A Quarter Century of Positive Youth Development… Sort Of.
by JT (Jerry) Fest
Twenty-five years ago yesterday, January 12th, 1987, the first four of hundreds of future residents moved into Bridge House; at the time one of only seven demonstration projects for federal Transitional Living Programs for older homeless youth. The success of the program contributed to funding for future TLP’s around the nation, and today Bridge House is the only one of the original seven TLP’s still in operation, making it the oldest continuously funded federal TLP in the country.
Bridge House is considered one of the earliest programs to be based on the principles of Positive Youth Development (PYD), but here’s an interesting fact. In 1987, PYD as a codified best practice did not exist. As the principles and practices of PYD were articulated, it became clear that the design of Bridge House incorporated PYD principles and implemented PYD practices. But if PYD was not known at the time that Bridge House was established, then while it may be accurate to say that the program was designed along lines that were compatible with PYD, it cannot be said that Bridge House was based on PYD. That being the case, it may be interesting to some to learn what the program was based on. As I was director of the program at that time, I am able to answer that question for you.
The original grant that we received here in Portland was a demonstration grant and, as such, I wanted to try something new. After all, it’s not as though housing programs didn’t exist for homeless youth in the ‘80’s … but they weren’t demonstrating much success. While I have long since lost the studies from that time, I remember that the success rate for homeless youth going through housing programs was about 30% back then. Equally concerning was that the success rate for youth exiting street life without any program involvement at all was also about 30%, which was leading some to question whether or not programs were really helping. When the Bridge House demonstration showed a 70% successful rate of transition, people began to take notice, and our success contributed to a focus on PYD. But, again, the program preceded what is now known as PYD, so on what was it based?
In looking for a model to demonstrate I exhausted all existing approaches to housing and transitional living for homeless youth. Replicating the 30% success rate was not our goal; we wanted to find the most effective way to work with this population. When I couldn’t find anything new or promising within the existing approaches to homeless youth, I began to explore other fields. It was in the field of education that I found an approach to emulate when I came across a book called “Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing” by Alexander Sutherland (A.S.) Neill (originally published in 1960, an expanded and revised version is now available as “ Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood.”).
Summerhill was a radical new concept in education. Instead of teachers as authoritarians and students as passive recipients of knowledge, Summerhill envisioned adults and young people as co-participants in an educational environment, each with responsibilities to that environment. The basic principles were defined in the forward to the book by sociologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: nourish the whole child’s potential to love life intellectually, as well as emotionally; have him educated commensurate with his capacity, sans dogmatic disciplining; allow him to be free, but without encroaching on anyone; have the teachers maintain a transparency; encourage security in the pupil without resorting to submission and domination tactics, or utilizing guilt in one’s methods; and advocate a theology of human freedom, not sinful suppression. Sounds a lot like Positive Youth Development, doesn’t it? But, pre-dating Positive Youth Development, these principles were referred to as “self-government,” which is why Bridge House was not defined as a PYD model based on development, but as a self-government model based on freedom.
Say the word “freedom” in reference to youth programs and watch the blood drain from many adult’s faces as they envision young people running wild in the streets and terrorizing program staff. Freedom, however, is not license; as Neill himself points out in a later work titled, appropriately enough, Freedom -- Not License, which you can read HERE in its entirety (be aware that this was written in the mid 1960's; some of his commentary on social issues makes for an interesting time capsule). Neill describes it this way:
“It is this distinction between freedom and license that many parents cannot grasp. In the disciplined home, the children have no rights. In the spoiled home, they have all the rights. The proper home is one in which children and adults have equal rights.”
What many fail to understand is that there are no rights without responsibilities. A right without a responsibility is not a right at all; it is an entitlement … and people do not grow, learn, and develop from entitlements. In application to a program for homeless youth, I would paraphrase Neill’s statement and say that it is the distinction between freedom and license that many youth programs cannot grasp. In a structured program, young people have responsibilities with few rights. In an enabling program, young people have rights with few responsibilities. The proper program is one in which young people and adults each have rights and responsibilities, and are held accountable to their actions.
At Bridge House the accountability piece is accomplished through an evaluation system, but that is way beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that Bridge House is a living example that freedom, when properly understood and applied, works … and on this occasion I would like to publically thank each and every staff and resident who has helped to prove that over this past quarter century.
So, with appreciation to A.S. Neill for his inspiration, The Youth Networker wishes Bridge House a happy birthday. While it is my hope that someday programs like you are no longer needed, may you remain open until that day.
This article expresses the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the position or view of the InterNetwork for Youth. For more information about the InterNetwork for Youth, contact author and consultant JT Fest HERE.