Investing in the positive development of our young people is fundamental to a healthy democracy. I don’t think that too many people would actually argue with this notion.
Thankfully, our nation is full of stories and innovative strategies and of creative work with young people in communities, schools, states and even nationally, and across a plethora of fundamental supports, issues and opportunities for engagement. There are some amazing things happening with young people and adult allies in places all over the country.
We are investing in dropout prevention and youth service in new and exciting ways, from the federal level down to the family level. We are slowly, but surely, evolving our high schools to increase relevance and to adopt service-learning and other pedagogies that take into account the realities of students’ lives and learning needs. We are beginning to understand the roles of school climate in effective student engagement, teacher retention and even community partnerships. Communities are awakening to the fact that young people must be part of the solution to community issues and cannot be treated merely as the problem. And, science continues to tell an enlightening new story and have significant breakthroughs in understanding the development of the teen brain, which has implications on all of these.
What we are lacking is not the knowledge, the creativity, the resources, or even the intentions to ensure young people are ready to enter a healthy adulthood as engaged democratic citizens. What we are lacking is a common understanding (and equitable process) to bring the best of youth services, youth development, youth engagement, service-learning, secondary education, school climate, organizing and many other “youth” fields together around healthy young people and a sustainable democracy. I truly believe that the problem is not one of intentions but of a fractured and fundamentally broken approach to engaging our young people in their own lives and in the life of their communities.
One key barrier to our success, in fact, is that we typically see education and youth services and youth development and service-learning and civic engagement and youth organizing and so on as disparate and finite fields. Each has its own lingo, its own frameworks, its own research and its own financial turf. With these distinctions, however, our “fields” have obscured our common sense and our purpose.
The “field” starts as a strategy and becomes an institution.
At the individual level, one overarching reality of our current “field” approach is that a young person goes to school from 7am until 2pm and is considered a student; he is treated as a student (as defined by the field of education), the space is structured for a student, evaluations and measurements are based on the educational indicators of student success; and the money supporting that young person is tied to his being a student.
If he makes exceptional grades, he is an honor student. If he stays out of trouble, he is a model student. If he graduates and makes it to college, he is a student success story.
At 2pm, this student is removed from the school building as the halls are swept clean of students, who must not only leave the building but must move from the premises – unless they are involved in student activities like sports or band (notably two of the very few student options after school in many of our schools). At 2pm, this young man is actually no longer a student unless he is involved in student activities.
Now, with his student status temporarily revoked, let’s say that this young person has some place like a community center, a faith community, or a nonprofit program to go to once he leaves school. As he walks down the road to this opportunity, this young person miraculously becomes a youth. He now has new expectations, new criteria for success; the adults he encounters have different training and fundamentally different approaches to engaging him – both positive and negative; and policies, funding support and accountability structures now define him as a youth.
If he develops leadership skills or even organizes a campaign to improve his community, these are youth activities. On the other hand, if he commits a crime or is hanging out on the street with nothing to do, these are also youth activities (although in this case the youth world may choose to call him a student). If he develops empathy, a sense of connection to the community or positive relationships with adults, he is achieving youth development outcomes (notably not student outcomes).
The irony here is that the young person is the only consistent part of this story. It is the adults and the adult-driven structures that create the gaps and fuel arbitrary distinctions and dissonance for our youth. Because we have divided and protected the traditions and practices among fields relating to the positive development of young people, we have lost site of our shared, underlying values (the positive development of young people) and significantly diluted the potential impact of the resources we invest.
I wonder what would happen if we worked from what we know rather than the field in which we work?