12/12/2011 04:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

Giving Teens a Place in Our Community

In an unexpected move, I have to give Newt Gingrich credit. His status as a lead contender for the Republican nomination for president has drawn a wave of attention to his recent comments about poor children lacking a work ethic. I disagree with Gingrich, as do some District teens who live -- and work -- in Congress Heights, one of the "really poor neighborhoods" he might have been envisioning. But I have to give him credit for starting a discussion about teenagers' place in our communities.

At Children's Law Center, we meet teens every day who are in crisis -- suicidal, homeless, out-of-control. I believe these young people are twice victims: victims of extreme poverty, untreated mental illness and violent family life, as well as victims of a society which is at best ambivalent about adolescence. Being a teenager today -- no matter your race or wealth -- is confusing. On one hand, we know that it is developmentally appropriate and healthy for teens to seek new challenges and try on different personalities. On the other, we don't offer them enough opportunities to be relevant in their families and their communities.

In America's past, if young adults weren't already heading their own households, they were critically important aides to their parents and society as a whole. Teens plowed fields literally to put food on the table. But things are different today. Inside the home, where teens might help by taking care of their young siblings while parents work, child welfare laws prevent some of these arrangements. Out in the neighborhoods teens seem to be the last chosen for part-time jobs or meaningful volunteer opportunities, especially during this era of recession.

Upper middle class teens are kept busy with hours of homework, sports and music lessons. Often their biggest stress comes from fitting all their activities into one day; they have too many places to be. Poor teens face the opposite problem -- they have no safe places to go. There are few after-school activities and even fewer part-time jobs; hardly any recreation centers are open evenings and weekends. Walking to school and even in the halls between classes can be fraught with danger.

Gingrich's campaign sound bite can be more than a flash in the pan: it can be the spark we need to start a conversation about how to give teens their rightful place in our community. As individuals we must commit to being positive role models for the young adults in our midst; as a city we must commit to providing them the resources they need to grow into positive role models themselves. Some days they need to be children -- to socialize with their peers at fun, community-sponsored programs in safe places. Other days they need to explore the adult world through internships or jobs and create their own place in the community. As they achieve this balance, they will make their neighborhoods richer in every sense of the word.