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Community Assets: An Old Paradigm in Youth Development


Richard Tardif

No topic of conversation among communities moves more quickly to the margins of desperation than one about youth violence. The stirrings of alarm are sure to dwell on the appropriate means of reducing violence perpetrated by youth -- the new paradigm of incarceration with rehabilitation or the old paradigm, community intervention.

In the past I have never failed to sympathize with the general method of incarceration and rehabilitation. In the last ten years, however, the chronic sense of my anxiety reduces my faith in the logic of assimilating youth offenders in the hope of rehabilitating them back into society.

For three decades this has been the general method of addressing youth violence.
For two decades communities have watched their children spiral down into a world of guns and knives, and in the last decade communities have been scrambling to react appropriately.

Too many children live in poverty, they say. Children raised in single parent homes are more susceptible to violence, they say. Children who drop out of school, they say, follow a path that leads to small crimes and serious violence.

For many front line youth workers the answer is logical: too few young people grow up experiencing key ingredients for their healthy development. They do not experience support from adults, build relationships across generations, or hear consistent messages about boundaries and values. Many find little to do that is positive and constructive. The result is that communities and the nation are overwhelmed with problems and needs in the lives of youth. 

Thus the challenge facing us is not to attack one problem at a time, as incarceration implies, in a desperate attempt to "stop the hemorrhaging." The real challenge is to shift our thinking back to what once worked - a community system that addressed deeper causes and needs and was passed down from generation to generation, and includes, and respects the development of youth. 

This requires debunking some myths. Since the 1960's researchers have described youth as an alienated and isolated subculture. This perception of the youth experience as some unique state unconnected to an individual's life course has informed the ways that society defines the needs of young people. The result has been that much of the treatment strategy is remedial, aimed at correcting those dramatic youth problems that seem most pressing at the moment. 

It has ignored the more universal needs of youth. It is more helpful to view the needs of youth as largely determined by where and how they live, and to recognize that youth differ from one another just as surely as do adults.

The existence of an "anti-adult" youth culture, isolated from the daily lives of our communities, is more myth than reality. It is the local community, with its families, peer groups, schools, and other institutions - not some national, regional, or social force -- that influences youthful behavior. The advice and influence of peers are salient for status issues such as clothing styles or musical tastes, but on questions about future plans and problems, especially those involving entry into adult 
society, youth depend on the advice of parents and other adult caregivers. 

Contrary to popular perception, youth are not in opposition to adults; they look to adults for a unified view of the requirements for social competence. Youth organizations have known how crucial the adult/youth relationship is. Often, youth organizations create helpful intervention programs based on family interaction, but in many cases the intervention takes hold of only those youth members participating. 

We know that the intent of all intervention programs is to build positive assets in youth but many intervention programs fall short when the adult community does not get involved. Any intervention program must include the adult community. This  expanded social network allows youth to experience an infrastructure of caring, perhaps for the first time in his or her life. 

In essence, what concerned professionals really do is, first, make the youth's life more predictable and, second, develop roles for them through which they can  consolidate an identity incorporating "something larger" than themselves.

The answer doesn't lie primarily in creating new programs or in hiring more professionals. It lies in each and every person reclaiming responsibility for raising young people. It lies in launching and sustaining a movement that changes the way society thinks about, and responds to, children and adolescents. 

It lies, simply, in accepting and being faithful to the old paradigm. Any initiative must build on the commitment and capacity of residents, families, neighborhoods, schools, youth-serving organizations, congregations, and businesses to take positive, meaningful action. The accent is on unleashing the capacity of community people and organizations to make a positive difference. 

What is clear is that we need to proceed from the ecological assumption that human behavior and patterns of social relationships are not independent of place. Community is what gives continuity in assets to caring about and meeting the needs of youth: it preserves and institutionalizes it.

The history of social movements should teach us that the institutionalization of behavior, not the modification of individual behavior, is what renders caring about youth and their needs. To effectively teach youth the importance and benefits of caring about themselves and others, communities must become environments where it is desirable to be caring.

In communities that facilitate the development of youth, "caring" is an explicit concern of their charter, as well as a dimension of their program activities. Most impressive is that the old paradigm facilitating both care - seeking and care giving re-emerges and that teenagers seem to know where to look for appropriate forms of caring. 

Agencies and social contexts perceived as caring will continue to consciously build relationships among elements of three domains -- organizational culture, psychological climate, and roles and role relationships -- that make caring a basic requirement. 

Youth in these programs are able to internalize program characteristics (such as caring) and use them as behavior guides even when they are outside the program context. While the organizational context can encourage caring attitudes or behavior, it is in the smaller social networks where social support and self-evaluation take place.

In these interpersonal contexts -- where trust, mutuality, and some form of reciprocity are expected and consistent -- youth use caring - associated terms and show an understanding of their meaning. Indeed, the social environments and the dynamics of the relationships within and among institutions can be more important than the individual contribution of the family, the school, peer groups, or voluntary agencies.

In short, young people who experience more of these assets are more likely to grow up caring, competent, and responsible. Youth organizations have been creating assets in youth for years and have shown the important relationship between developmental assets and choices.

As conversations about youth violence continue, the consensus is that making successful youth development a priority in the community should not lead to the creation of a new bureaucracy, but to more effective use of the individual and network resources in the community. 

There are many opportunities for adult-youth interaction, and adults should use each to recast risks to be feared into challenges to be faced and see to it that no youngster faces them alone. This would return us to the old paradigm that contends that it takes a community to raise a child.

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