Politics / We The People

Mentors, Grassroots Leaders Urged to Counter ‘Crisis of Belonging’ Among Youth

youth-mentorYoung people have a “crisis of belonging” that can be remedied by responsible adults who can act as mentors and other supports, speakers at a Heritage Foundation event said.

“The only thing worse than death is to wander through life without content and purpose,” Robert L. Woodson, founder and president of the Woodson Center, said Tuesday during the event at the think tank’s Capitol Hill headquarters.

“A lot of young people who were born into these very challenging communities … lose a sense of who they are, and it’s up to us to provide a substitute,” Woodson said at the event, called “Overcoming the Crisis of Belonging Among Today’s Youth—What It Takes.”

The Woodson Center, based in Washington, D.C., supports community leaders working for change in their neighborhoods.

“Grassroots leaders are like antibodies in the human body,” Woodson said.

The challenge, he said, is nurturing young people who are in need of mentorship in an effort to rebuild communities.

Heritage presented the panel discussion as an effort to improve dialogue about how community leaders may address the detachment of some youth following the mass murder Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, committed by a 19-year-old with a rifle.

Dawn Barnett is co-executive director of the Milwaukee-based Running Rebels Community Organization, a group designed to mentor and spur youth to success.

Barnett said her husband Victor, who founded the organization in 1980, did so because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people he saw joining gangs.

“He saw that gangs were starting to come into Milwaukee in 1980 and if there was nothing positive for the young people to engage in, they were being recruited by the gang leaders at that time,”  Barnett said. “So he just took it upon himself and said, ‘I am going to do something about that.’”

Running Rebels, which now has a staff of over 120 and became a nonprofit in 1996, started in a little park where Victor Barnett would go to play basketball “as a tool to engage young people.”

“There was a gang that was about 100 feet away that he actually had to approach and get permission to engage the youth at that park,” Dawn Barnett said. “They gave him that permission; they actually stated that they wanted something different for the young people that they personally knew. So he used his personal relationships to do that.”

Barnett said she believes local community leaders are the cure needed to help troubled youth:

So we started interfacing with the correctional system, we got our first contract working directly with them. And I think Milwaukee County liked the idea of a grassroots organization utilizing its own people from its own community as the remedy, or as its own internal medicine for the youth who were in need of healing.

Being a mentor and reaching troubled youth goes deeper than showing up to a scheduled mentor meeting, she said.

“It’s not just about working with the youth, it’s about them making sure we are caring for the caretakers, and making sure that [the youth] are healthy enough, and that they have the support that they need so they can give everything that they have. So it is a never-ending mentoring cycle,” she said.

Woodson said he believes the same.

“Children need people who are available for them 24/7 … they want their cellphone numbers, and [to know] they can depend on them, and that is where the cultural ZIP code trust comes in,” Woodson said.

He also stressed the importance of mentors remaining present to young people throughout their growing years.

“The kids know that [mentors] have made a lifetime commitment to them, that if you commit yourself to peace, we will commit the rest of our lives to you,” Woodson said.

Christine Kim, a policy analyst for the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, said science often focuses on data and misses the importance of personal, ongoing, day-to-day interaction.

“There are a lot of lessons researchers can learn, and the first step is just kind of being in the communities, not just delivering a survey once in awhile, but sustained time,” Kim said.

From - The Daily Signal - by Rachel del Guidice

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