Last month I gave a keynote speech to about five hundred youth workers in Austin Texas. Like all their conferences, the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) conference was lively and well attended. I was pleased and proud to be invited back. Actually I was invited this time because one of the conference organizers Kim Shenk read my column, “No Farting in My Van” right here on CYC-Online a few months ago. The topic for the speech, which was a little less cutting edge so to say, was the themes I have been musing on in recent Moments With Youth columns: hesitation, motion, stillness, waiting, power, etc.
I had prepared for the speech all my life, but beforehand I didn’t feel prepared enough so I went for a run the as I do almost every day to clear my head. I like to take a run when I travel because it gives me a chance to see places I might not see otherwise, and also to get a better sense of where kids might hang out in a community.
The doorman steered me towards a high school with a track. Usually I don’t like to run in circles, but sometimes when I am in the middle of an area with a lot of traffic, as this was, it is a better alternative than meandering around.
It was hot: about 98 degrees F. Fortunately as I approached the track, I could see that the sprinklers were on. The time was about 5:30 p.m. Two small groups of African American teenage boys walked towards me from the school with books underarm. Given that less than 35% of the African American boys in our community graduate, I was glad to see this. I smiled and said “Hi guys” as I ran by. Thinking perhaps, are you crazy, they “dissed” me, ("dissed” in the US is a form of staring that shows disrespect). I smiled inside at my ability as a youth worker not to take this personally: if anything it gave me a feeling of confidence that comes from being someone versed at street culture.
Man, did it feel good to hit that first sprinkler. As I ran a few laps refreshed, I noticed no one else was around. Here I was on this big track surrounded by ball diamonds and workout areas and there was no one here. More and more it seems that I see places that are underutilized. Parks, gymnasiums, hiding places, the woods, etc., seem relatively free of the action that used to go on in those places. Some of the action has gone underground, of course, and you have to know where to look. You would have thought, however, kids would have shown-up to run through the sprays the way kids run through fire hydrants on hot days. Too many youth now seem to prefer to sit in front of a large or small video screen.
As I rounded the track I saw a boy go into the gas station, cell phone attached to ear, and on the next trip around the track I saw him come out with a bag of junk food. Just that day in the paper I had read an article showing how recent studies have shown that being just ten pounds overweight can shorten your life span, and that two-thirds of the people in the U.S were overweight. “Hey, put that stuff (cell phone, and Cheetos) down and come over and run a few laps with me,” I wanted to say, but instead I ran through the sprinkler again.
On one of my laps I also noticed the school slogan written in large letters on the side of the building: “Not Without Honor” and this got me thinking – as the “runners' high” took over – about slogans. Why do so many of the slogans people choose seem to have these moral overtones that direct the youth to something outside self: duty to one’s country and so forth. Why don’t we have slogans that say something like “come here and participate: be a youth.” Actually I like the slogan in the U.S. “Be all that you can be” which unfortunately is used to recruit poor kids into the military, poor kids who go off to fight for politicians and richer people who often start but don’t fight in wars. My take on “be all that you can be” would be something like “be in your youth with all the muck, joy, sadness, exuberance, experimentation, fooling round and learning about self and the world around you that is part of youth.” (Too long, I know.)
Sometimes it seems like slogans and acronyms are made up first and then the creators try to fit what they can into them as if they are trying to sell something to themselves or make things simpler than they really are. That’s why I prefer themes. A theme, as opposed to a slogan or acronym, rises from the lived experience and describes what is “good, bad, ugly, pretty whatever “and is part of the nexus and praxis of what we do.
Anyway these were thoughts that I carried into my speech and workshop the next day as I shared my concern that as a field we were focusing too much on getting youth out of youth rather than being in youth with them. “Youth work should not be primarily about turning youth into adults and civic minded employees, but rather about being a youth with caring adults,” I said – or something like that – and several heads nodded.
The speech, a conversation really, seemed to go okay and to ring true for many people in the audience who, like me, were feeling pulled away today from the heart and soul of our work by policy makers and funding sources focused on outcome rather than process (see Brian Gannon's article in Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, 16;3, for an excellent take on this topic).
There were many people in the audience in Texas I think who did not agree with what I had to say, or were looking for perhaps more of a performance from a keynoter. I am not a performer, except maybe here a little. For better or worse I try to be present when I have a conversation with a group of people about youth work. Fortunately, there were also many people who were curious about what I said and afterwards during my workshop we continued the conversation about themes like lunch, proximity, presence, etc., giving me fuel for further discussions and practice. A special thanks to those who participated. Readers, if you ever get a chance to go to a TNOYS conference, I highly recommend it. Wish I could have stayed longer.
Enough, I’m going for a run. Hope the sprinklers are on, and I find youth again – my own and others.