What Profession Are We In?

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Editor's Note: Peter Benson, CEO of the Search Institute and an expert on youth development, passed away last month after a year-long battle with colon cancer. He wrote this column for Youth Today in August of 2010.

We are organized to fail.

It’s not that we lack ideas or innovation. Our field has an amazing array of prophets, paradigms, programs and people.

We work in everything from dropout prevention and early childhood education to service learning, social and emotional skills, child welfare, parent education and school engagement, mentoring, character, out-of-school time, community-building and juvenile justice. We have people focusing on leadership development, program quality, measurement, evaluation, and the big challenge of creating schools that not only train the brain but also engage youths’ hearts and spirits.

The trouble is that, by and large, all of these are discrete areas of work, with sponsoring organizations seeking market share, brand identity, distinctive advantages and “making the case” research reports. We are being Bridgespanned to death, with silos getting taller (if you like agricultural metaphors) and deeper (if you like military ones). If we were in any other business – say cell phones, bottled water or toilet paper – fighting for market share, brand differentiation and distinct advantage would be the way to go. That’s market-force economics.

But when it comes to growing healthy, thriving young people, fragmentation is a recipe for failure. As Irv Katz, the head of the National Collaboration for Youth, puts it, the forces promoting fragmentation are mighty. To be one among many is a lousy economy. In the chase for funding, our natural inclination is to differentiate ourselves from one another. This American way of doing business is one big reason that our collective work is not having the impact we all dream about.

To reach that dream, we need to collect ourselves under a larger professional umbrella, perhaps with a new name or collective identity.

Let’s get started by looking at six axioms about human development that, if we truly honored them, would press us to work differently from the way we do now. They are:

1. The pileup of developmental supports. We’ve known for decades about the pileup of risk factors: The more risks, the more likely negative outcomes. Now a significant scientific body of research shows that the same is true on the other side of the ledger: The more supports, the better the outcomes. Call this the vertical pileup of developmental nutrients.

2. The pileup of ecologies. Youth live in multiple environments, including family, school, neighborhood, peer group, social media and programs. A growing body of research shows that two supportive ecologies are better than one; three are better than two; and so on. Call this the horizontal pileup of developmental nutrients.

3. Both the first and second decades matter. Contrary to many policies, development is not over at age 5 or 10. A scientific case can be made that how well a nation attends to youth after age 10 matters as much as before 10. Young people can lose all the gains made in early childhood interventions if the support is not sustained. The first decade is particularly important for cognitive development; the second decade is particularly crucial for social, emotional and moral development.

4. Reducing risk, promoting assets. These two paradigms should never be in competition. The prevention of risk and risky behavior is as central to health as promoting skill, competency, values, identity and connectedness. Hence, prevention and promotion are interdependent.

5. Family is the most critical ecology of all. This is true for both prevention and promotion. So how is it that “youth development” and “family strengths” are largely disconnected fields of work?

6. Citizen engagement. The capacity to surround kids with life-giving supports is vested in the people of a nation, in the way they see, know, connect with, honor and respect the young. Ask kids how we’re doing with this one. It’s not a pretty story.

What all this shows is that raising great kids requires multi-sector, multi-decade, multi-actor and multi-paradigm thinking, action and coordination. We all know this, but the forces of fragmentation block our vision of this truth. Accordingly, we get the fragmented and usually weak outcomes we are organized to produce.

Evidence of our nation’s blindness to the full picture of positive human development is abundant. How many undergraduate and graduate programs prepare students to know, act and lead with that full picture in mind? When does a federal policy initiative take a comprehensive view of human development? How many foundations take that view? How many cities have staff whose job is to keep the full picture in front of decision-makers? The answers to these questions range from few to none.

The forces of fragmentation dominate. Only when the force of interdependence and unity takes over will our nation develop the coherent vision for children and youth that our nation sorely needs. And only then will we create a shared voice that will be heard.

A first step would be to create a new name for our profession – a silo-busting, big picture and aspirational name that honors your work and mine while binding us together in a spirit of national unity and urgency. This first step would link the first and second decades, prevention and promotion, family and school, citizen and professional, youth and adult leadership, and the building of healthy communities and schools.

I believe all of us are in the profession of human thriving, promoting the conditions that maximize every person’s chance to be fully happy, connected, engaged, compassionate and successful. Human Thriving. That’s my nomination. What is yours?

Peter Benson is CEO of Search Institute, based in Minneapolis. http://www.search-institute.org.

  • Don Harting

    Interesting post. I particularly like the point the late Mr. Peter Benson made when he wrote, “Family is the most critical ecology of all.” Makes me think, again, about the long-term impact of our high divorce rate upon American youth.