American youth development programs, like the American people, are all over the place when it comes to helping young people learn and talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One strand of youth programs would like to see youth organized into an anti-war movement, as in the Vietnam War protest era.
This is the organizing, political engagement (and perhaps left-leaning) side of youth work.
Another strand, and probably a large one at that, believes that the military has always presented an attractive career opportunity for young people, or that serving the country in the armed forces is the mother of all service-learning programs. This group doesn’t brand itself as pro-war, but the culture of the organizations is to welcome military recruiters. The values taught turn on ideas about loyalty: the importance of supporting elected leaders and our fighting forces in the war effort.
A third strand takes a practical cop-out: It says that addressing the war in community youth programs would amount to mission drift. This is the “it is someone else’s job” part of our profession. These youth workers lament the scant time they have with youth to address their programs’ primary goals: “My program has enough to do in trying to deal with substance abuse. Now I’m supposed to address Iraq? Not my silo, sir.”
Some youth media programs, such as the newspaper L.A. Youth, have given youth a great chance to discuss the wars, but most other programs don’t know what to do about it.
Where do you stand on addressing the wars through youth programs? I am thinking mostly about community programs that work with youth during the nonschool hours.
I have the least sympathy for the “mission drift” crowd. If all the talk about “positive youth development” has any integrity at all, then letting this opportunity slip by is to miss a chance to engage youth in the greatest challenge to their generation. If that isn’t youth development, what is?
Undoubtedly, many program managers are afraid of confronting this issue. They don’t know what or how to teach. They fear that donors, other youth workers or people in the community might disagree with their approach to discussing the wars. They don’t want to seem “political.” They worry about staff and kids disagreeing with each other about the wars. Foundations and donors could help by signaling that even-handed debate and conversation within youth programs is a good idea, not something to be feared.
But we mustn’t forget that the dialogue will be messy and challenging. Some of the youths in your programs have siblings, other relatives, friends and neighbors stationed in the Middle East. Some harbor aspirations to serve. This is relevant to their lives. This is what will be heard in discussions.
Where should program managers turn for guidance on how to discuss the wars? They could sure use a short, balanced guide to best practices and options for instruction about such issues as Iraq, terrorism and America after 9/11. This is an excellent opportunity for policymakers and donors to support material development and dissemination, along with training to use it. The focus must be on balanced instruction and debate, not one-sided ideology.
One clearinghouse, Education World, lists many resources for classrooms that might prove useful in out-of-school-time programs as well (www.education-world.com/a_curr/profdev059.shtml).
Young people in community programs need to understand what other young people are going through, be they young Americans, young Israelis or young Muslims. They need to understand the roots of the wars and the options for the future.
Programs such as ROCA in Chelsea and Revere, Mass., respond creatively to such challenges. For those that enroll young immigrants, verbal conflict and talk of peaceful co-existence are natural elements of the programs. Here and there, other programs organize debates through discussion groups and invited speakers. Some use writing assignments to help youth reveal their thoughts; others deploy youth in the community to use digital media to explore social themes. They use theater, art, sports, speakers from the military or anti-war groups, and service and field trips.
But each must go it alone, inventing its own approach, typically without guidance.
The wars in the Middle East and the war on terror will affect future funding opportunities for youth programs, future educational opportunities for vulnerable teens and future employment for all. Donors need to help community-based youth groups build their capacity to address the war. All of us need to work through our beliefs and help those groups capture this learning moment.
Sadly, that teaching moment is not going anywhere soon; there is still time to act.