Society seems not to pay much attention to adolescents until they cross a pathological line into violent crime, teenage pregnancy, psychiatric distress, running away or attempting suicide. Then we focus on attempts to fix the problem.
Our methods of identifying and diagnosing the pathologies of youth are finely honed; good thing, for many adolescents need the best in services. However, our tools for eliciting and channeling strengths and talents are either blunt or non-existent. A change in perspective will help create better tools. And for those adolescents who do need services, won’t we dignify them by asking for something in return.
We should challenge our teenagers, make them feel a part of their communities and channel their energies toward positive ends. Given the opportunity for responsible, useful involvement and the chance to contribute, the great majority will acquire a stake in their communities that will help them mature into successful adults. What’s needed is a message to all kids that they are responsible and essential members of society.
This idea – utilizing youth as community resources- works with those who are in trouble as well as those who aren’t; with loners as well as kids who socialize well; with the average or below-average as well as those who are headed for college.
The concept is more than community service. As valuable as that is, it treats the young as little more than volunteers whose roles are pre-defined. The young people themselves should be involved in determining need, designing projects and programs, executing plans and evaluating projects.
The approach works in part precisely because it is aimed at everybody. It is not a delinquency prevention program, not a structured membership, and not labeled as anything other than young people getting important things done that need doing. It is not the last step before prison.
Perhaps precisely because it is not pejorative, the idea has engaged and transformed some young people who are already in trouble or headed that way. A couple of examples:
“I used to pick up cheese and butter for my family at a school in Dorchester. I am glad to be on the other side of giving … it is kind of like paying someone back.” -Ronnie, 14, from an alternative school in Boston.
“I’ve helped clean up the yards of my seniors. I help them go shopping. I even read to them. Do you know, it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been thanked?” – Earl, 16, probationer, Indianapolis.
Gaining Civic Maturity
The social dynamics of our time require an approach of this sort. Youth mature physically earlier and earlier, but they’re denied social and economic maturity until later and later. Although they seek to grow beyond the confines of family and close friends, teenagers have been refused an independent place in the community, a sense that they have a legitimate role and stake in the larger social framework.
The trend has been exacerbated by a variety of forces: increased demographic mobility, anonymous neighborhoods, a dramatic increase in single-parent and two-earner families.
Even when young people are forced by circumstances to cope with heavy adult burdens, we perceive them as abnormal, somehow robbed of a “happy childhood.” We fail to recognize their ability to become responsible members of the community and see them instead as an aberration.
As society is now structured, no social mechanism works for the positive, non-traumatic integration of young people into the adult world. None help them achieve a civic-as opposed to personal- maturity, a realization that they benefit from, and in turn can benefit, the community.
A concept and program called Y OUtl1 As Resources can provide that mechanism. It has demonstrated, quite pragmatically, its feasibility and merit. Its growth outstripped even my early expectations – and I tend to be a chronic optimist.
The idea first occurred to me in Massachusetts, when I worked with delinquent youth. I was struck by how many of them would say, “Yeah, I ripped them [the victims] off, but I’d have gotten off except for my lousy lawyer.” The odd conjunction of admitted guilt and denied responsibility challenged me to find a way to place the offence in a human context and to ground the restitution in human, not systemic, terms. The resultant program delivered two powerful messages: “You are responsible and perhaps more important, ”You are needed.” Individual offenders in our program met their victims face to face and paid their debt either directly-money to the victim-or through service to the community as a whole. Later, as commissioner of youth services in Massachusetts, I saw the concept work with some of the state’s most difficult YOUtl1.
Toward a Community Base
As executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council, I obtained the support of the Ford Foundation to document the ability of young people to provide community crime prevention services. In 1985, the council published Making a Difference: Young People in Community
Crime Prevention, which presented profiles of 30 different program types (Big Buddies/Little Buddies, clean-ups, peer counseling, tutoring, students courts, school crime watch, etc.) as well as guidelines for operating programs in which youth take significant responsibility for their schools and communities.
The following year, I enlisted the support of John Ramsey of the Boston Foundation. He helped organized a series of exploratory meetings among Boston’s youth leadership. Together we designed the first Youth As Resources program.
Our goals were three: to demonstrate teens’ capacity to work in responsible roles; to nuture and support local projects; to encourage and recognize the community service efforts of teens.
The concept was enthusiastically received. The Boston Foundation provided support for Teens as Community Resources (TCR), an independent entity that makes mini-grants; the strong, local TCR board includes representatives of organizations that work with youth and those that youth could help. Wanda Fleming, now at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, was appointed TCR’s first executive director.
At last look, Boston’s Teens As Community Resources program had funded 22 community service projects involving over 700 young people.
Buoyed by the results in Boston, the Lilly Endowment, led by project officers Joan Lipsitz and Willis Bright, agreed to fund a $770,000, two and one-half-year effort in the Indiana cities of Evansville, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. The project’s final report will discuss not just what happened in those Indiana locales but also how it could happen elsewhere.
Separate local boards were created in the three cities to solicit proposals and make grants. Boston’s broad-based composition served as a basic model, but it was expanded dramatically to include youngsters as board members (in Fort Wayne the chair is a high school senior). One board is totally independent, another is a component of a youth coalition, the third is nominally part of another organization for administrative convenience.
Adults See Proof
Initial results in all three Indiana cities are remarkable. Young people are gaining enthusiastic backing from adults who were at best mildly supportive. More than 1,000 teens and pre-teens have already completed more than 50 projects that have enhanced their schools and communities. The projects arose from community board-approved grants ranging from $100 to $5,000, with most in the $500 to $2,000 range. All involved teens in responsible roles as program developers as well as participants.
Diversity abounds. The mix includes teen mothers, juvenile delinquents, Scouts, church groups, school groups, probationers, 4-H members and drop-outs. The projects, too, are diverse: outings for children in battered women’s shelters; plays about early pregnancy performed by teen mothers for elementary school students; other plays about drug and alcohol abuse; companion services for the elderly; clean-ups of entire neighborhoods; construction of housing for low income families; recreation programs in an inner city area for young children, “mentoring” of kids in foster care.
Who benefits? Parks (which get face lifts and new facilities), the criminal justice system, the elderly, children, pre-teens, potential drop-outs, housing authorities, and live and broadcast audiences. Best of all, the young people involved develop a stronger sense of self-esteem and worth, a more positive perception of their role in the community and their ability to help tackle some of society’s most vexing issues: literacy, drug abuse, hunger, to name a few. In the course of developing and carrying out these projects, young people learn a great deal. They learn about themselves, about the community, about potential careers, about relationships, about citizenship at its most basic.
Some teens, confronted with the need for money, tackle the challenges of acquiring it legitimately through budgeting and fundraising. Others who want to counsel peers find that they first have to understand key concepts of psychology, while tutors discover that teaching a subject requires mastering it first.
In its just-published book, Reaching Out: School-Based Programs for Community Service (developed under a grant from the Florence V. Burden Foundation), the National Crime Prevention Council outlines how schools and school systems around the country have integrated a variety of community service approaches into their curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Examples of current programs are richly documented, and applications and other forms are included. Many in the education community, as Reaching Out makes clear, have already recognized the learning value of service.
Deficit Becomes Surplus
Youth as Resources is a view, an outlook, an ethos in which other programs can participate. It must not be seen simply as a grant making mechanism or a program. It concerns the ways in which those who work with youth – in a community service organization, a school group, a social work agency or anywhere else – perceive them.
Youth as Resources programs and similar projects run counter to current notions. The deficit model sees young people as objects, not subjects; as in need of fixing, not capable of giving. While we must heal those who are wounded, we must also reach out to those who are not. Although some youth specialists have bucked the tide to take a positive view, the substantial majority have focused on programs directed at and for youth, not with and by them.
Not every child has the inherent ability to be a top student, gifted musician or fine athlete. But every young person can reach out to another human being and help the community.
The concept of youth service is not just gaining respect; it is rapidly approaching a movement. Several pieces of congressional legislation, President Bush’s YES Program, and editorial support offer evidence of this trend. Youth Service America in Washington, D.C., funded by Ford and co-directed by Frank Slobig and Roger Landrum, serves as a repository of information in the service field, provides technical assistance and convenes forums. The Conservation and Urban Corps, supported mainly by foundations
(Penn, Mott, Flora Hewlett) and campus-based service projects attest to the growing breadth of the trend.
Giving young people, including those on society’s edge, a stake in their communities can turn the “youth problem” on its head. The ultimate goal: to change the way in which our country regards and uses the skills of its youth, so that young people are not viewed primarily as service objects but as service actors with significant roles to play.
John A. Calhoun, former commissioner of the U.S. Administration for Children, Youth and Families, is now executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council.
* Originally published in the July/August edition 1989 edition of Foundation News: Philanthropy & The Nonprofit Sector. Title revised.