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From pessimism to youth policies based on hope

John A. Calhoun

This article advocates a 180-degree shift in the foundation on which youth policies are based from fear to hope, prisons to prevention — and provides two concrete examples of National Crime Prevention Council programs that are built on just such a foundation.

T wo years ago, the schools in Washington, DC, opened three weeks late because of leaking roofs and antique boilers. At the same time, Lorton Prison in the Metro DC area was well funded and functioning. When Mario Cuomo was the governor of New York, he diverted money from housing for the poor (Urban Development Corporation monies) into prison construction. Eric Schlosser compared this profligate investment in jails to the spending priorities of prior eras in the December 1998 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:

The spirit of every age is manifest in its public works, in the great construction projects that leave an enduring mark on the landscape. During the early years of this century the Panama Canal became President Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy, a physical expression of his imperial yearnings. The New Deal faith in government activism left behind huge dams and bridges, post offices decorated with murals, power lines that finally brought electricity to rural America. The interstate highway system fulfilled dreams of the Eisenhower era, spreading suburbia far and wide; urban housing projects for the poor were later built in the hopes of creating a Great Society.

A recent issue of Construction Report,  a monthly newsletter published by Correctional Building News, provides details of the nation’s latest public works: a 3,100-bed jail in Harris County, Texas; a 500-bed medium-security prison in Redgranite, Wisconsin; a 130-bed minimum-security facility in Oakland County Michigan; two 200-bed housing pods at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in Iowa; a 350-bed juvenile correctional facility in Pendleton, Indiana; and dozens more. (p. 77)

The United States imprisons more people than any country in the world — by some estimates, as many as half a million more than Communist China (Schlosser, 1998). And although few would argue against incarcerating those who are violent, fewer than a third of those we imprison have committed violent crimes:

Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines or drug treatment — or not be considered crimes at all — in the United States now lead to prison terms, by far the most expensive form of punishment. (Schlosser, 1998, p. 52)

This fact is deeply disturbing. Although most nonviolent offenders can be treated well and more cheaply through a variety of alternative sentencing options, we are spending money for their incarceration that could be spent elsewhere.

Even more disturbing is the foundation upon which these spending policies rest — fear and greed — as well as the message it sends to America’s rising generation: “We know you can be trouble, and we’re ready and waiting for you.”

Juvenile lockups stand as public policy promises. But where are the companion promises, the after-school programs, mentors, and opportunities for community service? It is time to make a new public policy promise built on hope and the inherent idealism of youth. Such a policy would stand on firm ground.

Firm ground for youth policies built on hope
Many youth are alone, disconnected from society’s “connecting” entities — family, neighborhood, school, future. Most policies addressing youth issues cluster either around control (i.e., criminal justice responses) or repair (i.e., fixing youth after damage is done). While each may be appropriate in certain circumstances, few policies for youth directly address disconnection by reconnecting youth, communicating to them that they are needed, passionately claimed. From a psychological point of view, policies that make youth feel needed tend to “bond” them positively to their communities. Politically described, they ask youth to be signatories to the social contract. Such policies cannot be dismissed as being “soft,” for while they offer assistance, they are based on the expectation of responsible, contributing behavior.

The potential results of such expectations have been powerfully supported by two recent surveys. First, four years ago, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) commissioned Louis Harris and Associates to poll youth about ways in which crime and violence influenced their lives. Much of the poll underscored what we already knew — because of crime, kids occasionally carried weapons, cut classes, chose new friends, etc. But the astounding new news was that nine out of ten polled youth said that they would volunteer to do something about crime and violence if only they knew what to do.

Second, the Independent Sector survey of Volunteering and Giving among American Teens (1996) showed that an astonishing 59% of teens volunteered weekly versus 49% of their adult counterparts. Sadly, the violent teen, caricatured by the media as a “super-predator,” is the more accepted portrait of adolescents, not the one drawn by the Independent Sector.

Studies like those cited above point eloquently to the tremendous potential of new youth policies based on hope and resiliency — what kids seem to need to “make it.” While scholars disagree on the length of the list of resiliency (or “protective”) factors, almost all agree that the list should include:

  • Altruism: generosity, as in “I am my brother’s keeper”

  • Mastery: a recognized skill

  • Belonging: an enduring relationship with a trusted adult

  • Optimism: defined either in theological (“I am in His hands”) or secular (“Things will get better”) fashions

To successfully engage youth and build these resiliency factors, communities need to seek approaches to the “youth issue” that are flexible, enabling, and exciting. These approaches should connect youth to adults in positive ways and be designed to get real work done. Their effectiveness will also be much enhanced if they are adaptable to all types of community institutions and thus can be transplanted easily.

Adults working with such teen involvement programs need to share power with young people and focus on results. They must respect teens’ intelligence, make allowances for their schedules (e.g., through flexible meeting times), and thank teens publicly. Guidance and help with “adult” things like renting a truck, opening a bank account, signing a contract, and interpreting Robert’s Rules of Order are crucial. And paying for pizza never hurts!

Youth as resources gives youth a role in preventing crime
The National Crime Prevention Council has developed programs for youth based on the assumption of teen idealism and on the resiliency factors and guidelines listed above. One of these, Youth as Resources (YAR), begun more than a decade ago, asks youth to identify social issues that concern them, design community service projects to address the issues, and, if funded, run the projects. Local YAR programs governed by youth-adult boards provide mini-grants ranging from $200 to $2,000 to implement the youth-led projects. The results have been astonishing:

  • More than 130,000 youth — rural, urban, and suburban have been involved in 21 states.

  • All types of youth have served, from honor society students to teens in a juvenile corrections facility.

  • Youth have tackled almost every social issue — homelessness, crime prevention, child abuse, and much, much more.

  • Youth efforts have been supported by caring adults from a variety of contexts: schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches and synagogues, community foundations, dance clubs, correctional facilities, probation departments, etc.

The personal testimonies are powerful. One young man said, “I could not believe adults trusted me to do the job. It’s hard to describe how I feel. It feels like a new life.” Another youth said, “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been thanked.” A young woman who grew up in a home torn by family violence designed a program for children in a battered women’s shelter. She remarked, “I wanted these kids to get the love I never got as a child.”

The Lilly Endowment, the initial and prime supporter of YAR, has been joined by the MacArthur Foundation and an anonymous donor in New York. The National Crime Prevention Council has also just launched YAR (Promote the Peace) in several elementary schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, through generous grants from the Graustein and Surdna foundations.

Evaluating YAR
Such foundation investments in YAR have paid off. Evaluations reveal consistently positive impacts on essential program participants: youth, adults, agencies (Glancy & Schmidt-Lewis, 1992; National Crime Prevention Council, 1990; Schmidt-Lewis,1995; Schmidt-Lewis & Glancy,1992). Youth participants:

  • Expressed multiple developmental gains — increasing their self-confidence, self-esteem, and responsibility, as well as changing their views about helping others and learning how to work together.

  • Developed important skills, such as problem solving; learned specific tasks; and defined their educational and career interests.

  • Tended to volunteer again. (A Follow-up Study [1992] indicates that about 63% of the youth for whom YAR was the first volunteer experience have volunteered again.)

  • Would encourage their friends to become involved in volunteer projects (98% according to A Follow-up Study [1992]).

Adults who were involved in the projects:

  • Reported improvements in participating youth, including an increased sense of responsibility, civic pride, and commitment; increased capacity to cope with conflicts; and recognition of their power as positive role models.

  • Recommended that their agencies continue sponsoring YAR projects (87% in A Follow-up Study and 85% in An Evaluation of YAR [1992]).

Participating agencies expressed:

  • The intention to continue the projects beyond YAR support. (In the NCPC’s 1990 publication, Changing Perspectives, 43% of the agencies evaluated expressed this intention.)

  • A commitment to providing more responsible roles for youth in their organizations. (Changing Perspectives indicates that at least two dozen agencies reported changing policies to continue the projects with their own funds and provide more responsible organizational roles for youth.)

Teens, Crime, and the Community (TCC)
In another of the National Crime Prevention Council’s programs — Teens, Crime, and the Community (TCC) — a curriculum is presented to youth, usually through schools, but sometimes in juvenile justice settings. Through an interactive series of lessons, youth learn how to avoid becoming victims of crime. The last chapter asks them to be partners in reducing crime — to roll up their sleeves and design and run projects that make their communities safer and better. And how they have responded! They have tutored, mentored, run teen courts, cleaned up graffiti, and much, much more. The cost is small — roughly one-tenth that of incarceration — and the community gets something in return: a tutored child, a reclaimed park, a play about teen pregnancy, etc.

Stories of hope amidst despair
Both of these programs — YAR and TCC — have helped to foster hope in even the most despairing of situations. For example, among other locations, YAR is located in possibly the most violent place in the country — Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. One YAR project there was planned and run by a nine-year-old girl named Tanika Reilley. Her gift is song. She and her classmates designed a program to sing to the elderly who felt they must stay indoors because of crime. This youngster faced unimaginable difficulties daily: an immature, almost adolescent mother; sleeping in a bathtub to avoid bullets; stepping over condoms and broken glass and avoiding gangs on her way to school. Yet when she received a YAR grant to support her project, she said simply, “Thank you for letting me make my community better.”

By the time Tanika graduates from high school, almost 50% of her male counterparts will either be dead or under the purview of the criminal justice system. Who and what will fan Tanika’s spark of idealism?

When youth in Tanika’s circumstances lift their eyes, they often see only people and institutions expecting the worst from them. But what if we surrounded these youth instead with people and institutions that anticipated the best? We have followed the policies of fear too long, depleting the civic wallet and overlooking the latent idealism and talent of millions of Tanikas. It is time to build public policies on a foundation of hope. And it is time for such policies and programs to become central, not ancillary, to the public policy debate — to become as natural and reflexive a response to youth crime and violence as prisons are today.


Glancy, C., & Schmidt-Lewis, P. (1992, October). A follow-up study of youth as resources: Youth volunteers. Washington, DC: National Crime Prevention Council.

Independent Sector. (1996). Volunteering and giving among American teens. Washington, DC: Author.

National Crime Prevention Council. (1990). Changing perspectives: Youth as resources. Washington, DC: Author.

Schlosser, E. (1998). The prison-industrial complex. The Atlantic Monthly, 282, 6. pp. 51-77.

Schmidt-Lewis, P. (1995, February). Youth as resources: Special initiative phase 11; Final evaluation report. Washington, DC: National Crime Prevention Council.

Schmidt-Lewis, P., & Glancy, C. (1992, November). An evaluation of youth as resources: Special initiative. Washington, DC: National Crime Prevention Council.

This feature: Calhoun, J.A. (1999). From pessimism to youth policies based on hope. Reaching Today’s Youth, 3, 3. pp. 7-9.