John Calhoun is executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council, a non-governmental organization that works to prevent crime and build safer, more caring communities. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be US commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Family, and previous to that, was commissioner of Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, he founded and directed the Justice Resource Institute, which pioneered such programs as pre-trial diversion for youth, neighborhood mediation and sentencing panels, and community victim/witness programs.
Sarah: Why is it that so many young people seem to be getting into trouble?
John: I think it’s because kids today are so colossally, frighteningly alone – unconnected and unclaimed.
This really came home to me during a recent working visit to Detroit; I came back more frightened than after any visit I have made in over 25 years. It was not the personal danger that worried me, but the terrible aloneness of the children.
One of the few downtown institutions left standing to serve children is a Boys and Girls Club, which does a valiant job against great odds. Many of the children I spoke with didn’t know who would pick them up that night. When I showed the slightest attention, sitting down to talk to them about making a model plane, a dozen kids clustered around, waiting their turn just to talk.
These kids are already alone at age six or eight. They are not bonded to school, to community, sometimes not to family or each other. As a result, they don’t feel beholden to the people of their school or community. They can easily evolve into teens who shoot and kill over a girl friend, a collision in the hall, or a jacket.
Sarah: How would you say conditions for kids are different now than they were in the past?
John: Well, I think historically, even if families were in rough shape, there was always the neighborhood to fall back on. This is not just anecdotal; research has shown that indeed there is less crime in neighborhoods that are fairly cohesive. If I care about you and your kids, and that is reciprocated, all of the kids have mentors and role models.
There is a very dear black friend of mine, for instance, who grew up at the height of segregation. He would never, ever argue for a return of segregation, but when he was young, he had six or eight role models: the funeral director, the minister, the teacher, and the beautician. He said his parents both worked, and he didn’t see them much, so he was essentially raised by a community to which he felt responsible.
The other thing is that our culture has this crazy view of adolescence that stretches from 12 years old to 22. Not too long ago, kids in this age group would either be working on farms or they’d be apprentices.
Adolescents today find themselves in a tenuous situation. They’re not generally employable at a decent wage; they lack stable extended families and community support; and they’re increasingly isolated and reliant on peers. Teens in distressed communities face all these negative forces magnified.
What’s missing is any role for kids in the community. We look at kids as consumers, rather than as contributors. All our social policies are designed to lift up kids’ heads and dump stuff in. We don’t tell them, "We need you. You’re part of us."
Teens want to explore their community and to test their growing skills and abilities in the adult world. They need to interact with adults to mature.
Teens have a wonderful energy, freshness, and vigor. If we can tap these assets, we can enhance their self-esteem and help the community meet its needs.
Sarah: When young people get into things like drugs and gangs and so on, what needs are they meeting?
John: One thing is power. This is a pretty anonymous culture and these kids don’t feel like they have much control over anything. So you give them a gang and you give them a gun and they feel some control.
But I think more importantly, they’re looking for a sense of place and belonging. Gangs provide community, family, a role, money, excitement, adventure, and everything that a family or neighborhood would have provided. As well as – on the darker side – the potential of death. But the kids are willing to risk even that for that sense of belonging. Without a feeling of connection to family, community, or future, they have nothing to lose.
Sarah: It’s interesting that you emphasize connectedness, because the more research we did for this issue, the more we found that that sense of connectedness is key to the whole crime puzzle.
John: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s why you find these anomalies. You can find communities in the midst of high welfare, high crime, poor housing that are oases where there’s very little crime.
You’ll find two or three things in these oases: strong community cohesion, a lot of adult/kid interaction, and some connection – however tenuous – to the outside world, whether it’s by transportation or some tie with the power structure.
Sarah: You’ve talked about getting kids to look at themselves as contributing members of the community rather than as the recipients of services. What can kids contribute to a community?
John: We run a program called Youth As Resources, in which kids design projects around social issues they’re concerned about. They apply for small grants if they need to, and then they run the program. The results are off the charts.
All kinds of kids are involved, from delinquents to honor society students. They’ve tackled every issue about which society is concerned. We had a group of pregnant teens put on a play about what it means to be a teen parent. Delinquent kids went into high schools talking about what drug abuse had done to them.
The kids use whatever talent they have – if I’m a jock, I can coach younger kids; if I’m a talker, I can do mediation.
We’re even doing Youth As Resources work in correctional institutions. The kids are saying it’s the best program they’ve ever had because these kids had felt they didn’t have a thing that anybody wanted or needed.
Sarah: What kind of programs do you have inside correctional institutions?
John: A group of girls put together a video on violence and showed it in high schools. Kids in high school tend to think violence is sort of fun and romantic; these girls talked about how they’ve had friends who have been killed.
Other groups have done work with disabled people, and they absolutely loved it.
Some boys helped to build a playground, and they couldn’t believe these younger kids were running up to them and saying, thank you. For the first time, they felt that some people needed them!
I want to add one verb to the youth policy lexicon; I think we need to claim kids. We need to tell them, "You’ve got something that’s valuable, something to contribute. We need you."
Sarah: It sounds like part of what’s needed is the involvement of adults? Are people becoming more willing to get involved?
John: I think so. I have begun to see small communities we work with, which are extremely besieged by poverty and violence and guns, say, "Enough!"
That doesn’t mean that they should or can do it all. They can’t inoculate the children, they can’t build public housing. But they have set about, not just trying to stop crime, but rebuilding communities.
I think of crime prevention in concentric circles: you have to look at self-protection measures; then at building cohesive and caring families and neighborhoods; and then at government policies, like expanded day care, expanded Head Start, public service jobs, this sort of thing.
But crime prevention can’t just be seen as a question of personal safety. It you’re safe and I’m safe behind peepholes and bars, and society has collapsed around us, we’re really not safe. Crime prevention is absolutely a dual concept — which is to stop crime and build community. You just can’t do just one or the other.
The core city programs we’re involved in work on both together. They have no outcome goals, only process goals. We help citizens identify the problems they want to tackle and make sure that the solutions are within their grasp.
Central to all this is to give citizens a sense that their action can make a difference. If you just say, "Help us fight crime," or "Help us rebuild your community," you won’t get anywhere. You have to ask, "What are you most worried about? What do you think you can accomplish?"
Sarah: What are you finding most exciting or most hopeful in the work you’re doing?
John: I think there are two things in this madness that give me the most optimism. One is that we’re beginning to see some communities outlaw carrying handguns. Of course you also see a countervailing trend that promotes arming everyone, but at least there is much more willingness to grapple with the gun issue now.
The other thing that I find really very hopeful is that community building is now recognized as a legitimate – even a central – part of the public policy dialogue on crime prevention. Three or four years ago, crime prevention would mainly have been defined by what I would describe as target hardening strategies – advice to individuals about where to walk, what to do if someone tries to force you into a car – and we still need some of that.
We just finished a major project in Texas, working with the mayors and grassroots people in seven of the largest cities, and the law enforcement people in every one of those cities – every one – turned into youth and neighborhood advocates.
These law enforcement people were saying, "Hey, we can lock up half of the universe, but that’s not the answer." The report from the city of Arlington, Texas, says, we can say from our experience, you gotta’ go further upstream.
You’ll hear Janet Reno talking about it; Clinton’s talking about it; the whole Department of Justice’s discretionary spending for next year is community focussed. The whole paradigm has shifted toward building community cohesion.
Get Involved With Kids!
It’s fun and challenging, and adult involvement makes all the difference. Here are some ideas: