The Search For Elusive 'Sanctuaries' For Urban Youths

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"If it weren't for Mr. Jones, nine times out of 10, I'd be a drug user, a gang member, a convict, or ex-con, something that's normal for this environment. Most everybody that I grew up with is in a gang or selling drugs. I just found a different road.''
--16-year-old member of the Reggie Jones Gymnasts youth group.

"This project has always been kind of my secret life,'' says Milbrey W. McLaughlin, sitting in her office at Stanford University, scrutinizing the shiny blue book jacket that just arrived from her San Francisco publisher. The cover prominently features a photograph of seven smiling teenagers bunched together in a group hug against a gray brick wall. One African-American girl has two fingers raised in the classic peace sign.

McLaughlin seems almost giddy as she studies the young faces framed by the title of her new book, Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-City Youth, due out this week from Jossey-Bass.

The prolific author confesses that the other three books she wrote last year haven't given her nearly the same rush.

"I don't write trade books,'' exclaims McLaughlin, motioning toward the six large filing cabinets filled with data that monopolize an entire wall of her office. "This isn't what Stanford professors do!''

But, standing at the window, looking beyond the picturesque campus, with its green lawns and broad courtyards, where she has taught policy analysis for 11 years, McLaughlin confides that she has been "captured'' by this particular project.

The 52-year-old McLaughlin is a highly respected professor of education and public policy and the director of the Pew Forum on Education Reform. As the director of the Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching at Stanford, McLaughlin has become known in education circles for her scholarly writing on teaching and education policy.

In her new book, she ventures some distance from the classroom. But, she says, it's not as far as it might appear.

Primarily known for her work exploring the "teacher's-eye view'' of schools, McLaughlin shifts gears in the new book to give readers young people's perspectives on growing up in urban America. In either case, she attempts to offer an "insider's'' view.

McLaughlin believes the study, supported by a $450,000 grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, is the first comprehensive analysis of inner-city youths and their involvement in community-based youth organizations.

McLaughlin and Shirley Brice Heath, a Stanford professor of English and linguistics who co-directed the study, supervised a team of researchers who spent five years hanging out on basketball courts, with youth gymnastic teams, and in theater clubs in three inner cities. They surveyed young people, most of whom had spent time in gangs or in jail, about why they chose to reject the often violent life on the street and become involved in youth organizations. McLaughlin was fascinated with what made these organizations succeed while others failed.

These neighborhood groups, which McLaughlin deems to be "urban sanctuaries,'' range from large nationally affiliated organizations like the Y.M.C.A. to strictly local tutoring and sports clubs. They all offer productive, positive alternatives to young people whom society and schools tend to see as being "beyond hope.''

"These youths are desperate to get involved in something positive,'' McLaughlin says. The "pervasive media image of inner-city youths as undisciplined, lazy, and unwilling to stop their destructive behavior'' is largely off the mark, she finds. "Our data and our experience in these sites show that [this image] is absolutely wrong.'' The study portrays youths who are intelligent--if not academically accomplished--and who can be inventive and disciplined, if given a chance.

The "tragedy,'' McLaughlin says, is that too often they are not given that opportunity.

McLaughlin and her two co-authors--Merita A. Irby and Juliet Langman--estimate that at least two-thirds of the young people growing up in the "caldron'' of inner cities are eager to join youth organizations. However, only a minority of these "hopefuls'' are affiliated with one. These findings, they say, hold true for inner-city youngsters across the country.

Most urban adolescents, like their suburban and rural counterparts, the authors find, have a strong desire to belong.

Success Stories

To uncover these positive alternatives to gangs, McLaughlin says her researchers didn't "follow the yellow pages.''

Instead, they chose cities in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Southwest that had reputations for social concern, collaboration among diverse policy groups, and philanthropic involvement. The investigators suspected these were indications that established, effective neighborhood youth groups could be found there. In the book, the cities--which have different economies and social histories and diverse ethnic populations--go by the pseudonyms "River City,'' "Lakeside,'' and "Big Valley.''

"We didn't want to do autopsies--one more story of grim urban realities and nothing going on for kids,'' McLaughlin says.

To avoid choosing the most well-known groups, they used traditional tactics of grassroots investigation.

"We didn't start out saying, 'Here's the Girls Scouts. Here's the Y,''' she says. Rather, they called church officials, reporters, social workers, and other "people who might know what's going on with youth'' to develop a network of contacts to help them navigate the social and political shoals of each city.

The researchers looked for organizations that "smelled right,'' says McLaughlin, using the street jargon she picked up from her time in "the 'hood.'' That is, they searched for organizations that were "pro-kid,'' ones where an individual youngster's needs took precedence over the group's activity.

From the 60 local organizations they surveyed, the researchers recruited a cadre of 40 young people already involved in one of the groups who became their "informants.''

"These were all absolutely typical inner-city kids,'' McLaughlin reports. All were poor. Each could recall a sibling, relative, or friend who had been shot. Most had spent time in jail or in a gang. Half were high school dropouts. Yet, all shared a positive outlook about their futures.

Dubbed "junior ethnographers,'' these teenagers were paid $5 to $6 an hour to conduct taped interviews with several hundred other 12- to 19-year-olds in their neighborhoods. They gathered life histories and quizzed their peers on their views about their communities and the local youth organizations. They surveyed these young people about their self-image and their future plans.

McLaughlin believed that peer-interviewing would yield better information than if she and her colleagues had done the interviews. For one thing, the youths, McLaughlin explains, could better identify which subjects to profile. In addition, the subjects would be more willing to relate their stories to another young person living in the community. Besides, McLaughlin says, the interviewers had excellent "crap detectors'' to sense when their subjects were being less than honest.

Two of the book's authors lived in the cities examined and became members of the youth organizations they were studying. Irby, a recent graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Langman, a linguistics teacher from Budapest, managed to achieve "insider'' status in these somewhat insular communities.

Irby and Langman supervised the young ethnographers and conducted interviews with leaders and participants of the youth organizations, which together represented more than 24,000 young people.

"We relied on them to go places for us,'' a smiling McLaughlin says of Irby and Langman and their youthful charges. "I am, after all, a middle-aged, European-American university professor. I don't do well at midnight basketball.''

The 'Wizards'

What the researchers found in these environments, rife with crime and poverty, were oases--safe havens not generally listed in any formal directory of youth programs.

The groups included Scout troops, theater groups, and tutoring classes. They gathered in public buildings, family basements, and churches.

These "sanctuaries'' succeed in weaning youths away from gangs, the study finds, because their leaders take seriously young people's concerns and encourage them to help plan and direct activities.

Policymakers and the general public tend to view youths as outsiders. They talk about "the youth problem,'' McLaughlin writes. They routinely see young people as peripheral, rather than integral, to the policymaking process.

"The major message we want to get across is that perspective really matters,'' McLaughlin says. If adults were to stop viewing young people as something to be fixed and controlled and, instead, helped enable their development, there would be "phenomenal change'' in their lives and society in general, she argues.

What makes one Y.M.C.A. empty and another down the block bustling with activity is, in part, the degree of youth involvement in the program, McLaughlin says. The authors profile six young people who are composites of several of the teenagers interviewed. The composites reveal youths who are "positively engaged'' in their organizations and their neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the most successful neighborhood organizations closely resemble what most people would consider the ideal family: an environment in which individuals are valued and rules of membership are clear.

A number of these organizations have "family'' scrapbooks, complete with photographs of performances, results from sports tournaments, and detailed accounts of "family outings.'' As in families, the youth leaders use these stories to support and teach values.

Successful groups are also extremely flexible, the researchers found. Leaders must be sufficiently attuned to the "unpredictable crises and demands'' that punctuate the lives of inner-city youths.

The leaders of these groups, dubbed "wizards'' by the authors (because they are accomplishing things many people believe can't be done), run full-service organizations. They are bankers and baby sitters. They run interference with social-service agencies. They worry about school and homework and who's dating whom. They may run a basketball league, but they're also concerned about the child's home life.

Teri, an 18-year-old African-American and one of the "hopefuls'' profiled in the book, lives in a public-housing project with her family in Lakeside. She joined Building Educational Skills for Teens because she wanted to belong to something positive. The BEST program, which offers academic support and counseling to young people in her neighborhood, is a beacon, Teri says, because "community services are all we have.''

Perhaps most important, the wizards provide a sense of security, a place where young people know someone is in charge whom they can trust. While in their care, the youths may avoid gang fights. They may literally and figuratively "duck the bullet,'' as one youth leader in the study says.

"Every one of these youth leaders has a story about a youth showing up in the middle of the night [at the leader's home] and needing a place to be,'' McLaughlin says.

To feel safe, Tito, a 17-year-old member of a Puerto Rican gang in Lakeside, joined the Y.M.C.A. Gang Alternatives and Intervention program, a community-service organization. What first drew him into a gang--the need for someone to "watch your back''--also attracted him to the program. Now, Tito paints over gang graffiti with murals, and is studying, with tutoring help from the center, for his General Educational Development diploma.

"Its important to have fun, but these [young people] are not in it for sheer recreation,'' McLaughlin observes.

"Some kids ... they really want to go to school. ... But their parents are hooked on drugs and that be bothering them when they be in school. They worry: What I'm gonna do if one day I come home from school and my mom is laying there OD'd on drugs; they's mind full of worries, so they jus' think why try.''
--Gang member turned youth worker

Few Expectations

The bitterness and disappointment these young people experience each day are reinforced by negative expectations from the community, school, and the media, the authors charge. "They hear and see themselves depicted as animals, derelicts, no-good, bad-ass kids who want only to rip off society,'' they write.

Television and newspapers, they say, simply chronicle the gloomy statistics: More than one-fifth of urban youths under age 18 are living in poverty, according to a 1992 U.S. Census Bureau report. One-quarter of urban teenagers report that gangs are present in their schools, and 10 percent of urban adolescents report having been robbed or assaulted at school, according to a 1992 U.S. Justice Department survey.

These figures tend to drown out the positive stories about inner-city youths, says Keisha, a teenager profiled in the book who lives in a predominantly Hispanic enclave of Big Valley.

She recalls a Fourth of July celebration a few years ago where hundreds of people were spilling out onto the sidewalks in front of a local tavern. The police arrived, Keisha recalls, wielding billy clubs and "marching like an army'' into the crowd of revelers.

"The media said it was a riot, but it wasn't, not until the police got here,'' Keisha says. "If I were a reporter, I would show them some of the good stuff that people be doin'.''

Many of the teenagers in the study reported feeling ostracized in school, where little that was taught seemed relevant to their lives outside the classroom.

"A heavy-duty gangbanger,'' or gang member, who used to be the "point man,'' or drug dealer, for his gang describes feeling "invisible'' in the classroom. "Teachers think 'cuz you're in a gang you're just wasting your time in school,'' he says in the book.

Although the researchers did not formally pursue the subject of education, every young person interviewed for the book was "highly critical'' of schools.

"When school was mentioned, it was almost always mentioned in negative terms,'' says McLaughlin, who considers herself "pro-school.'' Nevertheless, she contends that the teachers at inner-city schools who arrive at 8 A.M. and leave at 2 P.M. often have "no idea who these kids are.''

"Educators say, 'Who are these families? What are these neighborhoods?''' McLaughlin says . The researchers failed to find "a single example'' of positive institutional collaboration between schools and local youth activities in their five years of research, she says.

Wary of identifying inner-city schools as villains, McLaughlin believes the lack of involvement with these young people is likely related to the fact that teachers in these schools are "terribly undersupported.''

"It's not that we are trying to indict schools in the book,'' she says. "They simply aren't there'' for the young people they're intended to serve.

A Way Out

Some educators respond that blaming schools, society, and the media for youth membership in gangs is naive.

"There are people who believe that everything that comes out of human beings that is evil is a result of circumstances,'' says Edwin J. Delattre, the dean of the school of education at Boston University and the author of Character and Cops, a book about ethics in policing. "That's much too simple.''

Delattre also believes the book's assertion that two-thirds of urban youths are interested in a positive alternative to gangs is far too optimistic.

Most of these youths are "absolutely beyond hope,'' he says.

"There are gang members whose disposition is so settled and whose habits are so thoroughly established that they will not change,'' he adds.

Delattre also warns that these neighborhood organizations could unwittingly become "a front for criminal enterprises, duped and exploited by gang members.''

While he acknowledges that some active youth organizations are "genuinely helpful,'' he says that conclusion doesn't warrant an overhaul of general policy.

McLaughlin, naturally, disagrees. There simply aren't enough data to prove Delattre's assertion that youth groups aren't effective magnets for reform-minded gang members, she says. She does acknowledge, however, that there are too few positive, engaging resources for youths who want them.

Strolling beneath the pink archways of one of Stanford's Spanish-style buildings, McLaughlin says she personally believes that every young person caught up in criminal or gang activity wants a way out.

Moreover, while many believe these urban youths are beyond help, the results of McLaughlin's study convince her that they can be reclaimed through positive intervention.

Sounding more like missionaries than dispassionate social scientists, McLaughlin and Heath have already launched a small-scale lobbying effort. They are preaching their findings to foundation officers, politicians, reporters, "anyone who'll listen.'' McLaughlin hopes the book will serve as a guide to decisionmakers interested in developing and financing local projects.

The majority of youth groups funded by government or foundations are neither attractive nor advantageous to young people, McLaughlin believes. "The youths of U.S. inner cities need more realistic policies and funding from the establishment.''

She exhorts foundation officials and state and federal lawmakers to visit these neighborhoods and "get their hands dirty'' before they invest resources in programs.

However, she says, targeting dollars to effective youth organizations will not, on its own, improve the daily life of inner-city youths. McLaughlin believes nothing less than systemic social change can do that.

And education, she believes, can play a significant role in that. She and Heath are already collaborating on a companion book to Urban Sanctuaries titled Suitable Company, an analysis of what makes youth organizations meaningful learning environments.

School Collaboration

"Youths are really well positioned to be an ally of schools,'' McLaughlin says. The youth programs outlined in the book are oriented toward education and yet are "largely ignored'' by schools, she says.

The excessively bureaucratic nature of many schools impedes cooperation with outside groups, she says. In order to collaborate effectively, schools need to appreciate the connection between recreation and learning. And both community-based organizations and schools need to develop more effective channels of communications.

Back in her cluttered office, a photo of her 23-year-old son rests on a bookshelf bursting with binders filled with research, awards, and a few works of fiction. A World War II poster of "Rosie the Riveter'' proclaiming "We Can Do It'' adorns one wall.

The images of that "other world,'' so far from her comfortable academic existence, are still fresh in McLaughlin's mind. Her speech remains a mixture of researcher lingo and street jargon. She easily alternates such terms as "authentic assessment'' and "transformational learning'' with phrases like "dissin''' and "gangbanger.'' Indeed, language is paramount, she believes, to understanding this often misunderstood segment of the population.

McLaughlin's goal is to remain fluent.

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