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Friday, October 17, 2008


What does it take to break the cycle of people feeling such little hope that they repeat the behaviors that perpetuate the stereotypes of the inner city? Why is it that a kid that is given every opportunity to be loved, educated, cared for, and build a future would toss all of it aside to commit crimes against those who try to help them? This is not a case of being incorrigible. This is not a case of being dumb or foolish. This is a case of hopelessness; of feeling so sure that his or her life will not change, that there is no point in trying. This is a case of not even realizing that the baggage they carry with them is weighing them down. They could drop it and literally walk to safety, but they don't. There is an article I just used in a conference presentation called "dropping your tools." It states that those that fight wildfires in forests would sometimes die because they could not run from the fire fast enough to the safety zone. The reason is that they did not drop their tools and lighten their load, instead, trying to run to safety with 50 pounds of equipment. Because they could not drop their tools, they died. It wasn't that they tried and could not, it is that they didn't even realize that dropping the tools was an option - they were so habituated to being with their gear - that it was part of them.

I believe this is what keeps young people in the urban core from breaking their cycles and running to safety. Their environment is so much a part of them, they cannot drop their gear and save themselves. Even when someone is telling them to do so and it will save them. They don't. The article I was using talked about how a supervisor would yell to the firefighter, "drop the gear" and then run to that person and grab the gear. But then the supervisor would try to take the gear with them or would look to carefully set the tools aside - as if that gear was part of them and could not be discarded. I think that is part of what goes on with the kids I know. To have every opportunity thrust at them and to ignore it because they cannot drop their gear. It is not that they choose consciously, it is because they believe that it is who they are and it is necessary to survive. A fireman survives if he has his gear - without it, he could die. The irony is that sometimes he has to drop it to save himself and he doesn't see that. Kids that lie, steal, cheat and reject opportunities are merely in the mode they see as real. They cannot discern that dropping that gear will save their life.

It makes sense now that kids that go to "better" schools have difficulty in the transition - changing the place does not mean they will change their baggage. Kids that have programs and activities will continue to engage in questionable or illegal behavior - one does not affect the other. Our logic towards these kids is that they just haven't been given opportunity - and once so given, they will change. The firefighters didn't and died. These kids won't and will "die" figuratively and, yes, some will literally die.

The firefighters changed their methods to consciously adopt new patterns that would save lives. Part of it was to create new safety zone specifications so they would be able to exit to safety more quickly. Part of it was to have one person in charge of monitoring conditions to give more lead time for withdrawal from the danger zone. What are we going to do to consciously reshape the patterns for these kids. No child left behind is not doing it. After school sports are not doing it. Special summer jobs programs are not doing it. It was not the firefighter that had to change - it was the pattern of their work and supervision that changed. To help these kids, we have to change their patterns and our supervision. Maybe a traditional school system of 8-3 M-F is not working. Maybe our supervision of telling them what is right and wrong is not working. Maybe our system of checks and balances, punishment and reward, is not working.

I'm no psychologist. I'm not a juvenile expert. But I do know that some of these kids are unable to drop their gear and will be consumed by a fire that overtakes them because they can't run fast enough to get to safety. We have to change. It may be the only way to save them. And yes, Damon is my motivation for this post.

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