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05/02/95

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Educators say inner-city youth responsible for their $150,000 prize

STANFORD -- "I think adults are more afraid of youth now and feel more distance from them than at any time in our history," Shirley Brice Heath says from her hotel room in a Midwestern city, one of several places she and Milbrey McLaughlin will visit this week to meet with teenagers who have demonstrated they can "duck the bullet."

The two middle-aged Stanford professors will meet with former inner-city gang members who have ducked the bullets of drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, jail or the morgue, and with rural kids who have found alternatives to such life-threatening dares from their peers as running river rapids while drunk in a "bubble" boat.

The pair will stop by mid-size cities, too, where young people, McLaughlin says, suffer perhaps the most acute shortage of community resources for helping them make the transition to productive adult lives.

On this trip, for once, Heath and McLaughlin will have some good news to bring to the teenagers from the outside world of adults: The value of the adolescents' own ideas were recognized last week in the form of the $150,000 Grawemeyer Prize in Education. The prize, given annually by the University of Louisville for the most useful educational ideas, went to Heath and McLaughlin for their book on youth-based organizations, Identity and Inner-City Youth: Beyond Ethnicity and Gender.

Heath and McLaughlin were nominated by a previous Grawemeyer Prize winner, Ronald Gallimore of the University of California-Los Angeles, who found their book and video Listen Up to be unusually useful because of its emphasis on the education of young people outside school walls and schedules. Heath and McLaughlin, he wrote, "discovered the powerful educational contributions [of youth-centered community-based afterschool organizations] by examining the lives of youngsters who, against all odds, had managed to avoid destruction in some of the most destructive communities in the country."

The ideas in their book, Heath and McLaughlin are quick to point out, originate not with them but with hundreds of adolescents they have studied since 1987 in 60 organizations serving 24,000 young people in inner cities. Recently, with support from the Spencer Foundation, the two have expanded their study to youth organizations in small-sized cities and rural towns as well.

The award, McLaughlin says, points out "the irony of whose perspective counts" in public discussions of youth. A professor of education who heads Stanford's Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching, McLaughlin says that when government or school officials, foundation officers or business people talk about the problems of today's youth, they invite credentialed experts like herself but "the youth perspective itself is never invited to the table."

"The prize means something very special," adds Heath, a professor of linguistics and English, "because it recognizes the importance of looking at education other than just school, and second, it focuses on a segment of the population that people don't look to with respect or to learn from." Most people in modern America, she has come to believe, "are unwilling to recognize the needs and abilities of kids from ages 8 to 18."

One reason, she says, is the "disproportional segment of the population that is worried about its own future as it approaches retirement. If we put nearly as much emphasis, energy and imagination into youth as we do into planning better retirement homes, health care facilities and hospices, society would be in a much better situation."

The two R's

The needs and abilities of youth boil down to two R's -- responsibility and relationships, Heath says. Many government and privately funded groups focus their attention on the preschool and early childhood years because they have come to believe that they can't compete with gangs or other peer group structures for adolescents' attention, she says. But Heath says they can, if they focus on responsibility and relationships.

Heath and McLaughlin trained 40 young people to be "junior ethnographers," taping interviews with several hundred other 12- to 19- year olds in three inner cities. The adolescent researchers, who worked with graduate students who lived in the communities under study, hung out on basketball courts, with youth gymnastic teams and with theater groups. They gathered life histories and quizzed and tape recorded their peers on their views about communities and local youth organizations, about their self-image and future plans. The youth researchers were essential to the project, McLaughlin says, because "I don't do midnight basketball or gang meetings at my age."

The researchers found that even young people who have joined gangs can be drawn to more productive alternatives, but that they need a sense of belonging. They reject programs that are envisioned by their adult leadership as remedial or as fixes for problems such as drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.

"Challenge is essential," Heath says, of successful youth groups. "And kids don't like adults creating challenges and giving it to them piecemeal or as a form of punishment. They want to help make and break the rules.

"One of the things that became clear about so many of these successful organizations is that the kids actually like figuring out park schedules or how to get a group of kids in a band across town for a performance when the van is too small and the instruments are too big. They are much better at figuring it out than adults. They want to take on responsibility."

Teenagers who "can't pass a fill-in-the-blank test in English class," she says, can and do write press releases for their theater group or dance troupe or gymnastics team. "They handle everything from finances to flourishes," she says, in the successful youth organizations, which ranged from nationally affiliated groups like the YMCA to local sports clubs and tutoring programs.

In her most recent book, Urban Sanctuaries, McLaughlin and researchers Merita Irby and Juliet Langman assemble the lessons they learned from youth and their charismatic leaders into a less academic format. Says McLaughlin: "We wrote Urban Sanctuaries for John Q. Public -- police departments, justice departments, churches, the foundation world or anybody who is involved with kids."

Urban Sanctuaries allows urban adolescents to speak at length in their own words and also quotes "the wizards" -- adults who run youth programs with waiting lists. The wizards, she said, are charismatic leaders who care deeply about youth and treat them as whole individuals, not just as members of a basketball team or dance troupe. They adjust activities and create challenges that fit well into their particular community.

Devising universal policy lessons from such discoveries, she says, is difficult because "it means that you have to start supporting environments that enable these youth rather than 'fix' them." There are real dilemmas, such as the fact that public funds cannot be spent on religious organizations, even though church youth organizations are often important to teenagers' lives.

But the chief reason there are not more good youth organizations, she and Heath say, is that policymakers have become convinced that adults cannot help teenagers. One critic, for example, said in an Education Week review of Urban Sanctuaries that most inner-city gang members are "absolutely beyond hope." Their dispositions and habits are too settled, he said, by the time they reach their teenage years.

Such attitudes are widespread, Heath believes, not only about inner- city youth but about most teenagers in general. "One of the arguments I will be making in my next book is that the same problems and temptations for youth crop up in mid-size towns and rural areas as in big cities. There are more problems for the poor, but in all these communities, there has been a loss of neighborhood, of religious organizations, and a shift of community organizations away from youth in the last 15 years."

Talking to the "suits"

While youth realize that nobody listens to or respects them, McLaughlin says, they desperately want to get their views of the world on the table. "At the end of our first round of field research, we asked them what they wanted. They wanted a conference where they could talk to 'the suits' -- educators, foundation officers and police. So we had a conference at Stanford called 'Listen Up' in the summer of 1992 and made a video for other 'suits' who couldn't make it."

Among those adults who profoundly distrust kids, Heath says, are newspaper editors and producers of television news and entertainment. She recounts a tense moment at a meeting she had in December with newspaper editors in Florida, where she presented her research on literacy rates among youth for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The editors, she says, have programmed themselves to believe they cannot reach young readers without sensationalism. They were somewhat dubious when she reported that 90 percent of the teenagers she surveyed in youth organizations spent at least 15 to 30 minutes a week reading their local newspaper, and many substantially more.

The youth also recognized that "while 80 percent of the homicides are committed by adults over 18, 90 percent of the coverage goes to youth murders." Teenagers of all races and classes, she says, are "resentful of the disproportionate attention the media gives to youth violence in general and especially to kids of color. It doesn't fit with their own experience."

In a report prepared for the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors last month in Dallas, Heath argued that newspapers, in general, are misreading their role and therefore their marketability in society. Youth report to her, she said, that "newspapers are not just media, like television, who focus on pictures and entertainment," but institutions that are respected in their localities and therefore held to higher standards.

"One of our youths put it best when he said, 'Have you ever heard anybody talk about their hometown TV or radio station?"' she said. "Kids do talk about their local newspaper and even in mid-size cities, they prefer reading it to the larger, regional papers."

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