Youth Today: Know Thy Neighbor's Child: Rekindling Community Responsibility for Youth Development

By Karen Pittman, May 1997

Something big has happened that, if sustained, could change the way this country thinks about, learns about and engages its young people. For three days, the Summit focused the country on its youth and on the collective responsibility individuals, neighborhoods, organizations, corporations and, yes, government has to honor its youth. The event was unprecedented — national in its reach and loud in its voice. And to be successful, the multi-year campaign, America’s Promise-the Alliance for Youth, has to be equally unique. The details are far from being worked out. But several key ideas have taken root over the past few months that, if pushed, could keep America’s Promise from becoming what many fear — a do-nothing commission, a fund-sucking intermediary, a diversion from permanent solutions. How can it become what people hope — a powerful force for change?

 

Transcend Business As Usual
Feathers may ruffle at the Summit's proposals for social change with a bottom line. Business as business does it is not without its weaknesses. But it is clear that what we are currently doing is not working. We need a different vantage point to forward the conversation — not government, not traditional service providers. The Summit certainly gave us this with its dual call for voluntary action and corporate citizenship. But are these new voices enough? Before we start down another long path towards increased supports and improved outcomes, let's pause to ask — what does it really take to ensure that young people have the resources they need to learn, grow and connect? We have mentors, resource centers, service collaboratives, systems reform, and state and national plans. What's missing? Six things. All doable. All overdue.

  1. A clear and complete vision. Problem-free isn't fully prepared. Even if young people have the wherewithal to avoid, limit or seek help with problems, this does not mean that they are fully prepared for adulthood. We need a vision that encompasses the full range of outcomes that we want for our young people and that they want for themselves. Clear plans and target populations are fine, but we have failed if categorization leaves adults and young people bereft of a shared positive vision for their future.
  2. A steady focus on a few key things. Yes, everything influences everything else. But if we pick a few basic things and commit to do them well, we can build a solid base for expansion. The Summit targets five fundamental resources — caring adults, a healthy start, safe and structured places, effective education for marketable skills and opportunities to give back. These aren't the only five, but they are a solid list. If we could broaden our goal from improving one or two to improving all five, we would make huge strides.
  3. A real commitment to map, deepen and coordinate new and existing resources. We need both commitments to deepen and expand resources and systems to figure out which resources are needed where. It is as crucial for existing nonprofits, schools and faith organizations to deepen and link the work they are doing with existing children, youth and families — making more deliberate efforts to address, collaborate and monitor progress on all five goals — as it is to double the number of children and youth served. And it is equally crucial that the new corporate commitment engines be connected to the existing faith-based, nonprofits, school-based passenger cars. Otherwise, a lot of kids will be left at the station.
  4. Specific, non-fudgeable, publicly shared measures of progress. With all of the technology we have, we should be able to have accurate, user-friendly, cross-referenced reports on every child's progress and access to resources. To be useful, these measures need to be comparable across neighborhoods, cities and states. We need something in between individual program reports of numbers served and lives changed and city or state level indicators of problems and services.
  5. Publicly announced rewards for commitments and success. The public and peers, in the end, are often the best judges of progress and the best incentives for accountability. Change is hard work. Everyone engaged in commitment-making — young people, individual adults, community organizations, city-wide collaborative, state and national organizations, businesses, associations and governments — needs to be encouraged to set goals and monitor progress. Someone needs to ensure that these are publicly celebrated and scrutinized.
  6. A bottom-line commitment to work through — not around — families, neighbors, neighborhoods and communities. Young people don't grow up in programs. While there are many institutions that can, and should, influence the supports and opportunities available for young people, the fact remains that kids grow up in the inner circles of families, peers and significant adults. Top-down solutions that ignore and skip over rather than acknowledge, strengthen and partner with these inner circles are doomed to fail. Remember top-down imposition happens from city to neighborhood, too.

Be Accountable by Name
These are not new ideas. Combined, however, they could make a difference.

The question is where to begin. How do we jumpstart this change? We need to identify something simple but powerful enough to push for change at every level — something that forces us to acknowledge that these numbers have names.

The Vietnam War Memorial is one of our nation's most simple and most powerful symbols because it conveys the most personal of messages — names — 58,000 of them. This memorial honors the dead. We need to cherish the living. We need to set concrete goals — like 2 million additional young people getting the resources they need. But that is not enough. We need to make it real. To be reached, a child has to be known — known by name, by spirit, by interests, by fears, by strengths, by weaknesses, by curiosities. They have to be known by someone. And to be helped, they have to be known by someone who can listen and then make things happen.

Over 140 cities, counties, towns and territories came to the Summit. If each took its share of the 2 million goal, almost 400,000 young people would be helped. For a Seattle, it could be 2,500. For a Chicago, 21,700. If each city coming committed to 5 percent, we would be l/3 toward the goal. If each committed to 10 percent, we would be two-thirds of the way there. But the specific number isn’t important. What is important is the nature of the commitment. Consider these differences:

  • Ask a city to commit to get more resources to 8,000 additional young people. No problem. This is nebulous and therefore can be fudged. Reporting these kinds of increases in service delivery numbers isn't hard.
  • Ask it to commit to identify 8,000 children and youth who are missing three or more of the five fundamental resources? Harder. How many have all five now? We usually don't have a clue. It depends on how you define the resources (e.g., effective education) and whether you have the capacity to count which resources kids currently have access to (currently we can't do this easily). Taking this commitment seriously pushes cities to define indicators for resources and to count how many children and youth are actually receiving them.
  • Ask it to commit to help an additional 8,000 get all five? Harder still. This means having indicators, regularly monitoring progress and, if they are going to look good, finding ways to generate improvements in resources available and connected to the 8,000 who need them.
  • Ask it to commit to helping a specific, identified list of 8,000 young people get all five? This is serious. It requires personalized service, which means one of two things — significantly reduced caseloads for professionals (and corresponding increases in the numbers of professionals) or significantly increased use of community-based organizations, networks and volunteers. And it requires ensuring that those organizations and volunteers are connected to support systems — they can't deliver what they can't access.

If we want to really make a difference in children's lives, the recipe is simple. Ask cities and towns to make commitments to identify, name, link and track their share of young people. Ask governors, national organizations, corporations, associations to make concrete, focused commitments that increase the pool of resources and increase the capacity of communities to ensure that young people receive them. Add a foolproof, generic way to monitor commitments and progress. Stir in a dash of technical assistance and a dollop of sustained media attention, and voila — we may rekindle public will.

To meet the challenge — to make a difference not just in the aggregate but in the particular — cities and towns, national nonprofit and faith-based organizations will have to ask the neighborhood organizations and associations where children live to find ways to name them by name and to monitor their progress using agreed upon goal categories and shared indicators. If we did just this, the impact would be incredible. No more case numbers. No more elusive promises. Real names, real champions, real commitments, real progress.
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Pittman, K. (1997, May). "Know Thy Neighbor's Child: Rekindling Community Responsibility for Youth Development." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
May 1, 1997
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