Youth Map Greater Roles For Themselves
Richard Murphy, former New York City commissioner of youth services, called teens together for an urgent meeting in April 1992 after several Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of assaulting Rodney King, despite a widely played videotape clearly showing a brutal beating. The verdict touched off a riot and Murphy worried that New York might be the next city to explode.
But the New York teens, far from wanting to follow the Los Angeles example of looting and burning, had some positive suggestions that day. Murphy began to think that, maybe, the city elders weren’t paying enough attention to the kids. Over the spring break, 2,100 New York youth “mapped” 7,000 places in the city — from food establishments to youth centers.
It was the start of what has blossomed into a nationwide “youth mapping” program. In hometowns from coast-to-coast, kids canvass neighborhoods, not just to find trouble spots, but to come up with suggestions on how to improve the area and provide more engaging youth development activities.
Says Robert Newman, who works with Murphy at the Academy for Educational Development/Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, “It’s a way to engage young people. When young people walk block-to-block to find out what’s there, they get a gut level understanding.”
Adds Assets Magazine, published by Search Institute of Minneapolis, “Adults find themselves learning how to shift from doing for young people to working with them.”
Among the goals as Resources for Youth of San Rafael, Calif., sees it, is to “reduce youth violence.” But the first thing the adults have to do, even if they are “youth experts,” is listen to the kids, says a veteran youth worker, Bob Francis of Just Assets in Bridgeport, Conn. He offers this example of a 12-year-old who told teachers in a planning meeting: “You tell us you want us to act like young adults, but when I have to go to the bathroom at school, the teacher won’t give me a pass. So, I go during my three-minute break between classes and then I’m late and get a detention slip.”
Clearly, the youth did not feel that adults had any confidence in him. Youth mapping programs, though, may help improve adult-teen relationships as kids are given greater roles in deciding matters which directly affect them — at least that’s the goal.
Here are some samples of youth mapping activities around the country:
- In the South Bronx, kids, working under the supervision of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp., study the deteriorating Third Avenue retail corridor and develop plans to brighten the area up even if it means starting on a modest level by installing benches and designing easier-to-understand crosswalk patterns.
- In Philadelphia, kids working with the city’s Urban Initiative, canvas the neighborhood to find out who the friendly adults are on the too-often mean streets and how they are willing to help at-risk kids.
- Minneapolis teens, working with adults from Search Institute, not only gather material on youth activities in the neighborhoods, but make use of the data by operating a telephone line to provide recreation information to other kids.
- Bridgeport’s Just Assets has demonstrated that gathering information also helps adults understand the youth view.
Borrows from Adults
The youth mapping concept borrows from an adult idea. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funds several projects that map community health behaviors and services, showing everything from the effect of liquor store concentration to the incidence of violence to the availability of health services. Mapping has also become a standard weapon in the war against crime.
Mapping the neighborhood can often uncover hidden resources. John Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, who has conducted surveys in Chicago and elsewhere, found that when schools lost funding for art teachers, for example, his community mapping survey discovered neighborhood artists who could step in as volunteers.
“Traditional needs surveys,” he says, “never teach a community what it doesn’t already know. They focus on problems and create conversations on helplessness. We need to turn the conversation around so that people talk about what neighborhood capacities are.”
That is what is happening in the South Bronx. The Urban Design Studio, formed two years ago by the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp., teaches high school youth how to use planning tools to change their neighborhood. The kids targeted the crumbling Third Avenue retail corridor from 149th to 168th streets, an area of discount stores, empty lots and abandoned buildings. They photographed the area and interviewed residents and shopkeepers about what was needed to bring the stretch back to health.
Jeanne Giordano, who runs an urban design firm, says, “We threw them into a real life project. They made their own presentations to community leaders. They were great. They could tell us what was missing from the area, what was safe.”
The kids didn’t stop with just designing crosswalks, though. They are working with architects on larger plans such as renovating the abandoned Bronx Borough Courthouse of “Bonfire of the Vanities” fame.
Giordano and others who work with teens, who were paid interns with local planning and design firms, believe that even if the projects they tackled never are finished, they have learned not only about architecture, but about how to deal with city officials and the community.
Philadelphia’s cold streets seem hardly the place to send 14-year-old twins, Jessica and Melissa Velasquez, to find “faces and places.” They are streets where kids know the drug corners but don’t always know who lives behind doors of homes that rarely open except for quick comings and goings.
It was the Velasquez twins’ job to get the people behind those doors to talk. And to convince small store owners, who usually look upon teenagers with extreme suspicion, if not hostility, to open up and answer questions about their businesses and neighborhoods.
For weeks, the girls spent their time with strangers, block-by-block. They were armed with water bottles and clipboards with a sheet on what to do and what not to do, and they wore baseball caps identifying themselves as youth mappers.
The Velasquez girls and more than 320 other teenagers collected 2,500 surveys during six weeks from inner-city Philadelphia businesses, services and homes. They quizzed adult helpers in the community about what they actually did — did they use their own money?, how did kids find them for help? and were they available to do more?
The kids worked in teams with a team leader, divided into pairs to canvass each block, meeting at the end of the block, then returning to a center to debrief with the project’s youth workers. Their surveys went to a computer team, also teenagers, who entered them into a database.
Philadelphia was among two dozen youth mapping projects from 22 states which sent representatives to Baltimore last year at a meeting convened by the Center for Youth Development which holds the copyright on the generic name of this movement — Community YouthMapping.
While the projects represented at the Baltimore meeting were, literally, all over the map in terms of organization and follow-up, they are providing a positive outlet for youthful energy and skills. Almost as many teenagers attended the meeting as did adults, and they are the ones who pushed the idea and tended to ignore adults’ talk about problems.
Milwaukee’s project last summer involved more than 40 teenagers, canvassing five neighborhoods. As in many of the other projects, the teens took three surveys — places (businesses, churches and agencies), faces (door-to-door residences) and youth themselves. The program was initiated by the Milwaukee Foundation, Public Allies-Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Urban Initiatives and Research, in cooperation with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee.
The 1,000 surveys were coded by several of the mappers, using equipment and support from the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research. In every neighborhood, the mappers found that teenagers thought parks and youth centers were the best things going for them. Most would seek help at a family member’s house or from a teacher. One mapper said at the end of the summer that the experience “really taught me that youth really care about their neighborhood and want to do something about the violence.”
What happens to all of the information youth collects? At many of the sites, kids make presentations to their neighborhoods or city officials. In Columbus, Ind., for example, the youth mappers led a town meeting at city hall to present their data.
“All the politicians were there because they were afraid not to be,” said Pam Clark, executive director of the Foundation for Youth there. Among their recommendations, the youth wanted adults to set up a more effective method to connect kids to jobs, create more places for youth to gather, and bring caring adults into contact with young people. An alternative school-within-a-school in Columbus now uses youth mapping strategies for its 80 students as part of the curriculum.
The youth who participated in Milwaukee’s project last summer prepared asset maps for each of the five neighborhoods they surveyed and now hand them out at meetings, in schools and other public places.
Murphy envisions the empowerment of youth at the local level eventually affecting federal and state policies towards youth development. Collecting data on positive, rather than negative trends, might change attitudes and policies, he believes.
At the moment, that seems ambitious. Youth mapping projects are still feeling their way trying to figure out what to do with the data they collect, how to evaluate the impact of the project on youth and on a community and how to make sure the data is used effectively.
Youth mapping’s greatest effect, says Maisha Sullivan of Philadelphia’s Urban Initiative, is the bonding that happens among the youth and coordinators who are involved. In that city, for example, some of the teachers who were team leaders are continuing to meet with their student teams during the school year.
Jessica and Melissa Velasquez had mixed feelings about the neighborhood they mapped. “We were not proud of our neighborhood,” Melissa says.
“People were afraid to come out and clean up and chase off drug dealers,” adds Jessica. Yet, Jessica’s conclusion is exactly what supporters and perhaps policymakers want to hear: “We hope the information we got will encourage people to come out. Both kids and the public — everyone — should use positive information to make places better.”
Foundation for Youth
400 N. Cherry St.
Columbus, IN 47201
South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.
371 E.49th St.
Bronx, NY 10455
Center for Youth Development and Policy Research
Academy for Educational Development
1875 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20009
Jeanne Giordano Limited
453 W. 24th St.
New York, NY 10011
Lewis, Anne. "Youth Map Greater Roles For Themselves." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 24.
©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.