Guest Commentary: Let’s Do More To Connect With Youth

Guest Commentary: Let’s Do More To Connect With Youth

Young people who aren't connected to school or work, writes guest columnist Tiziana Dearing, are at higher risk for a host of ills. (Jesse Costa/WBUR/File)

Young people who aren’t connected to school or work, writes guest columnist Tiziana Dearing, are at higher risk for a host of ills. (Jesse Costa/WBUR/File)

By Tiziana Dearing

In the world of working with young people, there’s a concept called “disconnected youth.” That means young people, ages 16-24, who are neither working nor in school. As you can imagine, disconnection is a bad thing. It can lead to higher rates of poverty, poor health outcomes, crime and more.

As part of a new presidential issues project,  the Boston-area Opportunity Nation has been talking in social media about a report it commissioned this summer on disconnected youth. It showed alarming rates of disconnection at the national level, but relatively good numbers for Greater Boston – depending on who you are.

The report found that more than 5 million youth in America are disconnected. That’s “larger than the population of thirty US states,” and it cost the country $27 billion in 2013 alone.

Not so for Greater Boston. “Boston-Cambridge-Newton” ranked as the third “best performing metro area,” out of 100 for disconnected youth, and ranked No. 1 in keeping black youth connected.

On the other hand, black youth were still more disconnected than white youth. Further, the rate of disconnection for Latino youth came in at about seven points higher than the national average across races and almost eight points higher than for black male youth in Greater Boston.

That Boston is doing so well means we have the capacity to do even better. Given that we’re still doing worse for our kids of color, that fact should motivate us. The right investments could leverage our strengths to drive better parity and even less disconnection among our youth of color.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Greater Boston has great building blocks. Our relatively high-performing schools, low unemployment rate, high rates of social mobility and heavy concentration of nonprofit services have a measurable, positive impact on how our youth develop. We also have a history of a consistent, visible commitment to summer jobs for kids – even if we can never seem to create enough of them.  Research shows that those jobs can affect a young person’s outcomes later in life.

Still, Greater Boston has sharp economic and racial isolation – and those issues intersect. In Boston itself, for example, Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan have the highest concentrations of African Americans; they also hold the city’s lowest-income zip codes.  Nearby, Lawrence is about 60 percent Latino, and it ranks in the top five lowest-income cities in the Commonwealth.

In the same vein, our urban school districts under-perform compared to our suburban educational powerhouses. Our urban school districts also are lower-income and have more students of color.  Plus, that low unemployment rate we have? It varies by race. According to a report by The Boston Foundation: “As of 2010 when the city-wide rate was 8.6%, the unemployment rate for white, non-Latino Bostonians 16 years and older was 6.5% compared to 12% among Asians, 21% among Latinos and 24% among African American Bostonians 16 years and older.”

Knowing all this, what can we do to take what’s good and make it good for all of our kids?

First, we should continue to invest for quality across our urban schools. Seeing the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester win $100,000 from EdVestors last month as the most improved turnaround school is a great start, and a great accomplishment. A lot went into supporting the Burke and its talented leadership. Those investments can pay off. Let’s make more of them.

Second, we can embrace more fully the “two-generation” model. Connected families help produce connected kids. Adult education, language supports, new jobs through creative sources like small-scale urban manufacturing, neighborhood investment … these are things we know make a difference in kids’ lives by helping the adults in their lives. If we really want to be great, we should double down on these investments, consistently, in communities of color.

Third, we have to address the role that trauma plays in the lives of urban kids. We need better mental health support within schools themselves – where we want young people spending their time — and constant, unwavering support for our vibrant nonprofits working with at-risk and proven-risk youth, from Roca in Chelsea, to InnerCity Weightlifting and Friends of the Children in Boston, to UTEC in Lowell and dozens of others in between.

These investments don’t cover everything, but they’re a good start. The truth is, all kids are our kids. Until every young person in Greater Boston can see promise in staying in school, and knows a viable living lies on the other side, we aren’t done.

Tiziana Dearing is an associate professor in the Boston College School of Social Work,  a former CEO of anti-poverty organizations and a member of WBUR’s Executive Advisory Council.