At Risk or Under Supported?

By Samantha Palmer,
Urban Alliance Program Coordinator
Urban Alliance Alumna

When I hear the phrase "students at risk," I cringe at the idea that society has labeled under-supported young people in such a way that has placed all of the responsibility on the young people. More importantly, society rarely completes this phrase, giving youth developers the tedious, yet very rewarding task of identifying the needs of young people and moving forward to meet these needs. Most youth development organizations are torn between identifying the services they want to provide for young people, and understanding the needs of young people they want to serve.

Andrew Plepler founded Urban Alliance in 1996 because a DC High School student was brave enough to identify one of his needs--a job. When that student boldly requested for Andrew to give him a job, Andrew did him one better and gave that student plus five of his friends paid internships. This is an example of the most important factor that helps youth organizations to become successful--the act of hearing and adhering to the needs of young people. There's no better group of people that knows what adolescents are in need of other than the adolescents themselves. Is it possible that young people are "at risk" of being under-supported by youth organizations who claim to be meeting the needs of the youth in their community? Who's really putting the young people at risk?

If you asked any high school senior what they need to be successful, you'd probably be bombarded with the same answer from the majority of them--money. Young people, like the rest of us, want money. At Urban Alliance, students are granted their desire of money tied to a meaningful internship experience they most likely wouldn't have obtained unless connected with such an organization. While most inner city youth are finding job experience from their local grocery stores, shoe stores, sandwich shops and illegal street activities, only approximately one-hundred and fifty of Washington, D.C.'s inner city youth are given full time internship experience and post-high school planning support outside of their school walls. This poses a problem for the future generation of professionals, as many of today's young people are faced with cover letter and resume writing difficulties, a lack of interview skills, inadequate hard and soft skills, and probably most importantly, the lack of support from a caring mentor. While most young people want to be a part of an after school organization or mentoring program, they don't feel that their needs are met by the adults around them. Consequently, we lose our young people to gangs, illegal activities, violence or the grave. Who's really putting the young people at risk?

So there you have it. A list of problems with no solutions. You may be wondering, "how can I improve my organization?" I ask of every brave soldier (also known as youth developer) to seek the needs of young people by speaking with young people. Allow them to have a voice in your organization before deciding on a list of services to provide for them that they'll never participate in or benefit from. When you know the needs of young people you serve, the rest of the work is simple. The next step is acknowledging the young peoples' strengths. Knowing the strengths of young people will allow you to stop wasting time on planning lessons and activities around something they're already good at. Utilize these strengths to make your program stronger. Allow the best writer in the group to type up the agenda. Ask the early birds in the program to pass out activity materials. Even more challenging, find the strength of the guy in the back of the classroom and utilize his talent. He'll never forget that you took interest in him.

And lastly, build your program around all that you've learned. Understanding the needs, utilizing the strengths and then building the agenda of the organization is the recipe for a successful youth organization. Young people want to be heard and understood, but also given the resources they need to stop being labeled "at risk". Let's remove labels and start developing the young people of our community.

Should you wish to contribute to Urban Alliance through the JobRaising Challenge, please visit our Crowdrise page at the following address: