24 AUGUST 2001

A better definition of ‘at-risk youths’

Maybe we're the ones who put youth 'at risk'

As I walked to my bus after work, I noticed a man in a wheelchair struggling to cross Third Avenue. It was rush hour, the light had turned green, and he was clearly caught between the proverbial rock and hard spot. As my middle-aged mind moved into help mode, a teenager swooped into the middle of traffic and quickly steered the man to safety.

The young hero was dressed in black, head wrapped in a bandana, cap askew, and trousers hanging low. As circumstances would have it, this youth and I boarded the same bus bound for our homes in Southeast Seattle.

Once seated, I expressed appreciation to him for his act of kindness. He was cordial in his response, but seemed a bit startled by my approach to him. We talked awhile. He was indeed surprised. Surprised that I had noticed. Surprised that I had mentioned anything about what to him was simply the right thing to do. Surprised in fact that I, an unknown adult, spoke to him at all.

We spent some time on the topic of youth/adult relationships. He spoke of feeling misunderstood, feared, and invisible in the eyes of most adults. "They just expect me to do bad things to them, I guess, and I ain't like that at all."

His act of kindness validated his character in my mind. His experiences and attitudes about adults made me sad, for him and for us adults. I don't think this young man is exceptional in his perspective regarding youth/adult relationships.

Earlier this year, nearly 400 city youths from diverse neighborhoods, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds attended focus-group meetings regarding Mardi Gras and youth violence. In each group, there was a strong feeling of alienation from adults, with many of the youths relating to similar experiences and feelings as the young man on the bus.

While these youths indicated a desire for strong adult guidance and structure, they made it clear that adults and our institutions (schools, police and media) are falling short in this regard.

Over the past five years, I've had the opportunity to work extensively with programs and systems that serve "at-risk youth." The term "at-risk youth" is generally used to describe youths who are at risk of failing in some major task that is necessary to assure a happy and productive life. Yet, in examining these systems, I'm inclined to think that a better definition is youths who are at risk of being failed by one or more adults or adult-driven system or institution.

... a better definition (of 'at-risk youths') is youths who are at risk of being failed by one or more adults or adult-driven system or institution.”

When we lock kids up as punishment rather than for the sake of public safety, we fail our kids. When we are unable to implement effective multicultural curriculum in schools where a majority of children are from communities of color, we fail our kids. When we allow kids to be bombarded with violence as entertainment, we fail our kids. When we fear young people because of the way they dress, their music, and their overwhelmingly negative portrayal by the media, we fail to recognize the "hero" potential that each possesses.

Policymakers, educators, industry leaders and citizens must take serious stock in the direction our society is moving with regard to youth, and the role we can and must play in influencing it.

There are a number of promising movements or initiatives for youth happening within the city that are collaboratively sponsored by the Human Services Department.

Each of these initiatives strives to make seminal changes in program and policy approaches to services for children and youth. Proponents of each recognize how difficult such systems change can be, but also how necessary it is and what is at stake.

In the many hours spent reviewing innovative program models and research through a feasibility study conducted by the Reinvesting in Youth Initiative, it became clear to me that the science of prevention and intervention on behalf of kids is developing well. We have programs that can effectively change the behavior of kids in a positive manner.

The real challenge for meaningful, long-term systems change is: "Can we effectively change the behavior of adults?"


Harla Tumbleson is a manager in the Seattle Human Services Department's Family and Youth Services Division.
Seattle Times






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