A civil war is brewing in youth work force development centers. It pits many veteran youth workers against a younger crowd that boasts to kids, “I can relate.”
I watched the two sides clash at a recent staff training session hosted by the city of Los Angeles. Younger staff members emphasized the importance of making the youth centers more youth-friendly. Tenured staff, on the other hand, denounced the Biggie Smalls posters smiling down at them from their classroom walls.
So it should come as no surprise that many educators and work force development professionals can’t figure out how to entice disconnected youth with programming that will lead them toward successful lives.
They’d better figure it out soon. The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University reported that among 16- to 24-year-olds, one out of every four African-Americans and one of every five Latinos were jobless, on the street and not in school.
The younger staff members at the Crossroads 2005 California Conference, believing that I promoted the use of hip-hop, were certain I would side with them. The more experienced staffers, aware of my advocacy for youth, were sure I would speak on their behalf.
I surprised them both.
First I zeroed in on the experienced staffers, explaining that we have too many eight-track youth programs in an MP3 world. I spoke about how today’s youth service and education programs are slow to catch up to the rising waves of youth interests and ways to use those interests to promote educational and work force achievement.
“We might as well stuff a Bee Gees eight-track into the machine and get ready to do the hustle,” I said. “But the kids won’t be willing to join in.”
Then I focused in on the younger “I can relate to kids” crowd. By using commercial hip-hop, I explained, they inadvertently promote many of the behaviors that their programs work against. Bottom line: Many program staff have little information on how to connect with disconnected young adults, and many younger workers incorrectly think they have to dress, act and talk like young adults to connect.
Both groups threw their hands in the air. “What are we to do?” echoed throughout the room.
It’s fair to ask how we can yank the eight-track out of the machine and dissuade younger staff from trying to rap like Eminem. The answer lies in YCC: Youth Cultural Competence.
YCC is not multi-culturalism, which focuses on general ethnicity and race. YCC understands that young adults bring their own cultural capital to a program, and it uses that capital to produce positive outcomes for youth.
Former Harvard Professor Pedro Noguera explains the need this way. “It is imperative that efforts to help black youth be guided by ongoing attempts at understanding the cultural forms they produce, and the ways in which they respond and adapt to their social and cultural environment. Without such an understanding, efforts to influence the attitude and behaviors of African-American males will most likely fail to capture their imagination and be ignored.”
However, with all due respect to the younger staff members and their desire to “get down,” we need to separate YCC from hip-hop, especially commercial hip-hop.
First, hip-hop is just one form of youth cultural capital. Not every young person is rapping or wants to rap.
Second, commercial hip-hop has been misdirected and misguided by corporate interests and greed. If you use the culture, make sure to take out the commercial.
Third, being YCC means continually adjusting to the cultural interest of the youth. Remember jazz? What was once rebel music quickly became the choice of the older generation.
YCC adults put their ears to the wall and use whatever popular cultural outlet that their youth are interested in to reach them and retain their active participation.
Young people connect to adults who respect their youth culture. Rhodes scholar Jay MacLeod suggests in his book, Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood, that those who work with youth “need not have a black belt in karate, place a premium on machismo, swear in class, or have working-class roots like most students. However, they must be prepared to validate the identities that their students have taken on as part of growing up.”
When youth workers negate the cultural capital of young adults, they devalue the young adults. In an urban culture, where respect is premium, consider the inevitable turn-off to education and work force programs when young people’s culture is “disrespected.”
So put down your bayonets. Let’s end this battle and get “krumped” – er, I mean, Youth Culturally Competent.
Edward DeJesus is founder and president of the Youth Development and Research Fund, Montgomery Village, Md., www.