“At-risk youth” or powerful agent for change?
In the midst of a very cold winter in Chicago, we just completed what might be my most favorite CAT program in our six years of programming.
We met Fred and Greg* in July in the Gitchi Gumee Project – a group of 20 who went to the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in July. They came to us from The Night Ministry, one of our partner organizations that works with street-based youth. They’ve both faced tremendous challenges and obstacles. But here’s the thing – one of the things that gets my hackles up, and can set off a very LONG stint on my personal soap box, is when we, as well-meaning adults with privilege, see our youth first through the lens of the obstacles they face. Being in a program can pigeonhole how other people see them – they’re “Homeless” first; they’re “Gang-Bangers;” children of immigrants, they’re “Illegal;” they’re “Bipolar” or “ADHD” or HIV-Postive.” [* Fred and Greg have given their permission to use their real names]
In San Fransisco last week, at the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, things went down differently. A few of my fellow coaches were jealous of me because I get to call these two guys my students.
- They were jealous because Fred and Greg have some of the GREATEST attitudes in the world! They both capsized – well, they capsized more than most of the students – and they both just jumped right back in the boats, even more energized and motivated than before they dumped.
- With backgrounds in gymnastics and dance, coupled with great fitness levels and a lot of physical strength, Fred and Greg have more natural ability than most paddling students we as coaches come across. This fact was not lost on my fellow coaches.
- They both have an uncanny ability to take direction. With that huge natural talent they have, matched by a huge desire to learn more, they soak up every last suggestion, tip and challenge. They’re eminently “coachable.”
This is what strengths-based youth development is about. It’s about strength, not deficit; about ability, not obstacle; about opportunity, not compensation for poverty, diagnosis, oppression or flat-out bad luck.
When I had the great good fortune to spend a month paddling on the West Coast a year ago, it changed me. It also changed the way I think about CAT programming. Taking our young peoples’ strengths seriously means that we have to challenge them. We have to give them the type of challenge that they can meet – but not ace 100%. Challenge that demands the very best of what they have to bring to it, and leaves them with so much still to work on. For some of our young people, this means climbing to the top of the climbing wall in the gym, or climbing half-way up, or one body length up the wall. For some, it means sleeping in a tent. For some, it means paddling “out the Gate” in San Fransisco Bay, learning to peel out and eddy in at Yellow Bluff (a tide race that “goes off” on the ebb tide in the Bay), or getting worked in a rock gardening class or in waves that they eventually learn to surf… It means preparing to teach and lead other young people.
It means challenging them to share what they’ve gained with others. Fred and Greg are grateful for the experience. Truly, it breaks my heart just a little bit how often I hear them say “thank you for believing in us.” Or “I can’t believe we got to do this.” Or “thank you for giving us these opportunities. We would never get to do this.”
If it stops at gratitude, they are still those young men who face such great obstacles. “At-risk kids” who don’t have access to the resources that so many kids do.
If they are deeply grateful for the experience, and use it to bring their very best to bear on the world – then they are young men with amazing strength and amazing skills that will change the world. They are not “disadvantaged youth.” Rather, they are powerful agents of change; a force for good that we ignore at our own, and the world’s, peril.
After my own time paddling on the West Coast, I look at CAT programming with an eye towards how it will empower our young people to change the world. What can we give them; and also, what will they give back. They will do so much more for this world than ever I will. To do it they have to know that they are not “at-risk kids,” but amazing young adults with so much to offer the world.