Megan Gunnar, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, recently spoke on Minnesota Public Radio about the damaging long-term effects of the stress of poverty on brain development in infants, children, and youth. This illustrates to me the insidiousness of our economic policies and beliefs about who deserves what and how much they deserve. Poor children and youth do not have equal opportunities for healthy growth and positive development. We are ignoring the data of the best youth development thinking of the past 75 years.
Dr. Gunnar's talk reminded me of the work of influential American educator John Dewey and his drive to create equity and community with and around youth to improve their learning and their lives. Dewey said that "what the best parent wants for his own child, so much we all want for all children and young people."
Sadly, in the 75 years since Dewey, not much has improved for many American youth and their families. In Minnesota, between 2000 and 2009, the number of poor children grew 53%, and the number of children living in extreme poverty doubled, an increase of 105% (Read more at Kids Count). Nationally, 20 percent of all children are living in poverty. These figures are expected to increase when the effects of our current recession are factored into the equation.
Back in 1973, Gisela Konopka, the University of Minnesota's renowned and revered professor of social work, testified to the US Congress about the requirements for healthy youth development. We use an adapted version of the treatise she developed in 1973 in the Youth Work Institute. It helps us think about how we build community with and around young people. I believe these basic youth needs are basic human needs. All humans will attempt to meet these needs positively or negatively depending on the situation at hand.
Basic Youth Needs• Feel a sense of safety and structure
• Experience active participation, group membership, and belonging
• Develop self-worth through meaningful contribution
• Experiment to discover self, gain independence, and gain control over one's life
• Develop significant quality relationships with peers and at least one adult
• Discuss conflicting values and form their own
• Feel pride of competence and mastery
• Expand their capacity to enjoy life and know that success is possible
What do these principles mean for you in your work with or on behalf of children, youth, and families? How do we go about building community with others in this time of economic austerity, budget cuts, children and youth programs downsizing or disappearing, and the general sense of community isolation?
I don't have solid answers to these questions. I do think that bringing about a renewed sense of community will require minimally that we see all of us as belonging to each other. We all matter. We need to start focusing on our strengths and stop seeing and framing others in terms of weaknesses or problems. The same is true for
the children, youth, and families we serve. This idea of using an asset-based or strength-based approach to working with children, youth and families is not new. It is ancient and it is intuitive.