Reflecting on 10 Years of Reflection

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Seventy thousand. That is roughly the number of words I have written for this column over the past 10 years. It seems appropriate to devote this edition to a decade of reflection.

The first column heralded the Youth Development Block Grant, youth-centered legislation developed by the National Collaboration for Youth in 1994, which advocated funding to promote youth development rather than just to prevent youth problems. The second introduced the idea that young people need not only services, but supports and opportunities, as well.

The third column lamented the lack of solid funding infrastructures to support good youth programs, and suggested that youth and adults who benefit from these services mobilize against the closure of programs instead of just mourning their loss. The fourth column discussed racial inequities in communities that deny young people of color equal educational opportunities.

The fifth, written shortly after I joined the White House staff as director of the President’s Crime Prevention Council, raised the challenge that still guides my organization’s work: raising the country’s expectations from satisfaction with providing individual supports that help a minority of disadvantaged teens “beat the odds,” to demanding the larger, structural changes needed to “change the odds” to ensure success for most teens. Ten years later, the themes are the same, but the beat is stronger and the messengers more diverse.

The National Governors Association argues that the “ability of states to compete in the global economy hinges on how well they enable their younger citizens to attain the ‘competencies and social attributes’ necessary to ultimately fuel economic growth and contribute to the well-being of their families and communities.”

The National Research Council validates the basic tenets of the youth development approach, confirming that young people need a broad range of assets and consistent supports. It recommends that communities “create appropriate mechanisms” for monitoring and coordinating community programs.

Paul Hill, a leading educational researcher, argues that “the traditional boundaries between the public school system’s responsibilities and those of other community agencies are a part of the educational problem.”
Slowly but surely, the core ideas of youth development are making their way into mainstream practice and policy, as well as public opinion. But there are times when I would credit the progress to osmosis as much as advocacy.
We can do better. I can do better.

There is still work to do to advance the principles within the youth fields that focus heavily on the “nons” – nonacademic outcomes, nonschool hours, nonwhite and non-college-bound youth. We must become better bridge builders, standard bearers and advocates. I’ve pushed hard on all of these themes over the years, but I’m aware of significant gaps in my track record. I have to say more about families, their finances, supports and policies. Families were mentioned in fewer than five of the 85 columns I’ve written over the past 10 years. Young people don’t grow up in programs, they grow up in families. And those who don’t wish they did.

I have to speak more about education policy, taking a closer look at programs and policies that bring youth development principles into schools, policies that keep these principles out, and the role played by informal supports intended to increase college access and college graduation.

I have to speak more about poverty, race and racism. As an African-American leader in the field, I have the freedom and the responsibility to speak out, not only about achievement gaps, but about the structural inequities that harbor them and that accumulate to color young people’s perceptions of their own identities, expectations and goals.

I have to speak more about special populations. Race and poverty are not the only life-defining demographics. I have not learned or written enough about immigrant youth, gay youth, disabled youth, homeless youth.

Finally, I have to speak more about the fundamental services and opportunities young people need to survive: health care, housing, transportation, legal protection, jobs.

Professionally, I have changed titles and positions several times over the past decade, and changed addresses even more often. But in the most basic sense, my appeal to the public has remained the same. Youth Today has given me a unique opportunity to chronicle my observations about research, policy and practice within the field.

I look forward to another decade of conversations. I promise to keep exploring the possibilities.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This column and links to related readings are available at