Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood organizations in the lives and futures of Inner -City youth. Milbrey Mclaughlin, Merita A. Irby and Juliet Langman.
1994 Jossey Bass Inc.
Reviewed by Françoise Herrmann
This is a book about six exemplary community organizations and the sanctuary they provide for marginalized youth. Based on ethnographic research that included the youth as junior ethnographers, this is a book about what works; how and why it works. Most importantly, though, it is a book that is sympathetic and partial to its central subjects, the Hopefuls. Written for a wide audience that includes policy makers, funding agencies, educators and the youth themselves, this book is a heart warmer, written in a familiar spirit, where the voice of the Hopefuls soars vibrantly above the sad and cruel conditions of their plights.
There are eleven chapters in this book which successively introduce us to desperate conditions of marginalization (e.g.; Ducking real and figurative bullets); six Hopefuls; six Wizards; visions and their realizations; assistants to the Wizards; and the different kinds of wizadries needed to negotiate complex socio-economic relationships between community and program organization to ensure the continuity and sustenance of the programs. In short, this is a book that both captures and projects an ethics of positive belief seen as foundational in the struggle to give marginalized youth the chances that they have been hitherto denied.
All the youths are poor. And all of the youths have been cruelly betrayed: by their families ("My dad is a racist".; "So you think that you are better than me, that you need an education."); by their teachers ("The boys just have so many things up against'em... Most teachers expect the girls to be smart and not the boys, and so they put a lot more attention into the girls' learning than the boys. I can even remember my kindergarten teacher [telling] the boys 'You're nothin' but a gangbanger', and stuff like that..."; "They all let me sit there all day. They walk right past me". ); by the social services of their neighborhoods ("...Lashandra's door should be open, a lighted destination at the end of a dark hallway filled with the stench of urine and scuttling roaches. Broken light fixtures are seldom replaced in city-owned Francis Homes); and by self-perpetuating economic conditions ( "If the kids on the corner are making $500 and $600 a day, you have to replace that with something and not with nothing. They're not going to just take McDonald's jobs when they can make $600 on the streets. But [a job] making $7.20 an hour is [seen as] respectable. It's steady money that makes the difference." ), coupled with a criminal justificatory ideology ("You are just a little thug. You are never gonna do anything with your life."; 'tough kids' and 'poor white trash' ...never amount to anything.). To hear the Hopefuls is to understand the authors' choice of the term "Sanctuary" for the community organizations that these youths have turned to in their search for respect, dignity and a chance to "be somebody". And to read the words is to see the hope, the unshattered spirit of these youths, somehow deemed undeserving.
In this book we discover that the Urban Sanctuaries these youth belong to (a gymnastics team, a girl's scout troupe, the YMCA GAIN -Gang Alternatives and Intervention- program, Cooper House and the Teen Talk Troupe of the Boys and Girls Clubs, and BEST -Building Educational Strategies for Teens) function in a dual mode. They provide a new milieu in which the youth can find the language of trust, discipline, self-esteem, activity and care that they are seeking; and they also very often provide the youth with lasting respectable economic futures, both within the structure of the program (i.e.; when the youth, in turn, become tutors, aides and counselors) and beyond (i.e.; when job and scholarship opportunities are offered to and solicited for the youth).
Enter the Wizards (five males and one female), whose "know-how" (in contrast to "what" they do) in the form of five principles: love, vision, passion, commitment and mission drives all other factors that can account for a program's success. Whether "insiders" (role-models, heroes and heroines of the same culture as the youth) or "outsiders" (people who have earned the trust of the community),we are told that it is the Wizards that create Urban Sanctuaries (places of hope) and the same Wizards that draw those dismissed as "irredeemable" (3000 of them on the Gymnastics Team waiting list). It is in the Wizards then , and in the micro-social worlds that they create, that the desires of the cared-for can finally complete; turning around the negative and criminal dynamics of pathology and failure, receptive to the youths' true spirits. Whether marshaled into a strict discipline of physical activity; provided with a forum to discuss growing up female in the inner-city; organized into neighborhood clean-up teams; given secret access to athletic facilities; encouraged to role-play, to organize and participate in the Wacky Olympics, or to write and perform skits for a live peer audience, we discover time and time again how the authenticity, wisdom, beliefs and tireless energies of the Wizards-at-work are reciprocated with attention, effort and gang-like loyalty.
For, an analysis of the various dimensions of wizardry needed to negotiate and sustain such successful environments at the center of the communities they serve, chapters 6 through 11 provide analytical guidelines. Among these, we find an ability to transform historical program structures into modern ones that are appealing to late Twentieth Century youth (e.g.; Girls Scouts into Sisterhood); an acute ability to listen and respond to the ideas of youth; a deep, un-wavering and un-conditional belief in the youths' potential and promise (rather than any ascribed deficiencies) to do and be good citizens; a surrogate family function where Wizards and their assistants are willing to be like family members ("caring adults, helpful older siblings, concerned aunts, uncles or grandparents"); a "no-bullshit" attitude coupled with authenticity ("You can't be phony... These kids can see through you if you are really not genuine and really don't care about them. They can completely see through it" ); optimism where everyone believes they can and do make a difference; assistants to the wizards who are committed beyond 9 to 5 (at pauper salaries) and whose skills cannot be taught or really specified in any job description (e.g.; "I hired someone with a Ph.D. in the streets... He's out there to say 'Look, the Y has a program. Here's some viable choices for you. We can help some of you guys if you want the help"; "Everything! I am an educator, their friend, their adviser, their confidante. I mean anything! I take so many different roles for them"; "Those things people either have or they don't. Being around a person like Susie makes you enthusiastic"); robust political navigational skills for fundraising strategies that include the youth while aiming to change the communities perception of program recipients (e.g.; changing the perception that programs are 'for' the youth rather than to protect the community 'from' the youth; or making sure that the only public facility in the neighborhood is not the county jail); and the "mixed blessing" of volunteers without whose help ambitious programs cannot be carried out, but whose good intentions sometimes fall short of the programs' uncompromising ideals. Where each of these dimensions is contributing to the construction of environments that are both physically and psychologically safe (i.e.; Sanctuaries that sharply contrast with both the moral and physical desolation and chaos that surround the adolescents' lives).
This book is must read for anyone interested in Urban Youth and the conditions of their marginalization. It is also a must read for anyone that has doubted, even for one moment, that anything will ever change.
Missing from this beautiful book I believe, however, is explicit reference to a theory -at the very least- some pointers to a theory of adolescence. For the novice reader who may wonder what sets this particular population in a category of its own, knowledge of the authors' implicit choices would certainly provide some trusting frames and guidelines for a deeper understanding.
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