Assets vs. Risks

Bill Howard
September 1, 1997

To youth workers and community leaders concerned about the welfare of young people living in this invitingly upscale city, so patently devoted to the cafe latte good life, the numbers that appeared in the Seattle Times were pretty alarming.

A survey of high school students performed by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute found that only 14 percent thought the community "values" them. Or stated another way, fully 86 percent of teenagers felt disconnected from the adult world. Only 22 percent said they could communicate positively with their own parents. And school and their neighborhood. These negative impressions, moreover, were not just those of city kids.

The same findings held true for youths living the affluent suburb of Bellevue where Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates maintains a conspicuous lakeside palazzo that keeps growing in sq footage to hold his ever-expanding stable of electronic gadgetry.

"The most scandalous part of that survey of young people is that only 14 percent of them the community cares about them," said Rick Jackson, vice president for program develop of the Greater Seattle YMCA. "That says a lot about what was not happening here in the youth work field."

Publication April 15 of the survey covering the life perceptions of more than 6,000 high school students in both communities was intended as a wake-up call. Its release was timed as part of the formal launch of a novel youth work initiative spark plugged by Jackson and Neil Nicoll, president of the Greater Seattle YMCA which serves some 60,000 youths, to coax adults into paying more positive attention to young people — what they've named "It's About Time...for Kids.

Needed: More 'Assets'

The initiative — backed by local businesses and foundations — is one of scores of similar enterprises being cultivated nationally in cities around the country by Search Institute, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote the positive development of children and youth, an effort backed financially by the Lutheran Brotherhood and numerous foundations.

For Seattle youth workers the bottom line in the survey was evidence that many of the same youths who felt ignored and unsafe were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, do poorly in school, engage in violent behavior or attempt suicide. Conversely, young people who have 30 or more of what Search President Peter L. Benson calls "developmental assets" in their lives — like supportive parents and other caring adults, a sense of community and of confidence in themselves (see Chart on page 19) — tend to be healthier, safer, happier and better students. Or so the Search Institute claims.

As yet, there has been no evaluation of the developmental assets approach, though Benson says a large-scale study is about to get under way in Colorado (see Box). He said some 120 localities across the country have started community-wide initiatives like Seattle's and another 120 were preparing to launch them.

"I think a lot of communities begin these efforts because there's kind of a faith validity to it," he said in an interview. "People think it makes an awful lot of sense that the human development side of prevention has to be done and this sure seems like a set of ways to do it. It will be very handy, of course, to have that longitudinal research describing specific effects."

Asset-building, moreover, is more educational on a one-to-one basis than programmatic. "A lot of the work is done for free by citizens and professionals who are already being paid by somebody else," he said. "It is an approach that unites a city."

0JJDP’s Backing

Benson already has stiff competition for institutional clients. Coincidentally, from the standpoint of geographic location, Seattle is home base for J. David Hawkins' Developmental Research and Programs, a for-profit company he started in 1984 with University of Washington School of Social Work colleague Richard F. Catalano. It holds grants to provide training and technical assistance to local juvenile delinquency prevention programs subsidized by Title V of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

The act's regulations require that recipients of Title V grants — some $40 million has been distributed since its enactment by Congress in 1992 — must adopt "risk-focused prevention" strategies such as those identified in the social development prevention model, "Communities that Care" developed by Hawkins and Catalano. Justice Department sources say this provision was specified by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency prevention because Communities that Care was the only model available with a complete training package. That model, came into being, the sources said, through multi-million dollar financing of Hawkins' research in the 1980s by various federal agencies in HHS and the Justice Department.

"Then Hawkins turned around and copyrighted all those materials and sold them again to the states as training aids for Title V delinquency prevention projects," said one federal official familiar with the issue. "That ticked off a lot of states."

Since 1994, OJJDP says Develop-mental Research and Programs has received $1.3 million in training and technical assistance awards. Plus the firm has been awarded about $1 million for work on OJJDP's serious and chronic juvenile offender research. Hawkins says the company, which also contracts to local governments, has a staff of 14 and is "struggling along holding its own." The struggle may soon be a lot tougher.

Two House and Senate bills (H.R. 1818 and S. 10) to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act would eliminate Title V but retain some funding for local delinquency prevention efforts. A Justice Department source said the stipulation to use the Communities That Care model was an embarrassment to OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik and a change in the law would be a welcome opportunity to get rid of it.

Hawkins, a one-time juvenile probation officer, also heads up the non-profit Social Development Research Group (SDRG) which has a staff of 40 and is involved in numerous research projects for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and other federal and state agencies. Communities That Care follows a public health epidemiology model for tracking the well being of young people. Hawkins likens the targeting and reduction of risky behaviors (drug and alcohol abuse, academic failure, poor parenting. Unprotected sexual intercourse) to better youth outcomes in the same way the incidence of heart disease has been checked by informing people of the risks of high-fat diets, smoking and physical inactivity.

"We're trying to take the research basis developed over the last 30 years and make it available to communities so they can own and operate their own strategies for promoting positive youth development and preventing delinquency," Hawkins said in an interview. "Several things are key: No. 1. Everybody in the community has to be involved. You must have a high level of cooperation. Then you need to do an assessment of what factors are protecting young people and enhancing their positive development and what factors get in the way of positive development — what contributes to kids falling off the track and becoming chronic delinquents or having unwanted pregnancies, whatever."

After this diagnostic exercise, prevention and positive youth development programs then can be tailored to a community's particular needs, he said. And funds targeted more efficiently.

The approach is now being applied in more than 300 communities. A Government Accounting Office report describes how various types of delinquency prevention projects have been set up in Blair and Dauphin Counties, Penn., Montgomery County, Md., Chesterfield County, Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Va. But the approach has not yet been evaluated, either.

Hawkins said he hopes to obtain funding for a five-year study to compare youth outcomes in a total of 14 communities with "high implementing" prevention strategies with 14 others that are "low implementing." Since each community would have tailored its own prevention programs, he said "it would be a test of operating systems."

Catching Kids Earlier

The YMCA's Nicoll says the decision to opt for the Search approach grew out of a meeting in 1995 at which a group of Seattle youth work leaders were "sharing our collective frustrations" experienced over 25 years or more. "We weren't seeing any significant changes in the scope of problems young people were having and that, if anything, they were increasing. We all agreed we had been chasing the problems after they occurred — trying to fix kids after they were broken. And that, secondly, there was a lack of collaboration and coordination between youth agencies and organizations.

"So much of the collaboration and cooperation that did exist was forced by funders saying we want you guys to work more closely together. So people would make work. But by the time it got down to the kids, it's something they've been told to do. We asked: wouldn't it be a better approach if we could create a mechanism where all these people who work with youth really get to know each other on a personal level?

"So it grew out of that — that there has to be a more positive way to catch kids at the beginning and give them a chance to become fully prepared youth and provide them with a coordinated approach rather than to continue chasing this after-the-fact mentality."

Jackson said the group, which included a representative of the Seattle Foundation and David Okimoto, director of the Atlantic Street Center, an alcohol and drug abuse treatment center, was also aware of the work of Northwestern University behavioral scientist John McKnight who was inviting people in the helping professions to shift their focus from needs to capacity. "Professionals have always wanted a needs assessment," Jackson recalled, "and McKnight talks about the arrogance of that as well as that the results of such assessments are not too positive. But looking at capacity can be more positive."

That could have been a turn-off point for the group's consideration of the Hawkins approach, which stresses performing needs assessments to show a community's "risk profile" — for example, prevalence of handguns, a community tolerance for drugs (see Chart on page 20) — and its "protective factors," such as the ability of youth to bond with their neighborhoods, schools and religious influences that are similar to the Search Institute's assets.

In its hunt for alternatives, the group eventually wound up sending a five-person delegation that included a Boeing Corp. representative and three youth workers to Minneapolis for talks with the Search Institute. "We came away with a gut feeling," Nicoli said, "that the building of assets in kids would be easier to communicate to the community and one with the higher likelihood of success."

Youth Worker Network

Since the launch of It's About Time ... for Kids in April, Seattle youth workers have embraced the campaign with apparent fervor and have fanned out to the city's neighborhoods to sell the idea to adults that they should get to know the young people on their block and show they care about them.

Jackson and Nicoll started off by reorganizing the YMCA's own approach to youth work. The Search institute's materials showed them it was a mistake to use part-time youth workers. A regular, full-time staff was needed to provide consistency of service and establish trusting relations with young people using its facilities. So 11 youth workers were brought aboard with the proviso that they had to commit themselves to staying with the job for five years and work with parents, schools and service clubs.

For its part, the YMCA pledged to keep the new youth workers on the payroll with or without special grant funding.

Next, Jackson and Nicoll formed a citywide network of about 150 professional youth workers from youth agencies, schools and churches. Their first task: stage community "consultations" — town meeting-type sessions to explain the concept to the public.

"What gets people excited," said Kristi Skanderup, a youth worker with the Seattle Foundation who is involved in the consultations, "is the framework for understanding — for hope. People grasp the idea that if we could all get to know three kids in our neighborhood — and if schools could really do their piece — the less likely kids are to drop out of school early, get pregnant or involved in violence.

"It kind of gives you a sense of a roadmap — where we can go as a community. A person can know they are doing his or her part and there is some hope that something will change." But not overnight. Nor will all Seattle youths benefit necessarily.

$2,100-A-Month Poverty line

"When I tell audiences that the survey showed most young people think the community doesn't care about them, people want to take out their checkbooks," Jackson said. "But I tell them this is not about money, but about time. How many of you have kids on your block? Do you know their names? Introduce yourself to the kids. That's hard because it Takes time."

Nicoll noted that 20 to 30 years of research show there are programs that build assets. Now, are we going to have positive outcomes in three months or six months? No. This is going to take quite a few years because it is a community ethos that we are trying to interact with as well as organizations. It’s not the kids. The kids are fine. It’s not the at-risk kids, either, but the adults who have changed over the past 25 years in terms of the commitment they are willing to make to the kids.”

Peter Berliner, a former youth worker turned lobbyist as head of the Seattle based, statewide Children’s Alliance, disagrees on the money issue and wonders just how effective the asset approach will be for the city’s needy youth. "We've pulled out the underpinnings for families with welfare reform,' he said. "When I look at assets, think one good one is to make sure families aren't living in poverty."

Despite the slate's current prosperity, Berliner said there's a considerable underclass of people here. He cited a Fiscal Policy Center study in March which showed a family of three required a minimum income of $2,100 a month to get by in the stale.

"One in three children live in families under that level — mostly single parents who are working," he said.

"Just to have a stable, home and maintain a job,” you have to have child care and health care. That's a struggle and we have people working one-two jobs — and that doesn't leave much time for developing assets with their kids.

"The Whole assets idea can't hurt and could benefit a lot of people. But if you say if we do these things, we don't need to invest in children, that's a contradiction.

They don't stress that. We've got to go down to the Legislature and stop this madness about tax cuts. Let's forego tax cuts until we raise the status of children.

"I don't have a problem with Search Institute. But anytime you detach the policy advocacy from the individual it's kind of like Habitat for Humanity (headed by former President Jimmy Carter) — a great program for getting people involved in building houses but as a housing forum it is misguided and misleading. I don't see [he head of Habitat for Humanity out there testifying before Congress on the need for more and better housing."

The YMCA's Neil Nicoll shrugs off the criticism. "Giving a kid a caring school climate, a relationship with an adult who cares in their life, positive communication in the family, support from their family boundaries of what's right and wrong, involvement in a religious community. That's got nothing to do with money. Some of the most successful people in this country have come out of very poor backgrounds," he said. "On this list of 40 assets, I'm sure it would be a lot easier to do some of the things if you have some money — like sign your kid up for Little League — but from my point of view the vast majority of assets are applicable regardless of economic status."

From his perspective as head of an agency treating some 3,000 families for alcohol and drug abuse, David Okimoto of the Atlantic Street Center said the building of assets had merit for his clients — once treatment for substance abuse was well under way. "In a treatment situation, the asset model has its limitations. But once we become engaged with some of the issues surrounding these children, positive opportunities may present themselves.

"One of the problems we have is that the treatment programs are in poor neighborhoods and the asset programs in the wealthy neighborhoods. It's not like the kids in the inner city couldn't learn from the arts and music. Those things are Just as much needed and would be just as powerful for inner city kids as wealthy kids. Similarly wealthy kids need treatment services just as much as the inner city kids. We need to add those enrichment activities and surround more of our children with caring adults."

Will the Twain Meet?

Though they compete for clients, Benson feels his Search Institute's asset-building strategy is more complementary to, than competitive with, the Hawkins approach.

"Our approach is to name the elements, the molecules of support, structure boundaries, values. Competency. All the things kids also need to thrive. I have no doubt that intellectually the best approach is to integrate, combine and go deep with both these kinds of things simultaneously The Hawkins model is more articulate and more well developed about the threats and risks and the need to reduce them than our work. Our work is more developed around naming and promoting positive development. So I think they are very complementary approaches. They have somewhat different psychological effects in communities.

"People interpret our work that there is something powerful right now in this moment in trying to name the language of things to be promoted. People call it a language of hope and possibility at a time when there is a lot of despair about kids and a frustration about seeing change. So one of the things we may have stumbled on here is a way to reknit a community around a common vision of a sense of the common good. We may actually make it more possible over lime for people to be able to sustain energy around David Hawkins' kind of work by showing these two things belong together. When communities focus too long on naming and reducing the negatives they say to us they begin to get burned out faster."

And how does Hawkins view it?

"Peter is looking at a very important part of what we all need to be looking at. That is, what are the assets and the strengths that exist in any neighbor-hood, or community or group of young people. Because we must build on assets and strengths, not ignore them," he said.

"But if you want to prevent delinquency, then you want to make sure you are providing resources where high levels of risk exist. For drug abuse or any kind of anti-social behavior, the more risks young people are exposed to there's an additive effect of risk exposure."

In short, he believes the two strategies would work together, But as yet no community has actually tried it.


Peter Ls Benson, President

Search Institute

700 South Third St.-Suite 210

Minneapolis, MN 55415


Rick Jackson, Vice President,

Program Development YMCA of Greater Seattle

909 Fourth Ave

Seattle, WA 98104-1194

(206) 382-5334

Fax (206) 382-7283

J. David Hawkins, Director Social Development Research Group

9725 Third Ave. N.E. #401

Seattle, WA 98115

(206) 543-7655

Fax (206) 543-4507


"Developmental Assets Among Seattle Youth." Available from the
Search Institute.

"Juvenile Justice: Status of Delinquency Prevention Program and Description of Local Projects," August 1996. Available from the General Accounting Office. Washington, D.C. 20548 (202)512-8777.

"Family Related Prevention Programs: An ecological risk/protective theory for building prevention programs, policies and community capacity to support youth" by Karen Bogenschneider in the April 1996 issue of Family Relations discusses in full the risks and assets approaches and how they might be merged.


Assets vs. Risks: 1,000 Colorado Youth In Asset-Building Study

Howard, Bill. "Assets vs. Risks." Youth Today, Sept/Oct 1997, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.