Beyond the Clubhouse Doors

Karen Pittman
January 1, 1997

Youth — Community — Civic. Development — Engagement — Involvement — Renewal. These are words that increasingly find their way into similar phrases as professionals from different disciplines arrive at the same conclusion: To succeed in their primary work (educating youth, strengthening communities, engaging citizens) they have to take on some of the goals and approaches of the other fields.

Youth workers, including educators, increasingly argue that youth involvement in the community and community involvement and commitment to youth are both key to youth development. They have recognized that it is important for them and young people, to come out from behind the schoolhouse and clubhouse doors. Community development specialists have recognized that housing and economic development are not sustainable without investments in people. Young people are appearing as a top priority on CDC’s next steps lists, albeit more often as problems than resources. And advocates for civic engagement have come to realize that the sense of contribution that comes from involvement in local problem solving and public work is a powerful antidote to the frustrations that young people and adults have with larger electoral politics.

All of these revelations are important. They have created a sense of excitement and possibility and sparked many innovative programs and initiatives. But something is missing. There are stirrings of a movement, but we lack a sense of urgency and direction.

What is needed? First, there needs to be an integrated goal. One broad and compelling enough to capture the passion of those deeply committed to either youth, civic, or community development. After numerous conversations with people working toward the nexus of civic, community, and youth development — including a recent two days at Wingspread — here is my offering: create expectations, supports, and opportunities for youth and adults to engage in important, public work, work that contributes to the individual well being of youth and adults and to the economic, social, and physical health of the communities in which they live. The overall goal has to reflect the fundamental interconnection between youth and adults, individual and community, recipient and actor.

Second, there needs to be a conscious recognition of the expertise in each of the other fields. What we are witnessing is innovative, but inefficient, drift. Community development corporations are drifting into youth services. Advocacy organizations are drifting into youth leadership. Education and youth service organizations are drifting into community organizing and community development. But, with the exception of some promising purpose-built programs (YouthBuild, Do Something), there is nothing yet that is pushing for this integrative thinking and retooling to be done well.

Third, there needs to be a cross-disciplinary commitment to empowering people not employing professionals. This is the essence of the goal — unleashing the tremendous resources that young people and adults have to strengthen themselves and their communities.

The last two statements seem contradictory — more expertise and less professionalization. Yet many in the Wingspread meeting felt they were both needed. Professionals need to be more respectful of the expertise and resources available in other fields and in the youth, families and communities in which they operate.

There should be, in every community, such a plethora of people, places, possibilities that a young person has difficulty attributing his overall success or survival to a single organization. It is not so much that we need to put ourselves out of business as it is that we need to redefine further what our business is — to be catalysts, not just caregivers.

The drift toward language and strategies that link youth, community and civic responsibility is one that youth development professionals not only need to heed, but lead. Youth work professionals have pushed the debate from problems to resources, prevention to development. But, as an increasing number of foundations shift funding away from program strengthening to neighborhood revitalization, we may find ourselves out of the loop if we do not fully embrace the importance of community development and civic engagement, not as means to an end, but as ends themselves.