Are You Bored Into Complacency?

What a pity that for many youth workers, one common side effect of their difficult work is the loss of astonishment.

They read sad statistics and shrug. A good research story fails to ignite their passion. We need shock, anger, indignation and fear to fuel sustained political advocacy – yet a numbing casualness often greets even the most dire story or research finding.

I can relate to the protective mechanisms that dull our capacity for outrage. But it isn’t healthy and needs to be guarded against. The shortest road to effective social change is constructive anger, not the numbness and malaise that many youth workers feel.

I offer below two recent examples of stories from our field that got my blood pressure boiling. These may or may not work for you. When you find what does, share your feelings of outrage with kindred spirits. And, most importantly, act on your feelings through advocacy.

Lies about “Us and Them”

We have been lied to and that ticks me off. An article in Social Work published by the National Association of Social Workers (July 2002) deflates a huge historic myth that there is an “us” in the mainstream and a “them” on the margin who suck up government resources from the rest of us.

Get this: using new “life course” techniques, the two professor/ authors demonstrate that two-thirds of all Americans between ages 20 and 65 will at some point utilize public assistance such as welfare, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, food stamps or local cash assistance. Similarly, two-thirds of Americans will fall below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 20 and 85.

The use of America’s safety net is not something for “them” but is a mainstream phenomenon affecting most of us.

A big lie has been promulgated and we must now reframe the debate over America’s safety net to make it a mainstream issue for the majority. That gets my clock ticking.

Sustainability of Operation Ceasefire

In 1996-97, Boston caught the world’s attention when it figured out how to lower youth homicides by two-thirds and youth gun assaults by half:

First, bring together the police, federal and state prosecutors, probation and parole people, youth service workers, gang outreach workers, municipal leaders, community groups and the urban ministries.

Second, send a message and truly believe in the idea that youth violence is not inevitable and is preventable.

Third, through frequent working sessions of the collaborative, identify potential violent offenders by name and address – and knock on their doors.

Fourth, let potential youth offenders know that they are being observed, that their potential crimes will not be tolerated. Promise and deliver services (carrots), but also quickly and firmly sanction people who in fact get into trouble (sticks).

What burns me is that Operation Ceasefire has largely ceased. By 2001-02, Boston homicide rates for young people were significantly rising again.

I am furious that, yet again, as a field we failed to meet the sustainability challenge. In this life and death story, only four years later, death has returned to dominate the narrative.

What happened? You can guess: Distractions. Complacency. Jealousies. Budget cuts. (See The Boston Globe, especially July 15, 2002, at http://boston.com/globe /search. Search for “ceasefire.”)

Some lay the blame at the celebrity nature of the intervention, with key players spending more time running around the world discussing the model than sticking with it on Boston’s streets.

Complacency took hold as weekly meetings attended by experienced senior members of the collaborative fell off.

Others point to fiscal cuts, rivalries and jealousies stimulated by the urban ministries with their occasional inflated claims of leadership when many elements of the city-wide collaboration deserved credit.

Whether it’s these or other stories that rile you, find a way to get riled. The bridge connecting research and practice to progressive change is anger and astonishment. Hang on to those feelings.

Andrew Hahn is professor and director of the Heller School’s master’s degree programs in children, youth and family studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. Contact: ahahn@brandeis.edu.


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