How to Develop Youth in Under-Resourced Neighborhoods

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Ruby K. PayneComments made to me by men in a low-income neighborhood:

“You know he is not a real man. All he does is push paper every day.”

“I would never take that promotion. Because then I would be one of them.”

“I was looking for a job when I found this one.”

“It ain’t honest to work for someone you don’t like.”

“I’m a lover. My brother is a fighter. That’s who we are.”

“Yeah, Jim is a real man. It took five cops to bring him down.”

“A career? What’s that? I just want a job, man.”

I asked an 18-year-old male, “What will your life be like when you are 25?” He said to me, “I will be dead.” I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “Everyone like me is dead by 25.” I said, “Is there any reason you would not want to be dead at 25?” He said to me, “My 2-year-old brother.” I said, “Is there anything you could do differently right now to live a couple more years?”

One of the characteristics of under-resourced neighborhoods around the world is the lack of work or intermittent work for males. A brilliant sociologist from Harvard, William Julius Wilson (“When Work Disappears”), states, “If you want to break a culture, all you have to do is take work away from men because it changes identity.”

Charles Murray writes in his book “Coming Apart” that 30 percent of men in the bottom 20 percent of households in America do not work. Only 2 percent of men in the top 20 percent of households do not work. In “Freakanomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, there is a chapter titled, “Why do drug dealers live with their mothers?” The research found that drug dealers at the street level do not even make minimum wage.

Work provides role identity. Typically role identity for a male with a job is a provider and a protector. Female identity tends to be a provider and a caretaker. People with work reference themselves in a role. But when there is no work or only intermittent work, then you are only a part-time provider or no provider.

Eventually your primary role is to protect, and in risky neighborhoods that means physical protection. Without work, you have to find a place to “stay,” and that means being a lover. So over generations of little work, male identity becomes about gender (proof of your ability to fight and love) rather than role. When gender identity becomes stronger than role identity, it is very difficult to maintain stability because there are periods of time where you have to run and hide. (The law or someone else is looking for you.)

How do you move males from gender identity to role identity?

First, it is important that each youth establish his own future story. One way to do it is with a visual storyboard for age 25. Create a page with nine boxes. In each box goes one picture to represent each of the items below. They get these pictures from the Internet.

Find: (1) a picture of the car you will be driving, (2) a picture of the house/apartment/condo you will be living in, (3) a picture of the work you will be doing, (4) a picture of what your high school diploma looks like, (5) a picture of your A.A. or B.A. degree, (6) a picture of your friends, (7) a picture of your family, (8) a picture of what you will do for fun and (9) something you will buy when you are 25.

Then we ask them to plan backward. If that is your goal for 25, what will you have to do to get there, beginning now? What are the barriers and obstacles you will encounter? Assure them there will be barriers and obstacles, including relationships that will be lost because of time commitments to education and work.

Tell them: If you do not make your own story for your life, someone else will make it for you.

Finally, they must develop bridging social capital. They must meet individuals different than they are so they can see/hear/feel another way to think and live. This leads to having mentors and allies.

To transition to a more stable environment with more resources requires three things: employment, education and bridging social capital. The four reasons that people leave under-resourced environments are: It is too painful to stay; there is a key relationship; there is a talent or a skill; there is a vision/goal/future story. The more of these an individual has, the more likely it is that he/she will transition.

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher and career educator. She is recognized internationally for “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” her foundational book and workshop.