Youth Take on Troubles in Their Neighborhoods

Jim Myers
June 1, 2003

According to polls and conventional wisdom, 16-year-old Ricardo Rodriguez and his friends belong to a generation that doesn’t get involved in civic or political life. They’re supposedly engrossed in video games.

Yet Rodriguez is one of 11 teenagers from a Youth VOICES Project class at the American Street Youth Opportunity Center in North Philadelphia who spent a cold evening last winter knocking on doors for a community survey on housing issues.

The future of Rodriguez’s neighborhood is bleak. Scenes along Third Street include more vacant lots than homes, and the city is buying up houses and tearing them down under plans to “reindustrialize” the area.

Youth VOICES is a 2-year-old program founded by the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), a Temple University effort to bring its faculty and research resources to bear on problems outside Temple’s North Philadelphia campus. The program has been held up as a national model (by the D.C.-based American Youth Policy Forum, for instance) that could be expanded to other cities.

“I love this neighborhood,” Rodriguez says, pointing out the nearby landmarks of his life, such as the home his grandmother owns. “But this community definitely needs some work.”

Although Rodriguez and the VOICES group presented their survey findings to city officials, it may be too late to save the neighborhood from the bulldozers. But a broader matter is at issue here: the fate of the emerging civic engagement movement.
Will Rodriguez and others in his generation become active in the civic and political life of their communities and nation? Or will they grow cynical or indifferent, satisfied to do their own thing?

The scope of the youth civic engagement movement is broad enough to include mass-appeal youth-voter initiatives like Rock the Vote, high schoolers volunteering in homeless shelters, and AmeriCorps participants in national programs like Public Allies. The terminology of “civic engagement” is pervasive in the Bush administration’s descriptions of programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

But is civic engagement more than a semantic fad? Social scientists such as Harvard’s Robert Putnam, who wrote the influential “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” point to a decline in community involvement touching all age groups. Overall voter turnout, for example, has been declining since the 19th century. But turnout is lowest and in sharper decline among young voters. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped from 50 percent in 1972 to 36.1 percent in 2000.

Many adults sense that today’s youth are generally disengaged, lost in a world of instant messaging and other flashy social distractions. Yet some studies show a more complex portrait of American youth attitudes: engaged in some ways, disengaged in others. (See sidebar, page 44.) Many analysts see the volunteering spirit among youth as relatively strong.

With that hopeful note, organizations have poured millions of dollars into efforts to engage youth in community and national affairs – through such efforts as a youth assembly in North Carolina and a university-based national research project.

A Complex Partnership

Youth VOICES has the appealing audacity to suggest that young people should be heard by those making policy. It aims to engage youth from troubled neighborhoods in community issues, but also emphasizes relationships with mentors and other adults.

UCCP Director Barbara Ferman says she first encountered concerns about youth engagement among leaders of adult community groups with whom she worked. “We kept hearing about problems with youth – about their lack of involvement,” Ferman says. “Many people asked, ‘Where are the future leaders going to come from?’”

Youth VOICES was formed in the spring of 2000. It is built on a complicated mix of partnerships that includes Temple faculty, graduate and undergraduate student instructors, youth centers and schools, issue-oriented community groups, and neighborhood youth, who earn up to $300 to attend classes twice a week for 10 weeks.

Temple students provide the basic instruction at schools and youth centers, after being trained by Temple doctoral candidate Catie Cavanaugh – UCCP’s youth coordinator and the developer of the VOICES curriculum – and other UCCP youth workers. The classes serve as springboards for engagement projects, such as the recent housing survey.

The focus on policy issues like housing comes naturally. UCCP is based in the Temple political science building, and Ferman, the collaborative director, is a Temple professor who specializes in urban policy and politics.

She believes the lack of community involvement among kids in troubled neighborhoods does not reflect a flaw in the kids. Rather, she says, “Society has disengaged from them.”

In its first summer, VOICES helped six Asian immigrant youths from a community group, Asian-Americans United, produce a survey of recent immigrants and their needs. VOICES later partnered with the YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School in running classes for two AmeriCorps construction crews, in which students undertook engagement projects such as starting a daycare center at the school. And it joined forces with Youth Empowerment Services (YES) to give VOICES classes at Youth Opportunity Centers and to start a series of classes for youth leadership councils.

This year VOICES reached about 400 in- and out-of-school youths, ages 14 to 21. Its $130,000 annual budget is supported by grants from Pew Charitable Trusts ($400,000 over two years), the William Penn Foundation and the Philadelphia Foundation. VOICES also gets U.S. Department of Labor Youth Opportunity Program funds through the Philadelphia Youth Network. Temple provides in-kind support, such as faculty help, use of school computers for research and office space.

“VOICES has the potential to supply a structured curriculum for organized community services,” says Mike Sack, a former director of Jobs for Youth in Boston and now education director at YES. “What [youth] get out of VOICES is an awareness of who the change agents are in a community.”

‘Not Alone’

Indeed, VOICES has found that teens may recognize the forces at work in their communities, such as poverty and gentrification, Cavanaugh says. But they know little about the resources available to address issues, such as government agencies, community groups or local newspapers. “They don’t seem to know that they need not work alone,” Cavanaugh says.

That’s why the VOICES curriculum is being revised to emphasize basic concepts such as how decisions affecting communities are made, who makes them and which agencies and groups focus on which issues.

Nevertheless, undergraduate instructors also say that civic engagement can be a hard sell among teens and young adults.
“All of them are disengaged – only a small number are not,” says Hakeem Hall, a 24-year-old undergraduate VOICES instructor. “It’s a me-first attitude, and the majority don’t care about anything else.”

“They hear so many negative things,” says student Yolanda Giraldo, 20, also an undergraduate VOICES instructor. “We say, ‘One person can make a difference.’ And they say, ‘No, they can’t.’ ”

Partnering Strategy

Rodriguez and the other teens in the class that meets after school at the American Street Youth Opportunity Center have worked with a community housing group (the Women’s Community Revitalization Project) to create their survey questions, such as “Do you own or rent?” and “Do you know anyone on your block who has had to move?”

“The city is going through an anti-blight initiative, and they’re going to take 60 to 70 properties,” explains David Koppish, advocacy coordinator for the revitalization project. “Some families will have to relocate, and it’s causing concern. Neighbors are asking, ‘Why are we not a part of the decision-making?’”

Out on North Third Street, the VOICES youth split into twos and threes, each group accompanied by a college student. The teenagers are initially nervous, wondering whether adults who answer the door will want to answer three pages of

But when residents eagerly talk, the teens grow more enthused. By just knocking on doors, they have expanded their sense of what they can accomplish.

While several classes have produced surveys, others have gathered information for skits and presentations to both youths and adults at community and citywide conferences. VOICES has also sponsored four-day Youth Civic Engagement Summits in Philadelphia and Chicago, covering topics such as police-minority relations, gentrification and the isolation of minority neighborhoods.

At the Nueva Esperanza Academy charter school in the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods around Hunting Park, students in a 10th grade civics class produced a 47-page survey on parental involvement in their children’s schools. Most parents told the VOICES students that parental involvement was important, but VOICES youth found that the parents’ actual involvement was often not what they had claimed.

“It showed [the youth] that saying and doing are two different things,” says Nueva Esperanza teacher William Johnston.

Going to Scale

Could it work elsewhere?

Until now, VOICES classes have had Cavanaugh or other founding project veterans close at hand. Cavanaugh has broken the program into modules that youth workers elsewhere could use to run their own versions.

Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based research and technical assistant group, is “helping [VOICES] devise a feasible growth strategy,” says Susan Goldberger, Jobs for the Future’s director of new ventures.

“Everybody agrees that older adolescents need to be true actors in their community,” Goldberger says. “When they’re thinking of taking [VOICES] to scale, they’re thinking of packaging what they’re doing and codifying it, so it’s easy to transition to new sites.”
Baltimore and Washington are mentioned as possible cities for expansion. But the next hurdle might be finding a host university.

Goldberger suggests that a smaller college could fit VOICES’ needs. “I don’t think it needs to be a flagship research university to work well,” she says.

But some in youth work also note that higher education in the United States has traditionally seemed short on sustained interest in youth who are not thought to be college-bound.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez and his VOICES peers return to the American Street Youth Opportunity Center for a debriefing on their first day’s work on the housing survey. They are enthused. A few residents told the VOICES students they’re not moving – no matter what.

Yet at a few homes, the VOICES students encountered adults who sounded hopeless about citizens having impact on decisions about the neighborhood.

Tiffeny Sierra, 16, reports a conversation at one doorway: “They said, ‘How do we know you’re going to do anything? People have talked to us a lot – and they haven’t done anything.’”

Sierra and the VOICES group later present their initial findings at a meeting called by the Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition. Sierra tells the more than 200 people in attendance about the frustration neighbors had over drug selling, rats, roaches and other problems that seemed exacerbated by the abandoned houses and vacant lots on most blocks.

“We are here tonight because we would like you to know that we are concerned about our neighborhoods,” Sierra says, “and we are interested in having a voice in positive neighborhood improvements.”

The audience applauds and cheers.

But beyond the cheers, a more cautionary note might be in order. This year, VOICES will reach about 400 of Philadelphia’s approximately 160,000 14- to 21-year-olds. VOICES is a small program, with youth participants benefiting from the intense efforts of the full- and part-time paid staffers, and from relationships with adult professionals from Temple and other agencies.

VOICES could be a life-changing experience for some youth. But the very qualities that make VOICES impressive as a small program might make the leadership and financial challenges of expanding to other cities or serving more youth all the more daunting.

Cavanaugh insists it’s possible. “We’ll build it in increments,” she says. “We’ll build on existing connections. We’ll help others start with one class and build community partnerships. We’ll make it grow.”