Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Kids are Alright"

The following is an editorial written by Toledo GROWs manager Michael Szuberla and published on the Toledo Free Press Blog, January 9, 2009. It serves as a summation of our work during 2008 and a contribution to the conversation in Toledo about handling these tough economic times.

The Kids are Alright. [misspelling and title thanks to the Who]
by Michael Szuberla

In ecology, we learn that a natural eco-system produces no pollution. Each element nourishes another and in the process nothing is wasted. In human settlements, however, waste is endemic. Pollution is a misplaced resource. Perhaps, human society mimics ecology — on a street corner, youth with nothing to do frequently pose a problem. But given the right opportunities, mentoring and resources these same youth will do positive things that will amaze you. I am reminded of this everyday I go to work.

It might take a child to raise a village.

In the past twelve months I have had the privilege of working with over one hundred youth through a partnership between Toledo GROWs and the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Division’s CITE program. With support from AmeriCorps and the United Way; CITE youth are paid to revitalize their neighborhoods through community gardens, in the process they learn marketable job skills.

Last year our youth were incredibly productive. I can write without hesitation that these young people are some of the most inspiring and intelligent people that I have worked with in my two decades of social service. Consider their accomplishments:

They built two greenhouses and four chicken coops. They grew tens of thousands of plants (which were distributed for free throughout Toledo). And they led the return of small livestock to Toledo.

In creating eight new community gardens they moved mountains of woodchips, compost and manure. They also supported over sixty existing community gardens.

They dug trenches and ran irrigation lines to provide easy access to water for senior citizen gardeners.

They built picnic tables, outdoor chessboards, kiosks, and tool sheds for several community gardens.

Following the installation of one new community garden in south Toledo - we praised our youth with words to this effect: “this morning when you woke up there were sixty-two community gardens in Toledo. Now, thanks to your good work, Toledo has sixty-three community gardens. Imagine if everyone in Toledo applied their skills towards the transformation of their City as you did.”

Toledo GROWs/CITE are not the only youth doing good work in the City. The Young Artists At Work (YAAW) program of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo completed an impressive array of art works last summer - you can check some of them out in the underground parking lot of the downtown main library or at the Ten Eyck community garden at Jefferson and 20th. The Community HeARTbeats program has similarly done inspired work throughout the City.

Despite the cool achievements by youth in 2008, I worry that we’re heading for a long hot summer in 2009. Closed City pools, steep cuts in the City’s Division of Recreation, and major staff reductions at the City’s Youth Commission may leave many youth feeling abandoned in the present while a steadily deteriorating economy might leave many youth feeling that their future will be a raw deal. Let’s be precise - for youth, in the immediate future our local economy is likely to get worse (not better). If Toledo is going to improve, it will have to engage and empower youth to transform it lot by lot. Youth, who have dismal prospects in the current economy, have tremendous potential to create social capital in neighborhoods and communities. To do so, we have to change the way we view our youth.

Toledo GROWs, CITE, YAAW and the Community HeARTbeats and other youth programs embody a new wave of youth-led community rebuilding. Youth are the most energetic, dynamic and creative members of our society - it would be a tragic error to not provide them with the tools to revitalize their City. I envision a Toledo renewed with the fresh energy of its youth supported by their elders. Such an effort will involve tree-planting, creation of community gardens/urban farms, widespread art projects, bioremediation, et cetera. Furthermore, our schools should utilize project-based learning and service learning to provide a solid foundation of experience to support abstract knowledge. I suspect that there is no more powerful learning experience than that of solving REAL problems in one’s own community.

Engaging our youth in a substantive way will not be easy (or cheap). Such a task will require coordinated effort among foundations, individuals, faith-based organizations, schools, and governmental bodies.

Fundamental to a youth-centered transformation is a shift away from thinking that views youth as clients or problems. Placing youth in a position to help rejuvenate their neighborhoods not only gives them a feeling of power; it connects them to their community. Daily, I witness youth experiencing a sense of power from learning to use tools to rebuild their neighborhoods — when this sort of power is absent some will turn to violence for a sense of empowerment.

Just after we completed our second greenhouse, a visitor observed some of the proud joyous youth that had built it and remarked “so that’s all takes: a challenging project, some tools and guidance. It’s kind of like the barn-raising of years past.”

Another new reality that Toledoans must grasp is that our tax base is no longer adequate to provide the comprehensive services that we have been accustomed to for many years. Toledo, like most cities in our region, will rise or fall with the efforts of its citizens. The new role of governments in post-industrial cities such as ours is to aid and augment the grass-roots efforts of citizens seeking to improve their communities. The shrinking tax-base does not have to spell the deterioration of the City - it does, however, call for changes in approaches. Take community gardens — in the USA it has been found that the average cost of creating a community garden is just a tenth that of creating a park of the same size. Such activities are extremely cheap compared to existing youth services. Tools, seeds, sunshine, supplies, mentors, and incentives can yield splendid results. Unlike client-based services, the infrastructure is minimal (and is often created by the participants). Such an activity is far cheaper than anything that needs to be housed, heated, air-conditioned, et cetera.

Such efforts won’t be free. But the cost of inaction (or maintenance of the status quo) will be staggering by comparison. Keep in mind that it costs $80000/year to incarcerate one juvenile. Investing in youth to build their stewardship and civic values will pay excellent dividends.

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