Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through “X!”

A standard pitch for at-risk youth empowerment grant proposals is simple: We’ll give youth access to X, and through their love of or learning about X they’ll become better students / scholars / workers / people. “X” can be any number of things: To name a few of the projects we’ve worked on over the years, X can be horseback riding, chess, job skills, academic skills, computer programming, music, outdoor activities, art, photography, or sports. Existing organizations of various sizes attempt to improve lives through X; one of the oldest approaches are police athletic leagues (PALs), which try to get kids to stay out of trouble by learning about and playing sports with cops.

Another example is classical music exposure, which sometimes includes playing an instrument. Various symphonies are engaged in this project by sponsoring youth orchestras or having their players perform for high school students who secretly likely aspire to be Lady Gaga or Kendrick Lamar, not learn to play the oboe.* Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Philharmonic conductor, is famously interested in the youth orchestras.

Still, in the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, these endeavors are not portrayed as admirable by Blair Tindall; in her rendition art may encourage drug use rather than dissuading students from it. Nonetheless, it also appears that a disproportionate number of highly paid programmers, engineers, and nerds more generally are involved with music, and correlation must imply causation, so we as a society think getting kids involved with music is a Good Thing. Which it probably is! We don’t want to seem overly cynical, and really, who is against music?

Sometimes the youth involved in a particular program have other issues (e.g., foster care, differently abled, cancer, etc.), and sometimes the target population is people with other kinds of life challenges. For example, ex-offenders are a common group, with prisoner re-entry programs becoming more popular in recent years. In addition, not any value can be substituted for “X;” we’ve yet to work on any programs that offer, say, pole-dancing lessons, such that through their earthly love of each other youth will stay out of other trouble.

Programs that bring “X” to youth all have in common taking kids or other targeted high-risk groups out of their normal environments and putting them in a different environment that exposes them to new ideas and skills. Do such efforts work? It’s hard to say: programs like these got started in the Progressive Era, with efforts like the Boy Scouts, PALs and different programs have been emphasized at different times and in different places. Their purposes have changed over time, depending on what society happens to be anxious about at a given moment.

Today, not that many people (with money) care about exposure to rural environments, such as 4H agriculture programs, and so forth. But they care a lot about job training and/or workforce development. They care about education, which they link to job training and/or workforce development. If you’ve got a program that involves education, job training, and/or workforce development, consider whether it takes kids, ex-offenders or other high-risk groups out of their normal environments. If it does, you’ve got an important, time-honored claim: that by giving access to X you’ll also improve Y.

And if you want to do more than claim the mantle of innovation—which as a baseline we recommend you all do—consider this pattern in human services and what, if anything, you might do to break it.

EDIT: In Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a mid-sized beautiful book, Cheryl Strayed describes how she ended up working as  “youth advocate” for girls with serious problems and seriously messed-up families. She writes:

I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand- and footholds then perhaps they would not get knocked up. If they glommed on to the beauty of art witnessed live—made before their very eyes—they would not become meth addicts and steal someone’s wallet and go to jail at the age of fifteen.

Instead, they’d grow up and get a job at Walmart.

Strayed would get this post. At least one of the girls, we learn by the end of the essay, succeeds. One senses the combination of desperation and hope Strayed feels. She writes too that the work was “the best job I ever had but I only stayed for one year. It was a heavy gig and I was a writer and so I left it for less emotionally taxing forms of employment so I could write.” How many of us can blame her? She gets the Sisyphean task, but unlike Sisyphus she occasionally gets to leave the rock at the top of the mountain.


* Whatever the merits of the oboe; we respect it as an instrument and do not wish to denigrate any oboists among our readership.

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