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Rooted in Relationships: Episode 2.4 Karen Pittman


Rooted in Relationships: Episode 2.4 Karen Pittman

Resource Audience

Adults Youth Program Leaders Teachers School / Youth Program Staff School / Youth Organization Leaders District Leaders

Resource Type


Read Time

31-60 Minutes

Karen Pittman - On the precipice of change

There’s no question the Covid-19 Pandemic had a negative impact on young people and their relationships, but Karen Pittman, Partner at KP Catalysts, also sees it as an opportunity to prioritize relationships and the positive impact they have on learning and education. In this edition of Rooted in Relationships, Karen Pittman discusses how scaling relationship building among students and educators can lead to increased learning and student success.

Welcome to the Rooted in Relationships podcast, where we talk with renowned researchers and experts to explore how connections to resources, relationships and social networks provide the key conditions that all young people need to thrive. Kicking off season two of the podcast, Search Institute CEO Ben Houltberg introduces Kent Pekel, education leader and former CEO of Search Institute. Today, Kent is joined by Karen Pittman to discuss how scaling relationship building among students and educators can lead to increased learning and student success. A pioneer in positive youth development, Karen has a career in starting organizations and initiatives promoting development.

Karen’s time attending Oberlin College shaped her subsequent work in understanding the role adults play in co-creating the context for learning and development to happen. She recalls the surprise of her professors and peers at her preparedness to begin her studies given her demographics. Then, she shares her realization that it is the cluster of environments in which young people develop which shape the trajectory of their lives.

This year, a major topic of discussion is around the opportunities lying in the aftermath of the disruption brought by Covid. Karen unpacks what the term “Build back better” means to her and how it is influencing her work today. She is now more excited than ever about the natural integration of formal, flexible and free choice learning opportunities. These methods can help expand parents’ and students’ options to cater to individual learning needs. Much of this has come from Covid’s disruption alongside the visibility of racial inequity. When it is done well, she believes, school serves as a community. If we just think of schooling as where academic transfer happens, we aren’t doing it right. We have an opportunity and the backing to change this narrative, but the moment is not temperate.

Then, Karen offers insights as to why we must be mindful not to pit youth developers and educators against one another. Rather, the two different fields must recognize their role in working together to achieve a common goal of optimizing learning. We need these relationships to make sure they are leading a physical and emotional environment in which young people feel safe. The starting point is to identify the different cognitive and social skills by name. In the education system, the content and instruction is often overestimated while the importance of connection is underestimated. On the youth development side, it is common knowledge that it all begins with relationships. If we could get a wider understanding that these are complementary systems, Karen believes, we would be much better off.

Karen discusses the unusual subjects who end up making a large impact on a child’s life. The figures are often not classroom teachers, but people such as family friends, school cafeteria workers or crossing guards. When we help these figures understand the intentionality and the science behind what they do, it’s often an empowering and motivating experience for them.

We need to not just help kids beat the odds, but we also need to work on their behalf to change the odds. Karen believes relationships can absolutely help kids change the odds. The real transformation lies in sharing power and expanding possibilities. The goal is not to use the relationship to teach, but to use the relationships to make sure young people are building the skills and competencies to transform their own lives and push back against the system. Collectivity and confidence is especially important for young people from marginalized groups.

As the episode draws to a close, Karen unpacks the idea that relationships can be scaled. What is most important, she reveals, is that we train people based on their own natural experience and orientation. If we want to lead with relationships, then we need to pick the people who are naturally built for relationships before funneling in the content rather than the other way around. Thus, she believes you can scale through recruitment.


0:34 - Ben Houltberg introduces himself, Kent Pekel and today’s episode.

1:22 - Kent introduces today’s guest, Karen Pittman.

2:30 - How Karen’s college experience shaped her subsequent work.

12:05 - What “build back better” means for Karen and her work.

15:56 - Youth development vs. educators.

19:02 - What’s missing in education compared to youth development.

20:58 - Elevating the unusual subjects in a child’s life.

24:01 - How relationships can help kids change the odds.

30:08 - Can relationships be scaled?

36:25 - Thank you to Karen for joining us today.

Follow Benjamin Houltberg.

Learn more about Search Institute.

Learn more about Karen Pittman.