The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

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“I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all,” a juvenile murderer said to me when I served as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts.  This frightening statement throws into sharp relief the fundamental need shared by all of us, namely that we must be seen as important in someone’s eyes, claimed, “beloved.”

Kids disconnected from a relationship with a caring adult – from family, school and a promising future – will be both deeply troubled and oftentimes a source of trouble.  Many “disconnected” kids are desperate – sometimes dying for a relationship.  If a positive adult doesn’t show up, someone else will, including the local gang honcho – someone who will be there 24/7 without fail, who will make an iron pledge to stand with a lonely, angry kid no matter what.  The perception that relationships are the “soft stuff” of crime prevention effectively cedes the playing field to negative role models who know better.

Relationships the soft stuff?  Let’s be honest: anyone who has raised, taught, or worked with teens knows this is the brutally hard stuff that challenges the core of who we are.  And the “soft stuff” is even harder with deeply-wounded youth who ache for relationships, but who will often keep you at arm’s length, fearing that you, as everyone else in their lives, will, when you get close, see them as garbage and reject them.

Simplistic?  Fatuous?  Try it.  Try going into the heart of darkness, try connecting to a tough kid.  My true heroes are the connectors, the confidence builders: parents who parent, mentors who mentor, teachers who don’t give up, streetworkers trying to forge relationships with kids on the corner at midnight, beat cops who attend a football game to let a tough kid know that someone is watching, caring.  In a broken, atomized world, these are the people who say, “I love you.  I will not leave you.”

Yes, we need the best, most proven programs, programs I’ve spent my life helping to design and often run: parental support, early childhood education, mentoring, afterschool programs, community development, restitution, and more. But our often-laudable program work sometimes walks right by or dismisses the most fundamental of human needs in its emphasis on skill-building.  The relational may well precede the transmission of cognitive skills.  If I’ve got an education, some marketable skills, I might have a chance, but that chance will be greatly enhanced if I’ve got someone in my corner, or if I am responsible for someone.

Backed by research, the “soft stuff” is beginning to seep into policy and practice.  The City of Minneapolis, one of ten cities in the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, an initiative similar to NLC’s 13 California City Gang Prevention Network, rests its comprehensive violence prevention efforts on four foundational goals, the first of which is relational, namely, “Connect every youth with a trusted adult.”

The mission of Community Renewal International (CRI), a nonprofit organization in Shreveport, LA, pledges to “bring together caring partners to restore the foundation of safe and caring communities, making our world a home where every single child is safe and loved.” As part of its mission, CRI builds “Friendship Houses” in the highest crime areas of the city.  Staffed by couples who live in the Houses, the approach is structured around a system of intentional, caring relationships that undergird programs addressing important needs, such as education, safety and work.  The Shreveport Police Department reports dramatic reductions in crime, 20 percent and more, in target areas.

In a special mentoring program targeting at-risk youth, Big Brothers Big Sisters in Philadelphia reports significant gains in confidence, higher aspirations, more avoidance of risky behaviors and increased educational success.

Between 1995 and 1998, Linda A. Teplin, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, interviewed 1,800 Chicago youth serving time in detention.  At some point, more than 80 percent had belonged to a gang, and 70 percent of the men had used a firearm. On November 4, The New York Times reported on Teplin’s results after roughly 15 years of tracking.  Many have been shot, many have been killed, but those who “made it” did so for surprising reasons.  Personal transformations “often have little to do with the promises of politicians or the cyclical crackdowns by law enforcement.  Instead they are often prompted by less tangible forces: the support of a parent, the insistence of a girlfriend, the encouragement of a priest or pastor, the mobilization of a community, the birth of a child.”

We must aggressively continue our comprehensive work that blends prevention (family support, early childhood education), intervention (education, job training), enforcement and reentry (work with offenders returning from prison).  But throughout, relationship-building must be an essential part of our portfolio.  My good friend Dr. Peter Ellis, Director of Community Crime Prevention Associates, said it best in his letter to me last month: “Our 22 years of experience in working with high-risk youth indicates that relationships formed are a key indicator of success in turning these youth around…It all starts with a relationship and love.”