How We'll Succeed
Several commentaries drive a shared message about the big picture for children and youth.
Anderson Williams of the Tennessee College Access & Success Network gets it, and so does VISTA volunteer Kim Floeser. Youth policy guru Linda Harris gets it, as does Karen Pittman, the “godmother of youth development.” And most recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks showed that he gets it, too.
Just what is “it”? The fact that children don’t grow up in systems or programs—they grow up in families and neighborhoods—and that none of us, child or adult, comes in parts you can tinker with independently.
Obvious, yes. Yet our policies and approaches still act as though this is true, and that self-perception and psychological well-being are entirely distinct from our health, learning and readiness.
Several recent blogs (written by young volunteers and seasoned experts), drive this message home and outline a new route forward for all of us who care about children and youth.
How Children Succeed
In the U.S., we have a growing body of evidence on the link between childhood trauma and negative outcomes in later life, from teenage risk-taking and problems in school to adult alcoholism and suicide attempts—and even, as David Brooks notes in his Sept. 27 New York Times column, “The Psych Approach,” to diagnoses of cancer and emphysema.
This early trauma comes in many forms, not just the most extreme that may come to mind; insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety can ripple through a lifetime. Our policy approaches to it, however, have tended to come in one form: narrowly focused fragments.
In his column, Brooks calls Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, the latest salvo in the “psychologizing of domestic policy.” Brooks makes the case that policymakers’ attention is starting to widen from traditional bureaucratic matters—“like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small”—to include the softer world of relationships, resilience, anxiety, and socialization.
Child and youth advocates will recognize this as our longstanding call for deeper collaboration across fragmented disciplines and sectors, the shared message that to be truly effective in improving child well-being we need a holistic, all-hands-on-deck approach that bridges goals like reversing dropout rates, improving third-grade literacy rates, reducing health disparities, or ensuring more young people both access and complete postsecondary programs. After all, kids don’t come in silos the way funding streams and reporting requirements do.
Or, in Brooks’ words:
“When you look over the domestic policy landscape, you see all these different people in different policy silos with different budgets: in health care, education, crime, poverty, social mobility and labor force issues. But, in their disjointed ways, they are all dealing with the same problem — that across vast stretches of America, economic, social and family breakdowns are producing enormous amounts of stress and unregulated behavior, which dulls motivation, undermines self-control and distorts lives.”
Anderson Williams, one of the driving forces behind the Tennessee College Access & Success Network, has seen this stress manifest in the high school students he works with. The result, he says his recent blog, is The Other Foreclosure Crisis—a situation "even more critical to our economy and to the health of our communities" than the housing crisis: the foreclosure by our youth on their own futures.
He means that too many young people have “given up on an element of [their] identity without fully exploring it or truly understanding it. For instance, a young person has given up on becoming a college graduate even before he knows what it truly means or why it might be, or become, part of his self-concept.”
It Takes a Village — that Regularly Evaluates its Impact
Communities like Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Hartford, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and others have been innovating across systems for more than a decade, as Linda Harris writes in her Sept. 25 Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity blog, Changing the Trajectory of Impoverished Youth: Plugging Disconnected Youth Back into the Labor Market.
“The answers can be found in community partners coming together, leveraging resources across systems—education, workforce, justice, welfare. Working across these systems, community partners are able to build multiple education and training pathways that integrate high quality work experience, civic engagement, and career exposure opportunities,” Harris writes.
This longstanding aspiration among many in the child and youth field now has a new name: “collective impact.” And it brings people together both within and among systems.
Kim Floeser is an AmeriCorps VISTA member at a Rochester, NY, food bank, where she runs trainings for local food kitchens, shelters and outreach programs on the federal SNAP (or food stamp) program.
During one of these trainings, a pastor told her that even though the church food pantry was giving away plenty of food, many of the clients who received the food were still going hungry. The reasons were both complex and, ultimately, straightforward, as Floeser notes in her blog, Evaluating and Re-Evaluating Food Assistance.
Her take-away? “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for hunger relief.” Her conversation with the pastor, anchored as it was in the stories of real people and situations, underscored our country’s “need for a complex, multi-faceted safety net … that is continuously evaluating and re-evaluating the effectiveness of its programs.”
Seizing the Momentum
Recent national attention is helping to spark a movement for collective impact in the child and youth field.
In her latest blog, Movements at the Crossroads, Karen Pittman, co-founder of the Forum for Youth Investment (SparkAction’s managing partner), says that this momentum has the potential to transform the older-youth field, and with it our expectations.
In the early childhood arena, links “between family and formal child care, between pre-K and elementary school educators, and between health, social services and education systems have become the expectation. So has the coordination of policy and advocacy efforts,” Pittman writes.
The same could not be said for older youth—until now.
Bravo, David Brooks, for using your Times bully pulpit to add to the call for “people in all these different fields to get together in a room and make a concerted push” for a more holistic approach to supporting the development of our children and youth.
Because as Anderson Williams notes, to do otherwise is akin to “investing in lawn care to stem the housing foreclosure crisis.”
And that’s not very smart.
In This Synthesis
(Alphabetical by author)
- The Psych Approach, David Brooks, New York Times
- Changing the Trajectory of Impoverished Youth: Plugging Disconnected Youth Back into the Labor Market, Linda Harris, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
- The Other Foreclosure Crisis, Anderson Williams, Cascade Educational Consultants blog