a larger community (both formal and informal) to provide opportunities and support youth as they integrate developmental experience into a construction or identity for themselves.
When viewed through the lens of a still larger literature of research on human development, which begins at the biogenetic level of brain chemistry and structure, and includes investigations of the role of family, school, peers, and religious institutions, the YMCA has access to very rich models to design and evaluate its work with children and adolescents. This is a dynamic system, which means that continuing work constantly leads to change and refinement in existing programs and to the introduction of new programs.
At the organizational level, the YMCA is a federation of nearly 1,000 independent, autonomous local associations. These 1,000 associations operate nearly 2,500 branches and camps, and they also deliver programs in thousands of schools, community centers, religious facilities, public parks, hospitals, and so on. It is estimated that the YMCA serves over 10,000 communities in the United States alone. Respecting local autonomy means that there is also significant regional diversity in program offerings and emphases. As an organization that seeks to reflect the communities it serves in staff, lay leadership, and membership, communities with differing levels of diversity, economic, racial, and religious pluralism, the local YMCA is likely to mirror that diversity.
To the extent that the identification of a spiritual path of development is free of common labels of religious particularity (character development, practices of reflection from meditation to yoga, service learning, and other expressions of altruism), they can be a part of YMCA programs in many settings. Some settings, however, raise a higher bar of secular definition so that programs are more narrowly defined as recreational or academic. Programs in public schools, for example, are least likely to reflect an appreciation of the interest and need of youth to explore the spirit. Programs in environments that are completely defined by the YMCA, such as residence camps, and programs that are more explicitly spirit centered, such as Rags & Leathers, are important parts of the camp tradition.
The dialogues about the role of spiritual and religious development of children and adolescents take place in a number of different contexts for the YMCA. Within the profession, there is a lively discussion about the continuity of current programs and practices in an organization with a historically rich Christian heritage. Among lay leaders (board members, policy volunteers), there is a dialogue about the way in which an organization adapts to a changing society, and in particular one in which religious diversity continues to increase. Even quite external to the organization, there are discussions about the role and place of organizations that have moved, as a reflection of changes in society, away from a more religious or spiritual orientation to a more secular presentation, some bemoaning the loss, others admiring flexibility or adaptability, with neither particularly aware of internal dialogues.
The YMCA is embedded in American society in a number of ways. At a time when definitions of charitable organizations and the accountability and transparency of philanthropic organizations are under scrutiny by business and political sectors, the place of support of the spirit in charity and philanthropy is important. At a time when responsibility for community development and human services is increasingly shared between the government and the private sector, motivations of and relationships to faith traditions are important. In addition to delivering programs to children and youth that respect and support their growth in spirit, mind, and body, the YMCA has an important role to play in defining the debate and developing a consensus as a matter of social and public policy on why such service is important and how it is to be provided.