American youth currently face challenging realities along their way to adulthood. With parents working longer hours and the absence of grandparents and other community adults who used to make up support systems, the intergenerational fabric of community has been frayed. Youth development strategies aim to reweave community fabric in a new way – one that takes the supports and opportunities young people should have, and re-institutes them in the context of young people’s realities today. While many of these realities are harsh ones, we know that young people themselves want to be involved in their communities. The importance of building positive youth/adult partnerships in this process cannot be stressed enough.
The mobilization effort is based on influencing three critical elements: information, attitudes, involvement. The transformation of each of these areas, both in the public and private domains, is a necessary condition for change. For example, in the area of information, the country is currently focused on collecting primarily negative youth information, e.g., teenage births, dropouts, and juvenile arrest rate. Inspiring a 180 degree shift, we need to collect information such as: average number of hours youth participate in after-school activities, computer to youth ratio in non-school hours, and the percentage of youth who hold part-time jobs. The three elements are intertwined, for how information is gathered and communicated impacts attitudes as well as how and if people choose to become involved.
Only through broad community commitment, strong public will, and diverse partnerships can youth development take root, go to scale, and be sustained over time. Ultimately, the mobilization must be supported by partnerships among all of the systems in a community that affect young people (i.e., education, corporations, health care, juvenile justice, religious groups, and recreation). To build these relationships and establish youth development infrastructures to improve developmental paths of adolescents will take at least 10 years.
Localities currently spending their resources on efforts to “fix youth” will need to pool, redirect, and increase their financial commitment to youth development. These additional dollars will ensure all youth equal access to supports and opportunities, especially youth living in economically distressed areas.
Our information on the services young people need, and use, is still hit or miss. Communities do not know what they have or what they need. They usually have no way to tell how well services are being used and what services need to be improved.
Good information is important for youth services for exactly the same reasons it is important for everything else. Accurate, accessible standardized information lets people find the services they need and use them effectively. It lets communities manage, evaluate and improve their services and determine the need for changing them, eliminating them, or developing new ones.
Many national efforts to measure outcomes presently use deficit-driven indicators to assess young people’s condition in society, such as teen pregnancy rates, juvenile crime numbers, and percentages of high school dropouts. Although these measures are important, they do not tell the whole story about young people’s experiences. Measures that reflect positive conditions and experiences of young people are also important.
The accelerated trend of the past decade toward empowering our nation’s young people to succeed has fostered a new awareness and commitment to this most valuable resource. Some basic questions are:
- How much do we currently spend?
- How much should we spend?
Some progress has been made through new initiatives in education finance reform and services integration, providing more effective delivery of social, health and educational services for children and youth from the classroom up to the government. This document establishes an initial framework and formula for assessing the financial resources and mechanisms necessary to move American society closer to this ideal. The following were found to be potential root causes of these trends in spending:
- Devaluation of adolescents.
- Lack of consensus on youth development.
- Lack of adequate and protected funding. Funds are not protected and dedicated in the manner necessary to sustain the long-term, comprehensive process that is youth development.
We can support the move toward the ideal by:
- Seeking new types of information.
- Building on the after-school momentum.
- Making a sustainable public investment.
Youth development is an investment that must be made by each sector of the wider community – public and private. Examination of the federal-state matching, local dedicated taxes an incentives for business and philanthropy could lead to models for providing adequate and sustainable funding for youth development. National intermediaries must work to cultivate this leadership at all levels of government, and at the grassroots, by creating constituencies.