A Summit Too Sad

Somewhere in the bowels of the White House someone someday somehow will see the connection between the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future (a.k.a. the Alliance for Youth) and the President’s Initiative on Race.

The president has proclaimed, “I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race.” Sadly, the national dialogue begun by Clinton in June has deteriorated to the level of a second- rate consulting project.

The president’s initiative established an advisory panel to help educate Americans about the facts on race relations and to promote a dialogue in every community to confront and work through these issues. It was hailed as an historic opportunity. One member of the race panel spoke proudly of the availability of technical assistance guides for communities. Is that it so far? A town meeting or two? Please!

No one has called for a new federal or state social policy structure to support youth programs which deal with race day in and day out. Who is better positioned to educate young people about the issues of class and race in America? What happened to the failed Youth Development Block Grant? Is this too detailed for the national conversation on race?

Where is the deep thinking about hate crimes like those recently carried out by skinheads in Denver?

Where are the suburban and metropolitan solutions? Nowhere do I see an attempt to get Professor William Julius Wilson’s message out to the affluent that it isn’t race so much as space and that we all suffer, but especially young urban families when “work disappears” in the inner city.

The five goals of the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future connect directly to the conversation on race. Consider the first: “Every young person shall have an ongoing relationship with a caring adult.” But what do we know about cross-racial mentoring, why do two-thirds of many mentoring program relationships not work out, and why are mentors afraid to meet with mentees in the inner city?

Or how about another of the summit goals? “Every young person shall have marketable skills.” Where do we probe the deeper meaning in the Urban Institute’s study that as much as 10 percent of the difference in job seeking success when comparing black job seekers to white job seekers who are equally dressed and prepped, is due to race and only race. For the first time, researchers have put a number on discrimination! It translates into economic deprivation for huge numbers of minorities. Where is the outrage and outreach? No wonder many minority youth have turned inward and won’t venture forth from their neighborhoods in search of opportunities. This is the real face of race in America. The solution lies in part with youth programs.

The controversy surrounding affirmative action has re-directed attention away from more obscure, yet promising, social policy options for young minorities. Everyone agrees, for example, that the most effective anti-racism strategy is to help young people achieve a higher education. Throughout the country there are hundreds of exciting privately funded community-based “college access programs.”

A study here at Brandeis shows how effective these programs can be. Yet the Higher Education Reauthori-zation Act presently under review in Congress does not earmark funds for these community-based college access programs.

This problem hasn’t been addressed in the conversation on race. Too specific I suppose.

When I look at youth programs I admire for achieving success on the thorny issue of race, I find it boils down to several factors. Explicit commitment to the issue. Sensitivity to the pain and hurt young people bring to the conversation. Passion. Patience. Real diversity in the agency. And, methods which allow young people to articulate their experiences. These aren’t found just in formal diversity and tolerance curricula. They grow naturally out of the principles which underlie all effective youth work.

Maybe next time the Race and Youth summits will be one.

Andrew Hahn is associate dean and human services research professor in the Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.


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