Hazardous Waste

Karen Pittman
January 1, 1995

For more than two decades, I have charted my course based on the premise that what is wrong with youth policy and practice in this country is that it has been detached from basic common sense. I have looked for ways to strip away the greasy build-up of professionalization that has led us to treat growing up as a disease that must be monitored and managed. I have searched for strategies to help neighborhoods and citizens, not just families and schools, reclaim their responsibility to protect and prepare our youth -- offering every child the minimum of what we would want for our own youth. My colleagues and I insist that planning begin not with a definition of what youth need to do but with a redefinition of the basic social contract between the community and the next generation. This contract, according to Rousseau, is the hallmark of a civilized society.

Increasingly, however, I wonder if the U.S. is a fully civilized society. Have youth workers done such a poor job of either executing or explaining their role that the public is justified in believing that all prevention programs are "pork?" Have adults become so distanced from the collective commitment to children that they are comforted rather than repulsed by the idea of incarcerating 13-year olds for life? These recent turns shook my faith. But this is the story that shattered it:

The school district of a progressive city decided to review its bussing plans in the hopes of reducing the number of students bussed and/or clustering those who were being bussed from certain neighborhoods in order to help them maintain friendships. Informal meetings were held to test the waters. Things erupted quickly. Faced with the prospect of having an additional 150 black teenagers enrolled in their high school, a neighborhood council mobilized to block the action by arguing that the school district must first complete an environmental impact study.
Hazardous waste! African-American students are being compared to hazardous waste! Perhaps it is the sheer rawness of the comparison of black 12- and 13-year olds with chemical by-products, noise and auto emissions that chilled me so deeply. Perhaps it is the implication that the natural environment to be protected is one in which blacks are absent or carefully controlled. More likely, however, it is the realization that after decades of using the law to promote integration and equality of opportunity, it is now, with diabolical sophistication, being used to argue that young blacks should be shipped back into the ghettos and that young Latinos should be shipped back across the border.

The challenge of sustaining, if not expanding, the funding base for development-focused youth services in this country is formidable. The prevention provisions of the Crime Bill will be vigorously attacked; the larger web of prevention programs spun across the federal agencies will be targeted for consolidation and sharp reductions. Explaining the value of youth and community work will require precision tools that we do not currently have.

But the magnitude of this challenge pales in comparison to the broader challenge that stories like this surface. Investment in youth programs that prepare rather than imprison requires an articulation of the cost-effectiveness of development-focused programming. It requires a hard-nosed willingness to discuss the fact that while preparation is the long-term goal for all youth, punishment will need to be short-term strategy for some. This is work that must be done. But the bottom line is that a commitment to invest in all youth requires an undergirding social contract that is simply not there. There are young people whom citizens in this country are comfortable publicly banning from their neighborhoods, cities and states.

Redressing inequality is a full-time job that we have to move to the top of our lists. We can no longer be content just offering services to youth. We have to train them to assess the opportunities available to them. We have to help them remain strong as they create opportunities to be heard, seen, trained and allowed to contribute. Equally important, we have to find our collective voice and start using it -- not simply to argue for more dollars, but to argue for more justice. We are not serving the young people of this country if we are not also organizing to help them extract the respect, resources, recognition and responsibility that they deserve.

Pittman, Karen. "Hazardous Waste." Youth Today, January/February 1995, p. 38.

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