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119 JANUARY 2009
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Stimulate This!

Kiaras Gharabaghi

The world economy is in crisis and national governments everywhere are contemplating their next moves. In North America, the language of economic stimulation packages and industry bailouts has become the new fashion, displacing the more familiar free market terminology of tax cuts, mergers and efficiency. If this crisis werenít impacting so dramatically on workers and their families, the situation would indeed be comical. The language itself is filled with sexual innuendo: at what other time in history have we so openly and seriously talked about the market penetration problems of the Big Three? One of my brothers recently proposed a coalition of the Liberal, Communist and Marijuana parties of Canada in the hopes of developing not only an economic stimulation package but a sexual stimulation package for anyone who might need it as well; good idea, that way we can pleasantly watch the failure of whatever package will ultimately be introduced.

But it really isnít all fun and games. Workers are losing their jobs, which for many will mean losing their houses as well. And in this ultramodern twenty-first century economy, any available jobs are almost certainly minimum wage jobs that pay just enough to cover the cost of anti-depressants (the cheap, no-name kind). Tough times are ahead, and few people will remain untouched by it all. And yet, as we contemplate how to bail out whatever industries might be near collapse, our focus will be, as it usually is, on the adults in our societies. Perhaps this is because adults are assumed to be taking care of children, and therefore taking care of adults will benefit children as well. More likely it has something to do with adults having the right to vote (in some countries) or the capacity to revolt (in other countries), and therefore governments have a vested interest in mitigating the effect of the world economic crisis. So who is going to be left out, fending for themselves, voice-less and disempowered? Well, if history teaches us anything at all, it will be youth, especially youth living on the edge.

So far, at least, I have heard nothing about bailing out the street-involved youth or the organizations providing services to them. I have heard nothing about infrastructure investments that might be of interest to young people who have been disenfranchised for some time already. And I have heard nothing about stimulating the hip hop or basketball ambitions of these youth. In fact, what I have heard is that the funding for agencies that hire child and youth workers might have to be curtailed, and programs that are concerned about edgy youth scaled back or temporarily suspended. As governments pour money into the auto sector to keep the Big Three alive albeit it limp, theyíll have to save money elsewhere. It is always easiest to cut spending on those who canít or wonít defend themselves.

There are many risk factors for the values our profession has so carefully groomed and expounded over the past few decades. Without attention, edgy youth will retreat once again into their world of an uneasy mix of functionality and dysfunction, peer support and gangs, big dreams and day-to-day misery. The associated rise in criminality and violence will once again be managed through the big stick of the courts, jails, and condemnations. And the relational basis of Child and Youth Care will be dismissed as soft, inefficient and useless; what we really need is a kick-ass, drug 'em up, 'shape up or shape out' sort of approach to taking care of the ďproblemĒ.

All of this creates both anxiety and hope for slightly edgy child and youth workers like myself. On the one hand, one does have to wonder how a profession that is barely recognized even by like-minded professions much less by governments or the public at large, will survive the coming cut backs, trimmings, and displacements. On the other hand, here is an opportunity for child and youth workers to expand their day to day activities of being with youth and add some advocacy, rebellion, and Twisted Sister-style 'Weíre Not Gonna Take It' tasks to their job descriptions. Perhaps this is the best opportunity we have ever had to make some noise about a stimulation package for edgy youth and the adults assigned to manage their problems. And perhaps this is the opportunity we have been waiting for to stand side by side with our edgy youth and make our collective voices heard.

The most important message that needs to be delivered is that edgy youth do not benefit at all from current directions in government crisis management. Bail outs for the auto industry are irrelevant; they typically donít have the high paying jobs in the auto industry. Bailouts for the banks also donít help much; many of these youth donít deal with banks and the availability of commercial credit bears no relevance to them. Large road infrastructure projects bypass the needs of youth as well, since most donít drive and wonít qualify for construction jobs that require certifications. Re-training projects are helpful only to those who have been trained in something; our youth havenít been trained in anything yet. Investment in post-secondary education will benefit those who are eligible to attend; again our youth are left out in the cold, given the prevalence of high school drop outs amongst them.

The argument, of course, is that strengthening large industrial sectors benefits everyone; when there are jobs there is money, and where there is money, there are opportunities for new businesses to be developed, creating more jobs and more opportunity for everyone. That may be true for most members of society, but edgy youth didnít get much out of this trickle-down economics approach during economic boom times either. So what should we be advocating for?

I would suggest that we should advocate for two types of approaches to dealing with the economic crisis. The first is about re-building not the economy but society itself. And the second is about adopting some of the principles embedded in the private service sector, specifically the entrepreneurial, small business part of the private service sector.

A great deal of change lies ahead. A changing economy means changes in how work unfolds and where it unfolds. It means making decisions about balancing the desire for economic growth with our understanding of environmental impacts of such growth. It means that families will have to incorporate new schedules into their daily routines and contemplate new activities for their kids. It means that the education system will have to respond to the needs of a new economy, different kinds of skill requirements and competencies and the like. And it means that social welfare policies may have to adjust to meet the needs of a new demographic. Changing economies also impact the cultural and ethnic composition of societies. Different skill requirements mean that immigration flows change. So if we are going to have to adjust in all of these different ways, why not shift our focus to changing society (and developing an economy that meets the needs of that society) rather than changing the economy (and accepting that some will benefit and others will be marginalized).

A changed society could be one that is inclusive, allows for expression on the part of everybody, and provides both public and private opportunities for gathering, playing, working and being. And if we can work within this framework, then the stimulation package needed now is one that is relevant not only to those holding on to corporate stocks, but also to those who live on the margins of societies now, but who may well become the engines of growth within the knowledge, cultural, recreational, artistic and perhaps also more traditional sectors of the economy. Why not invest in public spaces that are relevant to edgy youth? Recreation centres without swimming pools but with multiple indoor basketball courts, recording studios and graffiti art centres? Why not invest in job training that can accommodate the uneven educational history of edgy youth and still allow them to move forward? Why not build housing that speaks to the social and emotional needs of street-involved youth, provides safety and security on the one hand, and permission to cohabitate with as many friends and street family members as needed? And why not invest in the entrepreneurial ideas of these youth, who surely could not do worse than the current disaster created by the Ivy League University educated senior managers of the Big Three?

But it will not be enough to just re-build society to ensure that there are opportunities for everyone to be included. We will still need support systems and contingency plans for those times when someone just canít keep up and presents with special needs. Here is our opportunity to advocate for a system that reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector (as opposed to the corporate spirit). Rather than pouring money into the large institutional service providers that end up spending most of it on organizational needs, why not adopt the principles of informality, flexibility and accountability that is so prevalent in this part of the private sector. A successful private business in the helping professions has three characteristics that all helping systems should adopt: such a business provides its services in response to customers' articulations of what is needed, not as a pre-fabricated package that those in need and without choices have to accept. Such businesses understand that those who get service want service, not paper work, not rules, not technical field guides on how to understand the ins and out of the service; they just want what they want.

The private service sector also understands that services have to be flexible. While the large public systems talk endlessly about diversity and the uniqueness of each client, the extensive bureaucracies that provide the services in the public sector belie the declaratory commitment to flexibility; bureaucracy, by definition, erases uniqueness and the recognition of diversity. Bureaucracy is about universalizing rules, norms and expectations.

And finally, if there is any public investment in providing assistance to those left out of mainstream social and economic processes, there ought to be accountability. In the public system, accountability mechanisms look great on paper but are not very transparent. In the private service sector, accountability is much easier to understand: if youíre good, you get paid; if not, you don't.

For child and youth workers, all of this means that it is time to stand up and speak out. We are a profession that values, more than anything else, the concept of being with children and youth in their life spaces, whatever and wherever these might be. We have accepted long ago that the onus to adapt is on us, not on the youth we work with or the families we engage. And surely we have come to understand that we canít change anyone; but we can be with anyone, related, connected, engaged. We are ideally suited to carry the burden of change inasmuch as it will affect the disenfranchised and alienated in our societies specifically because we have no particular requirements about structure, order or conduct. And we are impartial about the private or public bases of economic models; we just want the few dollars designated for edgy youth to actually be of benefit to edgy youth, and not to underwrite the organizational needs of service providers.

Private service is risky inasmuch as there are now and have always been some questionable service providers with profit motives that blind them to their reason for being. But public service providers havenít been much better, and whether resources are wasted for the profit of owners or the self-congratulatory celebration of public executives, youth are still left out in the cold. So just for once, I would urge all child and youth workers to abandon their long abstinence from politics and get mobilized, organized and loud. We donít need any more Chryslers, Fords or Chevys so that we can drive by the neighbourhood group home or the local youth shelter without any risk of having to say hello to an edgy youth; we need public spaces that are owned and lived in by everyone, including our youth. And we need child and youth workers to help everyone stay connected to each other, every day and everywhere.

And by the way, Happy New Year everyone. This year more than ever, I wish you peace.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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