Use History to Improve Youth Work

The last issue of Youth Today focused on some historical themes, from the National Youth Admin- istration in the Depression to today’s youth policies (another kind of depression). Sticking with the historical theme, I recently took some time to reflect on where our research here at Brandeis University has been right, and where some of us missed the boat.

All of us in the youth-serving field, including the knowledge production crowd (a/k/a researchers), need to steal some moments to reflect on history and the changing but critical “framing” principles that have led us to do what we do.

In other words, we need to use history as a management tool for program improvement.

When Brandeis started researching youth work in the 1970s, the big issue was youth joblessness. What does Congress do when it doesn’t really know what to do? It passes a demonstration act – in this case, the Youth Employment Demonstration Projects, authorizing some 80 demonstrations, along with evaluations, in the hope that the knowledge from these experiences would guide policy-making and local practice. A group from Brandeis played a central role in synthesizing and disseminating the information from this act.

Looking back, our singular focus on youth joblessness (driven, it is clear in hindsight, by our funding source: the U.S. Department of Labor) eclipsed more organic and comprehensive thinking about youth that had its roots in the early 20th century. From the beginning of the industrial age, youth work had been practiced largely by clergy, parent volunteers, settlement house workers and upper class do-gooders hell-bent (or heaven-bent) on practicing a kind of organic approach to youth development. The War on Poverty, with its well-intentioned policy “silos” – including the youth employment movement of the ’70s – largely eclipsed the comprehensive, one-stop, individual-centered approach of yore.

None of this is to suggest that the emphasis on a policy theme such as youth unemployment was wrong. Professor Andrew Sum’s research from Northeastern University, showing that the June 2003 summer employment rate for young Americans was the lowest since World War II, should wake us up to the central role that employment plays, not only in producing income but as a socializing force in young people’s development. It should strike fear in all of us that in many communities across the country, anywhere from 6 to 12 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are not in school and not working. That’s idleness, and that’s what some people say is the foundation for an underclass of tomorrow.

Our blind spot wasn’t about the issue, but about the power of knowledge. It was the belief that, armed with knowledge from studies of various kinds of interventions aimed at addressing chronic and lingering youth unemployment, especially among urban minority groups, the field would adapt best practices, and presto, all would be well. This was a social engineering model of change, a naïve input/output model suggesting that knowledge would seamlessly translate into new program designs.

Such a perspective lacked nuance. It exaggerated the power of knowledge. It underappreciated the role of policies that promoted old ways of doing things. It sought an end-run around youth workers, who were largely seen as a barrier to effective implementation of the new designs.

This same blind spot about the power of knowledge to shape things worries me when I read the recent recommendations of the White House Task Force on Disadvantaged Youth, which calls for more rigorous research, as if research alone will stimulate best practices. The task force should have considered a little history.

Hindsight tells us that the most significant outcomes from the 1970s and ’80s were not from changed program designs inspired by research – although there were many excellent changes of this sort – or utilization of best practices. No, probably the most significant change was leadership development among a cadre of professionals, many from minority backgrounds. A generation of program managers, civil service and CBO staff, advocates, policy-makers and yes, researchers, was nurtured, giving rise to a more serious and sustained approach to youth policy.

No one predicted this and it wasn’t what Congress had in mind. It turns out that effective youth work is primarily about people carrying it out.

We can all use this kind of reflection on our institution’s historical lessons. Knowing yesterday’s blind spots can guide tomorrow’s work.

Andrew Hahn, a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management, is a founder of its Center for Youth and Communities.


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