Rooted in Relationships

Just as a system of roots supports and nourishes trees as they develop and grow, nurturing relationships with adults provide a foundation for young pe…
Jan 26th, 2022 | 47:01

Episode 1.5 - Dr. Peter Samuelson and Karen Kingsley - Strength-based approach to working with opportunity youth

Today is a special episode for Search Institute as we talk with Dr. Peter Samuelson and Karen Kingsley about their amazing work with opportunity youth right here in Minnesota, where Search Institute is based. In this episode, we talk about the importance of shifting the narrative from a deficit-based approach to a strength-based approach that sees the potential in young people that are disconnected from the system, such as those who have dropped out of college, are unemployed, in foster care or are disconnected from societal support in some way. . We hear incredible stories of resilience and transformation from a program that focuses on gratitude, generosity and hope.

Podcast: Rooted in Relationships

Episode: Lutheran Social Services


Welcome to the Rooted in Relationships podcast, where we talk with renowned researchers and experts on the scientific insights that can help you build meaningful relationships with young people. Host Benjamin Houltberg is the CEO and President of the Search Institute, where research over the past 60 years has found relationships to be the roots all young people need to grow and thrive. In today’s episode, Ben has a conversation with Dr. Peter Samuelson and Karen Kingsely of Lutheran Social Services about a program designed to help opportunity youth recognize their strengths.


Karen joined Lutheran Social Service 3 years ago as the Senior Director of Youth and Family Services, after 20 years at a Minnesota non profit focused on youth and family services. Her career has been around analyzing things systematically and doing on the ground work.  Karen has maintained interest in the state of the world and how we can do our part to make it better.  LSS serves over 4,000 youth per year, a system in and of itself. From all they have been through, the youth they serve have the wisdom and potential to transform their lives from a place of trauma to a place of strength. 


After graduating college, Peter attended seminary to become a youth pastor. He spent time surveying the church, and eventually ended up in a primarily African American congregation in Atlanta. This led him to recognizing the systemic impacts in his parishioners' lives and the youths of the parish. In Atlanta, he enrolled in a PhD program in educational psychology and began to study how youth develop their own faith and sense of morality. Growing up in Minnesota, he was familiar with LSS’s work and jumped at the opportunity to join the organization. Though he doesn’t work directly on the ground, he speaks admirably of his colleagues who do.


As practitioners, Karen shares the importance of knowing your actions are actually making the kind of impact you hoped for. Having a research partner with a different, further removed perspective is helpful to understand the patterns and results of her day to day work. Language, however, is a challenge at times. As a researcher, Peter shares how exciting it can be to see the theories come into practice naturally. Both the opportunity and the challenge lies within the day to day collaboration.


Before the pandemic had hit, LSS developed a program developing gratitude, generosity and hope in opportunity youth with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. Shifting gears, Peter and Karen discuss the importance of terminology. Opportunity youth refers to youth disconnected from the system, such as those who have dropped out of college, are unemployed, in foster care or are disconnected from societal support in some way. Our society needs these youth and their contributions, but they are often overlooked. For Karen, it all comes back to the strength-based approach they are taking with youth, rather than defining them by their experiences. It’s easy to label someone based on behaviour, but seeing the context of someone’s life creates the opportunity for empathy.


There are 6,000 unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness in Minnesota, and 35% of them are under the age of 17. Often, Karen explains, the child’s decision to be on the street is made to protect themselves from their home situation. The disproportionate representation of homelessness in youth of color says more about systemic racism and poverty. The goal of LSS is to be there for people who don’t have that infrastructure of support in their lives already. When a young person acts consistently oppositional, Karen warns there is usually a reason behind it. Practitioners should have a trauma-based lens when approaching situations and always have a way to decompress after conflict. Demonstrating trustworthiness early on in the relationship with a youth is a great way to uncover their backstory.


The John Templeton Foundation funded research project launched LSS programming focused on helping opportunity youth not just survive but thrive. People wouldn’t often associate character with the group of youths whom LSS serve. Gratitude, generosity and hope are virtues Peter sees as tools to help us live a good life. He compares their strength-based program to that of a three step program. The first step helps them to realize their gifts and be grateful for them. Then, they are encouraged to be generous with those gifts. Finally, hope comes about with an agent of your own destiny by making a difference.


As the episode wraps up, Karen and Peter share their observations regarding emerging differences in language and perception regarding opportunity youth and their needs.



0:34- Ben introduces himself and the podcast.

3:02 - Peter and Karen join the conversation and discuss their journey.

8:50 - Bridging the gaps between research and practice.

14:16 - Expanding on the definition of the term opportunity youth.

30:55 - Discussing the program developing gratitude, generosity and hope in opportunity youth.

41:03 - Differences emerging for opportunity youth.


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Learn more about Dr. Peter Samuelson, Karen Kingsely and LSS.