When Communities Can’t Support Youth Engagement

Community-wide depression sucks. Growing up during my teens in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest I experienced this reality constantly. Joblessness, empty houses, lack of city services, poor police response, and other resource deprivations were responded to by the people in our neighborhood with rampant drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, youth and adult gangs, and a lot of other sucky situations. Nonprofits and churches tried (and keep trying) to answer the problems in the neighborhood by putting out new programs and attempting different approaches… Not for naught, but not entirely successful, either.

I was an excited youth, if only because I felt the energy and excitement that came from doing things for other people. That meant volunteering at the local elementary school as Santa and mowing Mrs. Hickerson’s lawn; sleeping in Habitat for Humanity houses as they were built to protect them from vandalism, and unloading the food bank truck when it came in. My parents invited me along to things at first, and as I got older I made myself more available. But the neighborhood’s inability to support my active engagement became startlingly clear the year when I was 17. That year I launched my Eagle Scout project, forming a youth council at the big old Methodist church on the corner that hosted a lot of youth activities. I instinctively knew that all these different activities needed a gathering point to connect and collaborate, and using a youth council we tried. I spent a year calling monthly meetings and encouraging people to continue working together. As soon as I was done and went away to work for the summer, then off to college, the youth council stopped meeting. A lot of other activities folded, too, although I’m not sure they had anything to do with my absence.

The point is that my community was unable to support my engagement and the engagement of others when I was young. Adults were (appropriately) preoccupied with many other issues, including getting food into hungry mouths and children out of unsafe houses. This meant that something had to go, and in this case it was the youth council.

Tonight I’m going to facilitate a youth forum in a neighborhood that resonates a lot with one I lived in when I was younger and my family was in more dire circumstances. I’m nervous about getting the youth there all excited about changing the world and then sending them forth… with no ability from the depressed, under-resourced community they live in to actually support their active engagement. What to do, what to do?

As my frequent co-conspirator Greg Williamson says, “Start anywhere and go everywhere.” That’s what I’ll do – what about you?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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