How many times have you witnessed a young person throw away their life or freedom over the concept of disrespect? Once, twice, too many times to feel comfortable reading this article? So what do you think young people will do to their educational opportunities when they are so called “disrespected” in the classroom? Drop-out!
Like other youth service workers, I have witnessed many young adults throw away educational opportunities because, in their reality, the institutions that were entrusted to help them build self-esteem, actually tore it apart.
Despite the fanfare around the drop-out crisis, I am sure no one will want to talk about this issue – how our educational and workforce systems disrespects the cultural capital of young adults. In fact, in some schools, a young person’s cultural capital is visibly attacked: Hats are burned, shirts are banned, and music, well, that’s another story.
Former Harvard Professor Pedro Noguera explains the dilemma this way:”It is imperative that efforts to help black youth be guided by ongoing attempts at understanding the cultural forms they produce, and the ways in which they respond and adapt to their social and cultural environment. Without such an understanding, efforts to influence the attitude and behaviors of African-American males will most likely fail to capture their imagination and be ignored.”
And being ignored they are. A recent report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reported that the national drop-out rate stands at around 33%. For inner city, poor black and Latino youth, it stands at around 50%. With 50% of urban youth failing to graduate from high school, we need to look past hip- hop and parents as the culprits. It is important to understand that being youth culturally competent isn’t the same as being “multi-cultural.” Youth cultural competence is about consciously and strategically using positive peer pressure, youth involvement and youth popular culture to produce positive outcomes for youth. While many schools are willing to focus on the fact that smaller schools, better paid teachers and smaller class sizes will help improve student achievement, very few acknowledge the role that YCC can play in increasing student engagement, and consequently, the standards that schools are so blindingly pursuing.
Youth Cultural Competence (YCC) is not a one-day workshop,; rather YCC is a strategic and measurable effort to increase a schools ability to relate to youth through two of its greatest resources: youth involvement and positive peer influence. Youth Cultural Competence is a revolution in empowering youth programs because it organizes programs to look at their most valuable asset – youth. YCC is not a program; YCC is an entirely new method for connecting with youth, utilizing youth in the quest to produce educational gains for students and schools alike. In our work around the country, we are witness to a number of programs that want youth cultural competence without placing the true effort and resources behind making YCC possible.
Young adults connect to adults who respect their youth culture. Rhodes scholar Jay MacLeod suggests in his book, “Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood,” that those who work with youth “need not have a black belt in karate, place a premium on machismo, swear in class, or have working-class roots like most students. However, they must be prepared to validate the identities that their students have taken on as part of growing up.”
How do schools validate the identities of youth with whom they work? The answer is “most don’t.” Young adults identify themselves as skaters, rappers, hustlers, and krumpers quicker than they claim allegiance to their Italian, African or Latino roots. Most youth can tell you more about Method Man than Marcus Garvey. Yet, schools still throw ethnic food nights and ignore the importance of events that celebrate the diversity of interests among the youth they serve.
Most civil rights groups would demand diversity training for a school system run by whites for African American students, especially if there was not one African American on faculty, not one thing about the African American experience in the curriculum, and not one African American hero and shero on the wall. Yet, everyday we visit schools where there is not one young person on staff; nothing about the “youth cultural” experience in the curriculum; and not one youth hero and shero on the wall. To some degree, can we say that schools need some diversity training?
In B.C. Howard’s book “In Learning to Persist, Persisting to Learn,” he writes, “Many black youth develop negative attitudes and behavior patterns regarding education when schools fail to affirm the values and norms of their culture. In fact, when black youth sense disapproval of their style of academic assertiveness, their energy might be channeled into aggressiveness against the academic environment.” And this form of academic assertiveness is very clearly displayed in their choice to “drop -out.”
A youth culturally competent education system is the answer. We must learn ways to validate the identities that students have taken on as part of growing up and use those identifies to promote the importance of education and work. We must look past the baggy pants and colored hair and connect with our children based on their interests, ideas, , aspirations and cultural capital. Educators who marginalize youth culture, confirm everything that youth culture rages against.
Part Two: Ten Ways Schools Disrespect Youth: Coming Next Issue