Youth, Social Justice, and Communities: Toward a Theory of Urban Youth Policy

Article excerpt

OVER THE PAST DECADE, URBAN COMMUNITIES HAVE EXPERIENCED UNPRECEDENTED social, economic, and political transformation. Global capitalism has contributed to the exodus of jobs, higher levels of inequality, and the marginalization of the urban poor. Urban youth have been particularly affected by this transformation and the concomitant social and economic conditions. The failure of so many urban school districts to prepare young people academically, the absence of early-childhood education, and the removal of after-school opportunities have combined with a growing fear of crime to shape a national consciousness that is complacent to the injustices that negatively affect urban communities and the youth who live in them.

Although policymakers express concern about the future of young people, few have actually taken steps to address the economic, political, and social conditions that shape young people's lives. This is particularly true in working-class communities of color, where punitive public policies exacerbate rather than ameliorate community problems. The failure of current policy to address important quality-of-life issues for youth of color remains a substantial barrier to their full civic participation, educational achievement, and healthy adulthood (Hart and Atkins, 2002). Researchers who study urban youth issues, and who have a grounded knowledge of the conditions they negotiate, generally have been unable to exert effective influence over relevant public policy; thus, the various ways in which young people of color respond to coercive policies, ineffective institutional practices, and bleak economic conditions in their communities have gone unnoticed.

In this article, we discuss five vital points that will contribute to the advancement of theory and policymaking for youth in urban communities. First, we argue that the current wave of policy directed at youth renders them second-class citizens who are prevented from full democratic participation. Second, we offer a critique of existing conceptual frameworks for youth development, which we call the problem-driven and the possibility-driven approaches. The problem-driven approach treats urban youth as threats to civil society, while the possibility-driven perspective views young people as passive consumers of civic life. Both frameworks obscure more than they explain youth's experiences in society. Third, we contend that urban youth behaviors should be conceptualized within the political economy of urban communities. The contemporary urban context consists of political, economic, and social conditions--urban decay, economic deprivation, health care deficiencies, racism, police harassment, and educational demise--that severely limit the full civic participation of urban youth. Urban youth's actions cannot be understood in isolation from these factors. Fourth, we discuss how an understanding of the political economy and of specific forms of social capital in community settings can illuminate an alternative, social justice framework that emphasizes young people's potential to play a vital role in social and community problem solving. Fifth, we explore critical factors in urban youth's social activism by reviewing examples of young people's collective capacity to change coercive and debilitating public policy. These examples highlight how young people succeed in building social capital in their communities in ways that resist and transform oppressive policies and institutional practices in their schools and communities.

This five-point discussion offers a comprehensive analysis of the social and economic conditions that impede young people's healthy development and outlines the major patterns of institutional failure to address these conditions. Furthermore, our proposed framework for social justice youth policy supports community-based social capital for young people and their collective ability to effect social change in their schools and communities. …

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