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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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What happened to Carlos?

Mark Krueger

Carlos was a good youth worker. He grew up in the hood, but did not join the gangs. With more than a touch of machismo and street smarts he managed to survive and get an education. People accepted him for his dedication to the community and the youth, who he wanted to help follow in his footsteps. Early on he sensed that community and youth work were interconnected. And when he started to work at the youth center where he “grew up” as a boy, he made sure that he spent as much time engaged outside on the streets as he did inside with the youth.

Some people did not understand him. They saw him as having too much machismo. They thought he was cocky. I saw this as a manifestation of his presence. This was who he was and it translated across cultures. He reminded me of a war veteran I had worked with years ago who was tough on the surface, but had a warm kind heart that connected with the kids. Like Carlos he was often engaged in activity with the youth. Both had a sense of dignity and confidence. Carlos' persona had been honed by a long hard fight to survive and make it. There was nothing to be humble about. Few youth could escape the clutches of the gangs the way he did and still remain in the neighborhood, trying to keep other youth from joining and providing a safe haven for those who wanted out. He was almost an island of gang abatement unto himself and this I admired.

This is not to say he wasn’t afraid or insecure sometimes. Anyone would be in the situations he encountered almost daily. But he was a competent youth worker. He recognized and managed (at times masked) his fear in tough situations and did not let it get the best of him.

One night he took my class on a tour. We went to the youth center and then walked the streets. This was a good experience for many students who had led sheltered lives, and a reminder to others who had come from the “hood.” Carlos was in his element. He talked to the neighbors. A squad car pulled alongside and the officers said hello to him. At one point he walked up to a parked car filled with youth who looked like gang members looking for trouble and told them to get home and do their homework. He encouraged us to pick up trash when we saw it. “I do this every night on the way home,” he said as he picked up an empty can.

Before we returned to the center we visited an elderly woman. For years she had been handing out trash bags to kids and cops who would stop at her house for a can of pop. She is still one of the best examples of community organizing I have seen. Her strategies were providing a safe place for youth and police to gather and keeping the streets clean. When we left she hugged Carlos. You could tell she was proud of him. “She’s my mentor” he said as we walked back to get our cars to go home.

Thus, when another community youth center on the same side of town needed a new director, Carlos seemed like a good fit. He knew the neighborhood and was a good youth worker. He would have to learn how to manage the center but everyone felt that, with proper support, he would be an outstanding leader who could relate to the workers, youth and families.

The situation Carlos stepped into was not a good one. The previous director, a supposedly reformed gang member, turned out not to have separated from the gangs. Carlos' job was to “clean” the place up and revitalize it as a place where youth and community development could occur.

Carlos worked hard to make it a success. He did everything from youth work to management to cleaning the floors at night. Youth workers from the community often stopped by at the end of the day to help with cleaning up. Gradually he hired his youth workers and paid them a decent wage. He tried to create a board of directors with business, political, and youth work skills that could support the center and help raise funds. Like many new programs he was caught in a cycle with funders who wanted him to prove himself before they funded him, while he needed funding to prove himself. Still he managed to put the program together using the same inside/outside approach he had developed as a youth worker. He told and encouraged his staff to work as much in the neighborhood as inside the center to develop community support. They reached out and welcomed youth and their parents to participate in their community programs.

Carlos filled the center with art work, computers, food and many recreational activities. A group of break dancers from the center performed at events in the community, including professional basketball games. English classes were conducted for people whose primary language was not English and food was served for children who did not get three square meals at home.

During the fall semesters I took the students for a tour and talk from Carlos or one of his staff. Sometimes we would arrive early and play games of pool, football or hoops with the youth. One year we attended a community-wide meeting directed at trying to stop youth from painting graffiti art on buildings in the neighborhood and, worse yet, from tagging buildings with gang signs.

Like most community youth centers the program struggled to survive in tough times, but it did, and by all accounts it became a welcome safe haven for kids in a troubled neighborhood. Carlos did everything he could to keep the place afloat and, like most experienced youth workers who become inexperienced directors, he made some good and some not so good management decisions. But no one could deny that his presence had made a difference in turning a chaotic, unproductive, center into a place where relationships and development occurred on a daily basis. Quite simply, it felt good to be there and the students recognized this in our conversations during and after our visits.

Last year I decided to conduct a study at his center. Carlos asked four of his most competent workers to participate. As in my previous studies, we wrote and interpreted sketches, stories, and poems based on the workers' experiences with youth. This began to reveal some new themes and new contexts for well known competencies and themes such as presence and listening. The workers had a hard time finding time for the study but we got it rolling. I was really enjoying listening to them read their stories and poems.

Then one day everything stopped. The board had asked Carlos to resign. No one was sure why. It seemed to happen overnight. To this day we still do not know what happened other than this: Carlos had been at a conference at which he was speaking about the success of a program his center participated in with other centers, in which they sent youth workers into the schools to help control gang activity and unwanted behavior. According to the data, it had been working and it had received attention in the newspapers. When he got back the board members called him in and said they wanted a change, and asked him to resign.

So what did happen? No one knows for sure. Was it his style, his lack of experience as a manager, or something else? It seemed as if the center was surviving in difficult times and providing a rich menu of activities and services for members of the community. Maybe in his efforts to recruit board members from significant positions in the community he had recruited people who did not understand youth work, or him. Maybe he got in their face when he shouldn’t have? Maybe they did not understand how messy youth work can be at times? Maybe, like many politicians and businessmen they did not understand relational/developmental youth work, and wanted to see more linear, easily categorized changes that for the most part do not exist in the complex lived experiences of youth work? Maybe they expected more than what was possible with the limits of available funding and resources? Who knows? One thing was certain, the kids, parents, and staff liked Carlos, and when he left so did many of them.

So what is the lesson? For me it suggests we still have a way to go as a profession in preparing competent youth workers to be leaders and in educating our community members and boards about youth work as an interpersonal, inter-subjective, contextual process of interaction that requires time, patience, hard work, and resources, and that change sometimes does not show itself immediately. In our community we have gone through a phase of having businessmen and accountants run many of our centers. This was even more disastrous because many of them promised results that could not be delivered and competed rather than cooperated with other centers. They did not understand the importance of relationships, activities and lunch as experiences and memories that sometimes take a while to show themselves in human change, especially for children who have not had many of these experiences. Carlos represented for me a return to hiring leaders who had experienced youth work and knew what it took. But perhaps Carlos, based on his experience, had too much faith in the process of relationships, connections, activities and development in a world mainly concerned with bottom lines and measurable results. However, perhaps times are changing, and if they are, do we need to better prepare the new leaders? This semester I plan to talk more with the students about what it takes to run a center.