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How To Save Black Youth? Not Through Numbers, But Through Relationships

In this new data driven society, I fear that in many attempts to track success with numbers, we often lose the qualitative aspects of building strong relationships with black youth.  We see more often business styled reforms being implemented in education systems that prefer to focus on the bottom line of efficiency rather than focusing on the communities, lives and struggles of the youth. I am not against data, but when a fetishism of “quantifying” replaces the relationships of trust that create substantive and transformative change, we in fact have a problem.

Kenneth Lopour said, “the lack of forethought plagues the data driven movement.” He becomes a breath of fresh air in a society that is obsessed with putting numerical values on the lives of children who are grappling for success in a broken system.

I want to be clear, evidenced based practice is a good thing. And using data to inform the decisions that we make is not in itself harmful. It is only when we put numbers before relationships and data before community building, that it can be a bit harmful for the development of young people. So what should the centrality of our energy be put into? In my humble opinion, I think youth development and social capital needs to be at the forefront of our thinking. When trying to cultivate young people we need to think beyond the classroom and into the very lives that youth live out.

Youth development seeks to create healthy, happy, and competent adults. It seek to build young persons “abilities and competencies by increasing participants’ exposure to supportive and empowering environments where activities create multiple opportunities for a range of skill-building and horizon-broadening experiences.”  This is the sort of intervention that one can imagine will impact the students most in under privileged neighborhoods.

The youth development goal is to keep all students engaged and create a safe space during and after school for students to organize, think critically, and have fun. I had the great fortune for working for one of the leading youth development organizations in the country. Mikva Challenge’s goal is to “develop the next generation of civic leaders, activists and policy-makers.” They do this by, “providing young people with opportunities to actively participate” in their schools and communities. An organization I am a part of on my campus also engages in youth development through artistic expression, mentorship, and an intentional conversation about social issues that impact our lives.

The majority of successful youth development programs offer guidance, leadership opportunities and additional support to students in need both academically, but also in the realm of social-behavioral development. Highlighting the voices and ideas of young people, and recognizing that black youth are fighting against institutions and policy based barriers rooted in inequality, will empower them even more to succeed in a system where the odds are against them.