Stop Feeding the Beast

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I have decided that from this moment on, I am going to stop feeding the beast. Whenever and wherever I speak about young people or youth work, I will not be transfixed by the youth deficit agenda.

My awareness level about the deficit phenomenon has been high for some time, but the habit is hard to break. I will need to carefully watch the language, frameworks and evidence that define my adult behavioral problem.

In Chicago, we are trying to establish a “Starting From Strengths” approach to professional youth work. For this to really work, we all have to stop feeding the deficit beast. Now my charge is to systematically find, articulate and celebrate the actual behavior and impact of young people in their families and communities.

If I am forced to, I can talk about juvenile crime, teenage pregnancy, adolescent drug use and community involvement.

I will note that from 1999 to 2003 the number of juvenile arrests in Illinois decreased by 22.6 percent, according to the Chicago Police Department. There were significant declines in arrests for most offenses, including a 64.4 percent reduction in disorderly conduct arrests. Truly notable is the fact that most juvenile arrests occurred in the middle of the day or during evening hours, and that 41 percent of arrests were made while school was in session.

So please, let’s talk about high-quality youth work programs and not get stuck discussing just “after-school” efforts.

If you really make me, I will mention how pleased President Bush is with the 11 percent reduction in youth illicit drug use from 2001 to 2003. This is the largest decline in the past decade, according to the Monitoring the Future study used by the White House. Maybe we all missed that press conference.

I could mention that from 1986 to 2000, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the pregnancy rate for teens dropped by 22 percent, and in 2000, it was 28 percent below the peak rate, in 1990.

If you twist my arm tightly, I will mention that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the number of youth volunteers and the rate of volunteering have risen in recent years. From September 2002 to September 2003, teen volunteering increased by 2.6 percentage points, while the adult rate has stayed pretty much the same. With 29.5 percent of teens volunteering in the past year, teens are approaching the adult volunteer rate of 34.7 percent.

I don’t believe my new behavior is naïve or an avoidance of the many subtleties buried in most statistics. I don’t think I am ignoring the many challenges some young people face. Making sure to note and celebrate how well our teens are doing does not mean I ignore or avoid the many inequalities in both opportunity and outcome for some teens.

I know that many children and youth have it tough. The overall poverty rate has increased from 12.1 percent in 2002 to 12.5 percent in 2003, and some 45 million people have no health care coverage – an increase of 1.4 million people since 2002. There are now 7.6 million families living in poverty in the world’s richest nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. I must have missed that press conference, too.

If I continue to feed the deficit beast, I avoid my own responsibilities and those of the adult world for the many struggling and broken systems in which young people strive to be productive, to navigate and to connect. These are the three primary developmental outcomes for youth, according to Michelle Gambone’s perceptive community action framework.

When I was still in the grip of my deficit addiction, I was in denial about how we adults have known for years that one of the most significant predictors of teen behaviors is the behavior of the adults around them.

While many in the policy and political fields still feel the need to feed the beast, youth workers should kick the habit. The beast is clever: It talks of all teens, then singles them out, pathologizes them and sets them up for a range of treatments for their moral and behavioral ills. It is a deception that stops us from asking where on Earth some teens learned all this stuff. It is a deception that diverts attention from the many structures and systems that affect youth but are designed and controlled by adults.

If I can keep free of the beast, I will often have to remind myself that youth have a right to high-quality programs that provide diverse supports and opportunities. I will always remind myself that young people possess gifts of the heart, hands and mind that they must capitalize on to help ensure safer futures, families and communities. So when I talk about young people and trust, integrity, morality and character, I will need to make sure the beast is nowhere to be seen.

Michael Heathfield is Coordinator of Training Services for Chicago Area Project.