Youth Development’s Imagination Failure

Karen Pittman
May 1, 2000

Imagination is a powerful thing. One of the biggest failings of youth development advocates (myself included) is that we fail to capture the imagination of policy makers, funders, the public, and even parents. These decision-makers have difficulty imagining what youth development is. And when they do imagine what they want in place for youth — mentoring, service, after-school programs, sports leagues, reproductive health counseling, job training, violence prevention — youth advocates do not consistently capture their attention or their resources.

Why? We are just too vague.

When asked to describe the youth development field, most decision makers revert to the “1000 flowers” analogy. Folks are appreciative of the diversity and perhaps even beauty of the field. But they can’t really name the variety of plants in it. They don’t know if they like all of them. Equally important, they have no idea of how they might help their community grow such a field. It all seems too organic to be responsive to policy or planning or perhaps even cataloguing. This makes them uncomfortable. In these outcome-driven times, decision makers are looking for things that they can name, count, and evaluate. A field of unnamed flowers of unknown quantities in unmarked beds just doesn’t cut it. However much youth workers believe that young people can navigate this terrain and appreciate its wildness, we must recognize that the adults in charge don’t get it.

In contrast, people understand health services. And they understand schools.

People understand the purpose of academic education: the narrow purpose of building cognitive skills and knowledge, and the broader purpose of building future citizens. They understand the content of instruction and the basic methods of teaching and learning.

People understand the structure of the institution. There are students and teachers within classrooms, classrooms within buildings, buildings within clusters, clusters within districts. And there are supposed to be enough of these classrooms and buildings to meet the community’s needs. People know a science lab or a school when they see it.

People like the precision of traditional education-
al design. Outcomes are clearly defined. Children and youth are expected to complete each year with more knowledge and skills than they had at the beginning. Tests are taken. Grades are given. Inputs are clearly defined. Instructional content is named, categorized, organized into units. The public has a sense of the order of the school day, school year.

People like the perception of accountability. Outcomes and inputs are not always achieved, but they are monitored. And increasingly, good outcomes (and equitable inputs) are expected. In well-organized communities, parents feel that they can demand results.

Imagine if school buildings were decentralized — if the classrooms were scattered across the community, each teacher or small group of teachers in their own space. Imagine the school curriculum decoupled — parents and public given no idea of how much or what type of instruction students would receive. Some could get five years of math, some none. Imagine the accountability system dismantled: every teacher running their own program, with their own budget, under their own name.

It would be impossible to get the public to put forth the billions it does annually were there not a transparent structure that spoke to the public’s and the policy makers’ need for accessibility, accuracy and accountability.

‘Youth development’ may be creeping into the public lexicon. But it is not yet in the policy dictionary. It is not on community maps. Stick with the 1000 flowers analogy. But clean up the garden. We need raised beds, plant labels, and guides for communities wanting to know how much of what types of flowers and vegetables should be planted to support the growth of their young people.


Pittman, Karen. "Youth Development’s Imagination Failure." Youth Today, May 2000, p. 63.

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

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