Almost every adult has a story about young people. Positive at times, but more frequently negative, these stories are just that – our fictional representations of intelligent, loving, passionate humans trying to make life work well. Our stories about teens are a major problem. We wait for teens to make something of themselves but fail to really appreciate what they have already made.
It has been said that young people in the great migration from the rural south to the industrial north were uprooted, pulled up from the communities whom they knew and who knew them. But more recently teens have had their remaining roots pulled off them through family and community disruption, incarceration, substance use, poverty, and challenged educational systems. Our national story is that all young people can advance if they are determined to do so. Social media is filled with examples of the remarkable results of these heroic accomplishments. But for many, getting to school at all is heroic.
As public education has been starved for resources, programs in arts, sports, and communication have been slashed. For many of us, these were the very programs that motivated us in other less appealing content areas. For others, the lessons learned in arts, sports, and communications were generalized and applied to other academic pursuits, creating neural pathways for learning and understanding. Despite the regular arguments that STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and math) require greater investments, these content areas remain inaccessible to most young people whose minds are ready and eager to learn, but who experience suboptimal learning environments. The systems that support our supposed meritocracy ignore talent and creativity in order to pursue youth already afforded the greatest access to education.
Several images from my own stories come to mind. In the early 1970s, I was a new teacher committed to teaching young people with educational deficits the basics of reading and English composition. One morning, a fifteen-year old girl stood at the window to our classroom on the 4th floor of Lincoln High School as she sharpened her pencils. She turned to me as I was talking in the front of the room and spoke over me excitedly, “What is that? That blue thing?” Because of her urgent tone, I joined her at the window and asked what she was looking at.
Three blocks away, Lake Michigan was a brilliant blue laced with bright white reflections of the sun on the waves. This teen had lived less than two miles from where we stood for her entire life. She had been in a distant correctional facility for more than a year. But she had never seen Lake Michigan.
Decades later, I was headed northwest from Milwaukee in a passenger van of teens who were spending a week of leadership training. Just miles from the city, we began to pass Wisconsin farmland on both sides of the roadway. A quiet boy reluctantly whispered a question to me, “Are those horses or cows?” He did not know because he had never been outside the central city, and even in the nation’s dairy state, he only recognized cows from caricatures of them.
Later still, my organization engaged inmates from a correctional facility in doing maintenance work as part of their pre-release experience. Talking to these guys – four of the five were from Milwaukee – I discovered that none had been more than five miles from their family homes until they were incarcerated, most often for marijuana possession or driving while intoxicated. None of the drivers had licenses because, in their view, these would not be needed. They drove nowhere except in their neighborhoods.
I realize that many will find these examples extreme, possibly absurd. But I suggest that these are more common than we want to believe. Extreme social isolation exists all around us. These young people are not isolated from us. We are isolated from them.
Hard-working youth workers in numerous youth-serving organizations battle this isolation daily. They make available to youth and families the best resources they know how to provide. But the availability of programs is not the same as accessibility. Transportation, household and childcare responsibilities, program fees, and family challenges keep too many opportunities out of reach. Youth and families are then blamed for not taking advantage of what is available. Further, many programs are just plain not attractive teens. Their friends can’t join them, the content is dated, or the facility is dangerous.
It is time we changed our stories about teens.
Maggie Daley, the late First Lady of Chicago, had two important messages for us all about teens: teens are not only our future, they are our present. Over the years that I have been involved with After School Matters in Chicago, an organization she founded more than 25 years ago, I have recognized her second message: through our partnerships and support, we become their future as well.
I believe that programs like After School Matters present us with a special opportunity. Almost every day we are pulled to feelings of futility, discouragement, hopelessness, or resignation. We wonder what we can do about our nation, our values, our future. We can do this. We can support young people in ways that work, in ways that bring us joy and bring them toward each other and toward us.
After School Matters works with 18,000 teens each year in nearly 25,000 program opportunities. They partner effectively with many organizations and over 1,000 expert instructors to feed the imagination, talent, and skills of teens interested in arts, sports, communications, and STEM. They monitor their programs, collect data to prove results, coach staff for success, regularly capture youth perspectives, and showcase the work of teens in performances, exhibitions, and reviews. Just talking with a group of teens who created a huge blown glass bowl can challenge the stories we hold about them. Hell, this summer I even saw a group of boys learning to sew their own outfits for Homecoming this fall.
I am electing to provide annual gifts to After School Matters (ASM). What are your interests, concerns, and stories about teens? How are these narratives translating into action and support for teen development and well-being? Let’s keep the conversation going! Please respond in social media or in your comments on this blog post.