It’s Time to Rethink Youth Programs

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America has too many youth programs. We have after-school programs, prevention programs, skill-building programs and character education programs. And we have built substantial industries to support the programs. America is populated with program developers, program evaluators and program funders.

I am not suggesting that we have too many youth workers. Nor am I advocating that we do away with programs. We need to put programs in their rightful place. Programs are not the strategy for improving young people’s lives. They are one strategy among many. But program thinking so dominates the American search for answers that we are blinded to imagining other possibilities.

The American response to every youth issue has become so predictable. Thought leaders identify a new youth issue, or reframe an old one. In recent decades, these issues have almost always been framed as a deficit in how youth develop. It is argued, for example, that young people lack skills to avoid negative peer pressure, have too few relationships with caring adults or contribute too little to their communities.

Once the issue is identified, the conversation moves to finding or creating programmable solutions. Then our creative energy gets drawn into developing, evaluating, replicating and “going to scale.”

It is hard to break out of this program default. Money pushes us toward programmatic solutions. If you want government funding, you are required to show which proven and effective program you will use.

Perhaps we have become so caught up in improving the lives of young people in a way we have come to know best, via programs, that we have missed the forest for the trees. Programs are part of the forest – sturdy and essential trees. But the forest ecology is much more complex and desperately neglected.

I recently attended a national conference and saw a phrase that sums up where we need to go. It was part of a presentation by two great youth advocates, Cindy Carlson and Richard Goll of Hampton, Va.: “This is not about changing youth; it’s about changing community.”

I’d like to ratchet this up to a higher level: It’s not about changing youth; it’s about changing society.

A growing body of literature documents the fact that many of the developmental resources youth need to succeed are in short supply. These include sustained relationships with caring adults, schools that treasure each and every child, and neighborhoods that know and connect to their young.

There is enormous developmental power embedded in community and society. But this capacity to connect with kids as a natural part of what it means to be a citizen or as a natural way of being a school, neighborhood, congregation or family has somehow gone underground. We expect programs to fill the void.

America has hundreds of thousands of talented people working in youth development settings. But what do we do about research findings that show half of all youth connected to no programs at all? Is the answer to double programs? Do we clone all youth workers?

At what point will we say enough is enough? At what point will we have the vision, courage, knowledge and will to push for profound societal change, the kind that moves young people to the center of community life? This change requires altering how citizens and their leaders see and value our young, and it makes responsibility and accountability for kids a personal issue.

I imagine a society that lessens its dependence on programs and awakens the capacity of cities and towns to be community. St. Augustine defined community as a group of people organized around an object of their common love. Organizing around the positive development of our young is exactly the social change we need.

It’s a big transformation in how this society operates. But it’s an essential transformation. The clock is running. There’s not enough money to programmatically deliver all the developmental nutrients our youth need. Even if there were, programs by themselves can’t fill the void.

America needs a huge, aggressive army of youth development advocates who will shift some of their energy from putting out fires to starting fires. Fire-starting means igniting the will and mobilizing the capacity of citizens and their leaders to provide all of our young, on a daily basis, with the support and opportunities they need to succeed.

It’s a role youth workers are poised to play. We need great programs. We also need great communities. Fan the flames for social change.