In 1981, Youth Catalytics set out to improve the lives of vulnerable young people by lifting up the programs and professionals who work with them. Since then, the world has changed under our feet. Generally, those changes have been for the good. Sped by advances in technology, our social and biological sciences have matured, producing an enormous body of evidence about what actually works to move young people toward success. Government policy on youth has shaped and reshaped itself many times over, usually, if not always, arching toward progress. Predictably, funding for our programs has waxed and waned, at times threatening to weaken us, but never actually doing it.
Through all this, nine U.S. Presidential elections have come and gone. Five different administrations, with a sixth now to come. And we’re still here.
This is what’s also still here: Our unwavering commitment to the thousands of people who work tirelessly every day to build strong communities for our next generation.
In the 1970s, our field barely existed. Now it does, because we built it. And we’re not simply fumbling along, doing our best. We’re being effective. There’s incalculable power in that.
It’s easy to get discouraged. Political winds blow this way and that, and we know from long experience that they can blow hard, either propelling us forward or forcing us back a bit. We don’t know what’s going to happen this time around, but let’s look beyond any single moment in time to review our overall trajectory as a field.
In the 1970s, there were no shelters or services for homeless young people, and no public funding to support them. It took dogged effort and patience, but we changed that. Today a robust network of federally and state-funded services works every day to lift vulnerable young people out of poverty and give them a chance for a healthy and productive adulthood. (Yes, that network is still too small, and we acknowledge that. But it exists, and it’s not going away.)
In the 1980s, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. were shockingly high — the highest in the industrialized world. By 1990 the rate had climbed to a peak of 116 births per thousand. We recognized that having a baby too young was often catastrophic for parents and children alike, and we went to work. What happened? By 2011, the rate had fallen to 52 births per thousand, the lowest number in at least four decades.We tried hard, in lots of different ways, to move the needle for young people, and we succeeded.
In the 1990s, dropout rates among minority students in some high schools were well over 50%. Consider Hispanic teens, the group most likely to drop out. In 1991, 36% of Hispanic youth left school before graduating. Today, 11% do. Perfect? No. But much better. We said we wanted more for our young people, and we figured out how to get it. We won something real for them, something of lasting value, and everyone, not least society itself, is benefiting.
In the 1970s, our field barely existed. Now it does, because we built it. And we’re not simply fumbling along, doing our best. We’re being effective. There’s incalculable power in that, and we can’t be turned back.
So in times of discontent, remember this: We can make things better for youth. We have made things better. Balky systems and unpredictable funding cycles aren’t bigger than us; as a movement, we are bigger than them. We have survived and flourished in all seasons, and we will continue to do so.
~ The Youth Catalytics Team