The media often portray youth very negatively. Listen to Bret Ellis in George magazine:
Their [teen] predilection for violent crime is at an all-time high, which has inspired a multitude of new laws and regulations that threaten to dismantle the concept of civil liberties in the U.S…. Add to this the fact that kids control the entertainment industry with their buying power, not to mention that they lie and cheat more than ever…. Cheating on exams? Smoking cigarettes? Shoplifting? You wish. Murder, rape, robbery, vandalism: The overwhelming majority of these crimes are committed by people under 25, and the rate is escalating rapidly….
Negative press reports often fuel the public’s fear of teens. In response, policymakers offer teens food, education, health care, and shelter for $35,000 a year-in juvenile prisons.
Both the public and policymakers often accuse teens of short attention spans, of not thinking about what’s beyond tomorrow. Yet too frequently they themselves go for quick-fix, bumper-sticker policies in defiance of research, preferring fast, short-term solutions, without thinking about what’s best for tomorrow’s generation of adults.
Bills proffered in the 104th Congress calling for the reform of juvenile justice policy focused neither on prevention nor justice. Some, in fact, described youth as “superpredators.”
Are youth today more evil? No. Texas Attorney General Dan Morales once observed that of 1,000 youths, 997 are okay, good, or wonderful. But who drives public fear and election-year policy? Three out of 1,000. Are youth more violent? No. What is different today is the easy availability of lethal weapons. Youth have gone from using fists to guns in settling disputes. Guns change what would have been a broken nose into death. England three years ago lost 77 children to gun violence. The United States loses that many in a week-almost three classrooms of children.
The Rand Corporation reports that by 2002, if current spending trends continue, 18 of California’s budget will be spent on corrections, and a mere 1 on higher education. Rand also reports that since 1986 California has built 23 jails and one institution of higher education. Is America in the middle of a crime wave? Again the answer is no.
Although violent crime rates in the United States are intolerably high, they are dropping-including that of violent crimes committed by youths. Nonetheless, a recent New York Times headline read, “Crime Keeps On Falling; but Prisons Keep On Filling.” Juvenile lock-ups stand as public policy promises. But where are the companion promises, after-school programs, mentors, and opportunities for community service?
Two years ago, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) commissioned Louis Harris & Associates to poll youth about ways in which crime and violence influenced their lives. Half the news was old: Because of crime, kids occasionally carried weapons, cut classes, chose new friends, and so on. But the astounding new news was that 9 out of 10 said they would volunteer to do something about crime and violence if only they knew what to do.
The Independent Sector’s survey, Volunteering and Giving Among American Teens, showed that an astonishing 59% of teens volunteered weekly, versus 49% of their adult counterparts. Superpredators? Hardly. This example of volunteerism points to a truer portrait of teens, one we don’t often hear about, and one that rarely receives media coverage.
It is youth’s sense of idealism, their desire to be a part of something bigger, that we must tap. NCPC has seen this idealism abundantly in our programs for teens. One program, Youth as Resources (YAR), begun more than a decade ago, asks youths to identify social issues about which they are concerned and design community development projects to address them. Local YAR programs, governed by youth-adult boards, provide mini-grants to implement these youth-led projects. The results have been astonishing:
- More than 130,000 youths have been involved.
- All types of youths serve, from the delinquent to the honor society student.
- They have tackled almost every social issue about which society is concerned, from homelessness to crime prevention to child abuse.
- Their efforts are sponsored by caring adults from a variety of contexts: schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, churches and synagogues, community foundations, dance clubs, juvenile corrections facilities, probation departments, and others.
YAR has proved to be a powerful program for youth in all settings-urban, suburban, and rural, as well as in correctional facilities. Since 1991, YAR has been instituted in the largest youth correctional facilities in Indiana. Through YAR, youth are reconnected to their communities: from participating in activities for the elderly to sharing with other high-school students the tragic results of gang involvement and drug abuse. How many months or years of incarceration might they have been saved if they had been reached by prevention programs before they got off track?
In another of our programs, Teens, Crime, and the Community, we present youths a curriculum, usually through schools, sometimes in juvenile justice settings. In each, through an interactive series of lessons, they learn to avoid becoming victims. But the last chapter asks them to be partners, to roll up their sleeves and design and run projects that make their communities safer and better. And they have tutored, mentored, run teen courts, cleaned up graffiti, and more.
Said one young man, “I could not believe adults trusted me to do the job. It’s hard to describe how I feel. It feels like a new life.” Another youth said, “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever been thanked.” These words convey teens’ sense of connection and that they are somehow important and needed-that adults cannot solve these problems without them. To successfully engage youth, communities across America need to seek approaches to the “youth issue” that are
- able to connect youths positively to adults,
- adaptable to all types of community institutions,
- able to get real work done, and
- easily transplanted.
And adults working with teen involvement programs need to demonstrate
- a willingness to share power;
- a focus on results;
- respect for teens’ brains;
- an ability to provide guidance;
- a willingness to help with “adult things,” like renting a truck, opening a bank account, signing a contract, or understanding Robert’s Rules of Order;
- flexible scheduling (youths can’t do things during school hours, when it might be more convenient for adults); and
A year ago, I was asked to respond to the Youth Forum in Miami, a group of kids who crafted policies they felt were needed. I was struck by the modesty of their requests and their willingness to take responsibility. They weren’t asking for BMWs, fancy clothes, free education, or a free ride, but parents who would parent, schools that are safe, a bus to a job, and the opportunity to serve, to get together face-to- face, to look beneath skin color to share commonalities. They were also irritated at how the media portrayed them-always in trouble or troubled. How often did the media report on teens who ran projects for the homeless, who mentored others, or who cleaned up graffiti?
Amidst our august policy discussions, we must keep in mind the human dimension. One of our YAR programs is located in one of the most violent places in the United States-the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. One YAR project was started by 9-year-old Tanika Reilly. Her gift is song. She and her classmates designed a program to sing to the elderly walled in by crime. This youngster faces difficulties daily: Her mother is very young, almost an adolescent herself; Tanika sleeps in a bathtub to avoid gunfire; and she must step over condoms and crack vials and avoid gangs in her neighborhood. Yet when she received a YAR mini-grant to support her project idea, she said, “Thank you for allowing me to make my community better.” If she can so affirm, we must be inspired; for she embodies the philosophy that is essential to a stable, vital community-“I am my brother’s keeper.”
This country seems to have only two policy formulations for teens: One is control (the criminal justice system) and the other is repair and fixing after teens get into trouble or are hurt. Each formulation may be appropriate in its own time, but neither talks about a policy that challenges youths’ energy, talents, and enthusiasm, and asks them to contribute positively as equal partners. We have not invited youth to sign the social contract.
It is the commitment and idealism like Tanika’s that we must nurture, the better angels present even in the most horrendous of situations. Kids want to be their brothers’ keepers and their communities’ resources. Adults have to wake up and establish policies that will elicit the best in youth. We must give teens the opportunity to be their brothers’ keepers, their sisters’ keepers, their communities’ keepers.
*First published in the Spring 1999 edition of Children’s Voice, a publication of the Child Welfare League of America.