Youth Today: Who's Watching the Youth Field?

By Karen Pittman, March 1998

I used to find it comforting to say that the youth development system is a decade behind early childhood. I don’t anymore. We seem to be losing the urge to explain, expand, prove and improve what we do. There are individual efforts — single organizations, subfields — that are pushing forward. There are grand efforts like America’s Promise, The Alliance for Youth. But interest in building public understanding and public will for the goal (youth development), the profession (youth work) and the field (youth services) seems to have waned.

Admittedly, the PR job is harder for youth services than early childhood. Adolescents are louder, less innocent, more annoying. The definitive research on how critical high quality inputs are to development just isn’t there. And there is competition. The education and juvenile justice systems have first dibs on public funding. Younger siblings compete for scarce dollars at home. And many things compete for young peoples’ attention, pulling them away from adult-designed activities.

Nonetheless, we should have made more progress. Several generations of serious field-building efforts and we still seem to be squinting into the sun and digging with our hands. We still struggle with definitions of inputs (our equivalent of ECCD’s snacks, naps, hugs and supervised play) and outcomes (beyond problem reduction). We still wrestle with the boundaries of the field. Most important, we still lack a common understanding of the business — the professionals, policies, programs, practices that are the essence of the work.

I routinely get calls from program planners, job seekers, funders who want to understand the field. I even get requests to browse in my “library.” The oral tradition is great, but it is time to get organized. There have been significant shifts in the policy, practice, training, funding, research and public opinion. Who’s tracking these?

Youth Today is not just the newspaper you love to hate. It is, if only by default, the keeper of the history. The scrappy, real-time chronicler of the field. Yes, there are other journals and trade magazines and newsletters. But none have the breadth of Youth Today. None have dared to define their mission as covering anything that is not first chance education, not medical health, not preschool and not adults. None update us on the latest on the people, programs, practices, policies, publications and grant making that shape this uneven but dynamic field.

Publisher Bill Treanor’s goal was to put out a newspaper. 62,000 readers and counting he has done that and, in so doing, helped define the field. A decade after the Grant Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation set up commissions to look at how well the U.S. supports its youth, we are still struggling to find the official threads that tie camping with counseling, after-school with out-of-school, treatment with development. But YT’s readers have a shared sense of the size and scope of the field just by virtue of reading the headlines. A readership poll in 1994 found that Youth Today was the only professional publication that crossed the desks of an astounding 50 percent of its readers. If those statistics still hold, Youth Today is not just informing the field, it is shaping it. This is a serious responsibility for a newspaper.

YT has become the repository of our real-time history. If we are serious about building a field — having the name, the goals, the strategies and the structures of the youth service be as well understood as they are for early childhood — then we need to think about how and why this function is to be defined and fulfilled. Lilly Endowment youth development staff once wrote, “Youth development should not be a happenstance matter.” Neither should the chronicling of this vital but undisciplined field. Bill Treanor has done it, unasked, for six years. Who will help with the next shift?

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Pittman, K. (1998, March). "Who's Watching the Youth Field?." 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: 
March 1, 1998
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