A lot of people in our field of work are put off by military culture. The command and control structure of the armed forces are repelling to people who treasure autonomy, to say the least. Today I’m presenting some sessions at the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, and I’m wrestling.
This program reaches 1000s of youth nationwide who dropout of school and apparently don’t have future plans. These are generally young men and women between 16 and 18 who don’t have rapsheets, aren’t drug-involved, and have left school before graduating. Many youth programs are set up for these youth by community-based nonprofits and churches; however, none are as well funded or culturally driven as ChalleNGe. 200,000 youth have participated in the last 20 years; 50% of them earn their diplomas.
The culture of this space is rarified in positive youth development programs, which is one core value of ChalleNGe. Thoroughly quasi-militaristic, there’s a high premium on machismo and strength. Young people participate in a regimented program for several months, and respond to a command structure echoing the military.
What does this mean for youth engagement? With the roles of self-determination and full partnership factoring so heavily in youth engagement, is the work of ChalleNGe inherently antithetical to developing the emotional bonds necessary for engagement? My older brother felt an emotional bond towards the Marines after he dropped out of high school and joined. He was surely engaged.
Right now I’m wondering whether there’s a cultural norm at work here. Raised with the expectation that military culture can limit negative behaviors and liberate ones self from self-destructive actions, many youth don’t see that they can be critical to their communities. This program imposes that upon it’s participants, and for that I respect it.
However, when Dr King called for an army of nonviolent soldiers he didn’t have this in mind. Instead, he envisioned highly-disciplined, highly-capable young people committed not to themselves but to the communities they belong to and the families they come from. This is what we should each arrive for in our work, abs nothing less.
I’m going to let the ChalleNGe program inspire me to engage more youth more effectively at this point in their lives, so as to provide a clear alternative to quasi-military activities, and get closer to that nonviolent army.