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The Youth Build Movement - Service as Public Work

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Today the language of "service" and "love" often cloaks other purposes. After 9/11 George Bush contrasted "a nation awakened to service and citizenship and compassion" with the axis of evil. "We value life," he declared. "The terrorists ruthlessly destroy it." He called on Americans to "become September 11th volunteers by making a commitment to service in our neighborhoods."

One wonders what assembled world leaders made of Pope Francis' pledge, at his installation on March 20, to "serve the poorest, the weakest, the least important" -- and his challenge to them to do likewise.

YouthBuild USA contrasts starkly with sentimental or cynical invocations of service. It uses unabashedly affective terms like "love" to describe its highly effective philosophy of working with low-income and minority young people for their educational and civic growth and development.

Key to YouthBuild's success is that it joins a philosophy of deep affection with equally deep belief in young people's potential for what we at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship call public work. It promotes "world-building," to use a related term of the late political theorist Hannah Arendt.

YouthBuild describes itself as a "movement to unleash the positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives." It began in 1978 when Dorothy Stoneman asked East Harlem teenagers, "How would you improve your community if you had adult support?" "We'd rebuild the houses," they replied. "We'd take empty buildings back from the drug dealers and eliminate crime."

Together they and Stoneman created the first YouthBuild program -- still operating -- and renovated the first YouthBuild building. Stoneman and Leroy Looper founded YouthBuild USA in 1990 to scale up YouthBuild as a proven way to "break the cycle of poverty."

With a federal YouthBuild program which has bipartisan support, operated by the Department of Labor, YouthBuild has spread widely. There are now 273 YouthBuild programs in the nation. Since 1994, more than 100,000 YouthBuild participants have built more than 20,000 units of affordable, increasingly green housing.

In YouthBuild low-income young people work toward the GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills. They participate in leadership development, help govern local programs, and engage in service activities and political advocacy in support of YouthBuild. A recent innovation is the YouthBuild post-secondary initiative which helps YouthBuild members to make transitions to college.

Evaluations show YouthBuild has remarkable impact in education, workforce preparation, crime prevention, leadership development and poverty reduction. YouthBuild programs lower recidivism rates for court involved youth by 40 percent. More than half of the enrollees get on track for education and employment. A study by CIRCLE researchers, Pathways into Leadership: A Study of YouthBuild Graduates,, found that while young people generally enter YouthBuild for practical reasons -- the desire get a GED or job skills -- it can have huge civic benefits.

Graduates are "exemplary civic leaders," it reports. "A significant number hold public office or are church leaders such as pastors. More than one third are professional educators or youth workers. Almost all are leaders in their families, workplaces, and communities."

Individual stories in the Huffington Post illustrate such changes. "During the time I was not in school, I fell into the subculture of the streets. I felt alienated from, had no sense of responsibility for, and did not care about the deteriorating conditions of my community," writes Lashon Amado. "My initial goals for myself in the program were to gain my GED and then seek a trade." YouthBuild staff challenged his expectations. They saw "potential and intelligence in me that I had been ignoring for most of my life," Amado writes.

"I gained a discipline," he says, "how to wake up early in the morning... how to stay committed to a task. I also developed professional skills, learned about networking, attended workshops on public speaking and leadership development, and [had] my first exposure to the college experience."

Amado now coordinates a YouthBuild leadership effort, Student VOICES, while going to college at UMass Boston.

Patrick Breton, graduate of YoutBuild Brockton, describes the community's "highly motivational and supportive atmosphere. In addition to the caring and committed staff, I was with like-minded peers."

YouthBuild creates what it calls "positive mini-communities of adults and youth committed to each other's success." As Pathways to Leadership observes, these contrast with other experiences. "In general, major institutions, from schools to law enforcement agencies, treat them as threats to themselves and their communities." Such institutions "offer, if anything, a combination of surveillance, remediating, discipline and punishment to try to alter their destructive tendencies." YouthBuild "treats them as potential civic leaders and invests in their leadership skills."

YouthBuild's philosophy is based on what can be called public love, with both personal and public dimensions. Stoneman lists key personal elements including family-like support and appreciation; care for young people's development; and inspiring and caring role models. "When young people walk into YouthBuild, we need to immediately surprise them with the level of respect they receive and the level of caring that each staff person shows. Our job [is] to offer so much respect and love that it awakens our students' capacity to care."

YouthBuild also stresses public elements such as "power for them over their immediate environment"; "firm and loving challenge to stop self-destructive behavior and negative attitudes"; "high standards and expectations"; "understanding of the proud and unique history of their peoples"; and "heightened awareness of the present day world and their important place in it."

Throughout, meaningful work is emphasized. Scott Emerick, YouthBuild's Vice President, describes the importance of "building something real." Participants "expand their thinking and develop habits of mind that transfer to classrooms and to careers."

Dorothy Stoneman adds, "Young people love producing something of value to their neighbors. Just today on Capital Hill, one student said to a legislator, 'It made me feel so good to see the light in the eyes of the homeowner on the day of key presentation. I knew I had done something that made a difference.'"

Stoneman adds, "I have heard variations on the quote hundreds of times."

YouthBuild holds lessons for all of education. Public work, affection, and respect are important for young people of all backgrounds. Moreover, the movement itself has immense potential for growth -- more than 2,000 different organizations have applied to the federal government to bring YouthBuild to their communities. This spring the DOL has capacity to fund only 75.

For an administration interested in innovative, cross-partisan approaches to addressing the nation's problems, championing the expansion of YouthBuild could have large payoffs.