Tumwater, Washington is a small city wrapped around a large hill. The first town in western Washington, it was started in 1845. In 1999 and 2000, I spent a year running a youth center there.
I moved to Olympia, next door to Tumwater, a year before. A young man, I was determined to continue my youth work career and expand my heart and mind. It was a challenging time personally, as I’d been out of college for a few years and simply working. My partner at the time was excited to move to her family in Olympia, so I went along for the ride.
Olympia was a damp, glorious place to visit. After growing up in the Midwest and being born in Alberta’s prairies, I was excited to live by the ultimate combination of the ocean and the mountains, near Seattle and Portland without being in either one. The Evergreen State College was a big draw for me too, and I envisioned graduating there. The place called to me, and I answered.
The city of Tumwater is mostly working class white people. 20 years ago, there were several low-performing elementary schools in the city, and one of the high schools was a football powerhouse. The two main features of the city are its beautiful waterfalls, and Tumwater Hill. In 1999, the City government completed a renovation of the old fire station/city hall at the bottom of Tumwater Hill and opened a youth center there. I was the first director hired to run it.
Immediately, I set about developing programming and opportunities for young people in the surrounding neighborhood to come in. Typically, we offered after school safe space along with organized sports and games. Groups of children and youth teens would come in for a few hours every night, I’d make sure there were snacks and volunteers to hang out, and everything buzzed along for a few months. Then…
One night a group of the young teens who came in were ready to fight. Rarely causing trouble, this was the type of crisis I was warned about by my manager. She knew I’d worked in much more challenging situations, and she wanted me to be ready for this place to be challenging.
However, in my own style, I quashed the beef before it got out of hand. The young people who wanted to fight each other were mad about something that happened in school, and after they started trouble, I stood with each pair of youth and explained I would be calling their parents, and calling the school if anything got out of hand at the youth center. Incredibly enough, that worked! There was some unusual vandalism around the center the following weekend, and when confronted everyone involved denied they were complicit.
Afterward though, an interesting thing happened: The popularity of the youth center tanked. The young people involved in the debacle were connectors who had led their peers into the center for the months prior, and when they stopped attending, they encouraged their friends to hang out with them elsewhere.
Without young people coming in to the community center, its worth was questioned and my leadership was challenged. I struggled to bring back the young people after that, and while I had occasional successes the numbers weren’t as robust or consistent as they were originally.
While I was successful at managing volunteers and making the case for new part-time staff and managing them, and I did make the shoestring budget work by wrangling donations and more, I simply wasn’t able to raise sustained interest by the neighborhood youth after what happened. The center needed new energy for that.
I learned a lot from this experience, like these things:
- As important for youth participation as recruitment is, retention is vital, too;
- My prior professional experience in a disenfranchised community didn’t guarantee success in a new one, especially when the disenfranchisement was different;
- Youth participation happens on a continuum, and its important to understand that individually, we can’t be all things at all times, and;
- No single adult can serve all the functions successfully 100% of the time.
After several more months of varying popularity in the youth center, I was recruited to a fellowship focused on youth involvement. Taking my time as a youth center director with me, as well as my decade of experience before that, I was enthralled to go to Washington, DC to learn and grow in ways that still benefit my professional and personal life.
However, that wouldn’t have been as valuable without that year in the youth center at the bottom of the hill.