Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with a colleague whose youth involvement program is being devastated by funding cuts. In addition to forcing her to leave her job, this is also going to directly affect the dozens of young people she works with and the community they serve through their youth involvement activities.
This forces me to think about the reciprocal effects of youth involvement: Involved in a prevention/intervention program for at least a year now, these young people serve as social network hubs who, in addition to reducing or eliminating the impacts of drugs and alcohol on their own lives, are working to promote increased awareness among their peers through media campaigns, training, and direct interactions with young people their own age. They are learning the skills of youth involvement along the way.
Without this activity these same young people, who generally come from homes that are highly impacted by addictive behaviors, loose their connections to the safe, supportive and empowering environments they’ve come to expect through this youth involvement activity. Their positive connection with the larger social message of impacting their peers and helping society is severed. The meaning-making they participated in constantly with powerful adult allies is unfortunately negated, as they are turned back towards the society they sought to assist with the hyper-exaggerated message that, “Whatever you were doing wasn’t valuable enough to us to continue.”
All of this speaks nothing of the actual impact the program itself had on the larger community, where impact assessments had shown substantive change in these behaviors over the previous ten years the program had been operating. All this speaks nothing of the impact of the program on the host organization, which has been forced to face the adultism inherent in it’s everyday operations because of the significant impact this program had on overall agency culture and the staff’s commitment to addressing adultism.
Now, in the face of budget cuts at the local, state, and federal levels, we are seeing the brutal elimination of funding for youth involvement programs of all kinds. Simultaneously, we’re seeing the broad divestment of foundations from youth involvement initiatives, as well. Surely these aren’t targeted at youth involvement specifically; instead, the active disengagement of young people is a bi-product of cuts that have to be made. Unfortunately, the limited vision of the decision-makers involved and the inability of funding advocates to clearly iterate the crucial necessity of youth involvement specifically is going to impact far more than a few well-meaning, but overly ambitious efforts here and there. Instead, these cuts are laying a foundation for the future of civic, cultural, and social engagement throughout the U.S. and around the world. Without programs that deliberately set about changing the dominant paradigm of adultcentrism our society is going to continue on its negative patterns of disconnection, cynicism, and utter disabling of young peoples’ interest and ability to affect the families, communities, cultures, and societies they belong to.
We need more than money for youth involvement. We need to tell our story better. We need to tell the truth more often. We need to get real.