Preserving the idealism of youth—and a new project

Been thinking again about that point in life when youthful idealism clashes with the harsh realities of the world. I’ve already written about Egan’s Invisible Circus and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, but the most famous literary example of the disappointment of youth in the apathy and hypocrisy of adults is no doubt Holden Caulfield. As someone on the front lines of youth work, this period strikes me as particularly critical for a couple of reasons: On the one hand, my first impulse is to preserve as much of that idealism as possible so that it doesn’t lapse into cynicism or defeat. But on the other hand, it’s also important to ensure that our young people are conscious of the trade-offs involved in deciding if and to what extent they wish to play the game. What are the consequences of ignoring the rules? And, conversely, when does participating in the rat race come at the expense of the self?

I recently put this question to my friend Steph, who is so gifted with youth, and regularly faces these issues in a role where she has the dual responsibility of cultivating the individuality of her young people and getting them job-ready. I asked her how she handles the matter of professional appearance. She responded that she makes an effort to couch the conversation in non-judgmental terms, along the lines of: You go rock those tattoos, but understand that stereotyping could affect your success on the job market. It’s sad that we as humans (and not a one of us is exempt) make these kinds of snap judgments of people, and even sadder that we have to have frank conversations about this with our youth. But them’s the breaks. Steph describes this work as living in the gray when it comes to withholding judgment, but having to explain that sometimes situations must be regarded in black and white terms: If you show up to an interview wearing inappropriate clothing, you will not get the job.

I think it’s also important to give young people very concrete strategies for how to negotiate conventions without capitulating to them entirely. You might share stories of people who remove their piercings before going into an interview or make the decision to get tattoos in unexposed areas of their body. I remember reading a story in the paper about a high school teacher who doesn’t hide the fact that he has heavily tattooed shoulders and upper arms, but informs his students that this was deliberate on his part in order to maintain a professional appearance even in short-sleeved, buttoned-down shirts.

The aspect of this question that is less pragmatic, however, unsettles me significantly more because I haven’t found an easy formula for preventing frustration and disappointment—which children in foster care are intimately familiar with—from turning into a crippling sense of distrust and disillusionment. It really is nothing short of miraculous when young people age out of care with the generosity of spirit to better the society that has repeatedly betrayed them and improve the life outcomes of their younger peers. It speaks to their resiliency and heart and I believe we have a moral duty to do whatever we can to set them up for success. Their success—if we see ourselves as having a vested interest in true social change—is just as much ours.

I am fortunate to know a group of such youth. They call themselves Emerging Leaders and we’ve started meeting regularly at AlleyNYC. (I’ve been tweeting about them recently.) What I am trying to do is embrace these young people—most of whom have recently aged out of care—for a bit longer by giving them the space to share ideas for social impact, exchange business and professional resources, and build the skills and knowledge necessary to realize their dreams of running their own nonprofits and social enterprises. I know some of you have been waiting for a full report on this project, and I promise it’s forthcoming.

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