Youth Workers Must Start Social Movement to Provide Intervention to Our Youth

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Youth intervention is an essential service. Yet it goes unrecognized as such in public policy and budgeting decisions. This reality has coldly stolen happiness and hope from our youth. It is time to demand that youth intervention be available to any youth needing support. We need to demand social justice for youth.

In my 25 years of working with disconnected youth, I see a continuing increase in the number of youth who could benefit from youth intervention. Too many young people have had Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). None of us would want to be dealt that hand in life. They are at risk of becoming adults with lifelong social, emotional and behavioral problems.

Social change occurs when it is just no longer reasonable to continue with the way things are. I know that with the right resources a brighter future is possible for all youth. I also know that history has shown that a society immune to the perils of its youth is certain to implode with steady and increasing social unrest.

A social movement for youth intervention is needed. Our lack of civic engagement is allowing the future of so many of our youth to be thrown away, public safety jeopardized and endless dollars wasted.

My lifelong passion, and also my job, is to improve civic engagement around youth issues and empower youth workers. I must admit that I have been struck by the broad-based willful ignorance and level of disengagement in the overall community and too often among youth workers.

I don’t mean to be condescending or paint with a broad brush, but we have been conditioned to wait for someone else to fix the problem. It’s the natural balance of how power works. Complacency sustains power. Eric Liu describes how most people are profoundly illiterate about the concept of power in his TED Talk. I can’t say that I disagree.

If youth workers understood that the world is run by people who show up and engage in civic discussion, then the state of the field would look very different today. No one argues it’s a bad idea to help youth. The problem is that the decision-makers are just not being pushed by youth workers and other supporters of youth to make changes.

If we don’t demand change, we won’t get change. It’s as simple as that. Until we demand change, we should not be baffled by our society simply accepting “throwaway kids” as inevitable nor should we complain about the lack of resources and support for our work with youth.

We need look no further than the mirror to see who can improve the lives of our youth. It is the youth worker. The job of the youth worker has evolved beyond just interfacing with youth in a program setting. The job of youth worker now requires:

  • A moral imperative to defend the interests of young people in the public arena.
  • The need to understand the social systems and work to change them.
  • A willingness to learn the skills needed to persuade individuals who hold power.

There are more than enough youth workers and supporters of youth to create and sustain a movement. A brighter future for our youth has an emotional appeal that can keep engagement high in a social movement and can win broad community support.

To be successful, the movement needs:

  • A leader to shape the framework. This includes establishing clear outcomes and expectations that mark progress being made. To grow and sustain a movement, everyone involved needs to know they are making a difference. An effective leader recognizes that people cannot be expected to give endlessly and too many of us are already burning the candle at both ends.
  • A concise message with a simple and clear goal. Detailed descriptions of a complex and deeply embedded social injustice bogs down progress. Words and phrases matter and the simpler the better.
  • A framework that empowers young people. The key to success is providing opportunities for young people to tell their story. I’ve seen it time and time again — their voices make a stronger emotional appeal and connect with a wider audience compared to an adult voice. We also need to give youth opportunities to be our leaders. Youth in the movement will carry the torch for the next generation and provide longevity. Youth are our present and our future.
  • A critical mass of supporters to carry the message. When people unite, the impact of an individual taking action multiplies (sometimes even exponentially) and the movement will succeed. The movement needs to build upon an individual’s inherent need to connect to something bigger than ourselves; as the movement grows, it will attract more followers.

We all need to understand that a movement is not time limited. To be sustained, a youth intervention social movement must continue until justice is fully ingrained in our society. Actors in the movement may come and go, but an entity and passion must keep the momentum going.

As I see more and more youth falling through the cracks and the level of social unrest increasing, it is clear that the time has come to make a concerted effort to correct the injustice being imposed on our youth. I’m also sure that many of you believe a youth intervention social movement is a long shot.

Consider this: Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” It’s time to believe him.

Paul Meunier, executive director for the youth intervention Programs Association (YIPA), oversees its advocacy and professional training services. He served as the mayor of Ham Lake, Minnesota, after being city councilman and has spent much of his career working directly with high-risk youth.