Monday, December 29, 2008
A Vision for Changing the World One Neighborhood, Family & Young Person At A Time
The Hope of Development
I hope you have had a great Christmas and that this finds your heart full of hope for the coming year.
One of the inherent messages that runs through the Christmas and even New Year’s holidays is the necessity and promise of change. To go a step farther, the two holidays fill most of our hearts with the hope of positive change. Whether we focus on the birth of a Messiah who comes to deliver us from our weaknesses and pain or the birth of a brand new year with 365 days of brand new opportunities, we are touching the idea that things are going to change…and for the better.
The idea of positive change for me is wrapped up in the word “development.” Our modern English word “development” comes from an old English world “desveloper” with the prefix des meaning “undo” and the veloper part of the word meaning “wrap up.” When you combine the two meanings, the old word suggested the idea of “unrolling” or “unfolding.” The word “development” has come to mean the act or process of developing, growth or progress.
What I most like about the idea of development and this concept of growth is that it indicates hunger for change and a willingness to admit that things can and need to get better. I find this concept of positive change attractive because so much of what we see around us is not attractive at all. From my perspective, we do need things to change and grow.
A World That Needs Development
We live in a world that is full of promise, potential and beauty. It is however imperfect and is infected with significant threats, most of which proceed out of simple human selfishness. Everything that has life in it grows. In a positive environment, things grow into what they were made to be. In toxic or negative environments, things grow in malformed or unhealthy ways. They grow into being damaged.
Young people today are growing up in communities that are a mix of both positive and negative ingredients. While there is so much good in the world, the majority of young people are growing up receiving less than they need in order to be developed into healthy adults. There are no perfect families in perfect communities producing perfect young people with thriving hearts and lives. Sadly, more and more families and communities are damaged and therefore produce underdeveloped or damaged young people. Damaged young people grow into being damaged adults who become damaged/damaging parents and community members. Those who grow up without receiving all that they were made to receive grow with a hole in their heart that causes them pain. Their pursuit of filling that hole and ending that pain many times drives them to use, consume and abuse others. They become negative youth developers.
The world is full today of negative youth developers - damaged parents & communities, drug addicts and dealers, gang leaders and members, seductive teenagers wooing insecure other teenagers into high risk behavior, pedophiles, greedy marketers, negative media sources, pimps, negligent caregivers, child abusers and on and on and on and on. Every corner in every neighborhood of every city across the globe reflects this reality even as you read these words. Sadly, their existence ensures a damaged next generation that will go on to do even more damage. Things are going to get worse unless we do something today.
On the other hand, imagine if we could twist the situation. Imagine if damage could give way to development.
Imagine if our cities were teeming with well-developed young people coming out of loving, healthy families. The socio-economic impact would change our communities and world on levels that we cannot even fully grasp. Young people with full hearts, educated minds and active hands and feet would walk out into forming healthy families, healthy neighborhoods and healthy communities. They would become amazing employees that would together build world-changing companies, governments and employers. They would turn compassionately to reach out and extend their hands to those hurting within their communities. As a result, poverty would be dramatically lessened and the cycle of damage creating damage would be replaced by health producing health. This is the vision of development that has to drive us. Certainly, we will never see this happen on such storybook levels as in the words above, however, the more we fight towards that end, the better things will be.
So How Do We Do It & What Do We Do?
A beautiful dream or vision that cannot be realized is, quite honestly, a nightmare. No one likes to be teased. Development, though, is not a pie in the sky painting of an unreachable reality. It is an very possible process of growth that can be engaged today.
The word “development” first requires us to admit that we are not where we can be. This is easy to nod our heads to but harder to walk out. Governments must admit that they are doing things wrong. Elected officials must acknowledge ignorance which requires risking vulnerability. Fathers & mothers have to face their fears that they are not perfect fathers and mothers. Pastors and priests, social workers and social scientists all have to admit that they do not know yet as much as they will need to know to walk forward. Each of us has to open our hands and let go of the truths that have brought us this far in order to grasp onto the truths we will need for tomorrow. Humility must replace insecurity and pride.
The process of development then asks us to do an even more difficult thing which is to work hard, open our hearts and look for the real answers required to bring about real and lasting development. We cannot be lazy and we cannot settle for quick, shallow answers that win funding or impress voters. We must look for answers that produce results.
I would ruin this piece if I were to try to end this with some kind of detailed prescription for all that this process will take. I do not have these answers in their entirety. No one does. This process will require collaboration and a process of discovery. I will, however, go so far as to give some things that do appear to be parts of the equation.
We will need to learn and turn to develop young people if we are to develop our communities. Young people are malleable and can be developed more easily. Just as a child can learn new languages faster than an adult, so can they learn new behaviors more quickly and more profoundly. This is not to say that we cannot or should not develop older individuals but just that developing people when they are young is and always will be the best time to develop them.
We will need to learn from those who are currently being successful at developing young people. This will certainly be controversial but we will need to stop trying to develop young people from an institutional, programmatic approach and transition into a relational, community based approach. Gangs, dealers and extremist groups get this. We must get it more deeply than they do and replace them.
Recently, I asked for a meeting with a drug dealer in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica. I told him that I led a non-profit organization that worked with young people and that I needed his help. He was an expert at reaching young people in San Jose while I was a novice, in comparison. I wanted him to talk to me and teach me so that I could help them and I told him that maybe I could even help him in the process. He sat down on a bench in front of Costa Rica’s National Theater and spilled out his techniques. He told me that on weekends in downtown Costa Rica, his group would fill a hotel room with massive quantities of drugs and then invite the street kids in for a weekend of free drugs. At the end of the weekend, the street kids would walk out of the hotel rooms as addicts and soldiers who would then go out and work for the dealers, selling drugs for them in order to feed their own newfound habits.
I hope this story scares you as much as it did me. It also shows you why sitting and waiting at a youth center will never match what these dealers and other predatorial groups like them can accomplish as they GO TO the young people rather than waiting for the young people to COME TO them. We must develop teams that can go and work in neighborhoods rather than sitting in our offices and expecting young people to come to us.
We must build developmental gardens in every neighborhood of every city of the world. Young people are a product of the relationships they experience over the course of their lives. Good, healthy relationships produce healthy young adults. Negative, unhealthy relationships produce unhealthy young adults. A young person who grows up with two loving parents in a healthy, caring family that includes supportive siblings and extended family in the midst of caring and relational neighborhoods, school and community environments will grow up to thrive.
Unfortunately, it is only a very, very small percentage of young people in today’s world that will grow up in such an idyllic situation. Our fight in the midst of a broken world full of broken relationships and broken people will be fighting to do everything that we can to improve the relational gardens that young people grow up in.
Providing neighborhood classes on parenting as well as providing mentoring, tutoring and even sending in outreach teams that can connect and build positive relationships with young people and families in every neighborhood of every city across the globe is a first step in beginning to rebuild the relational gardens that young people are growing up in. We can no longer let the drug dealers stand on our corners and sit in our parks without having individuals capable of building positive development relationships there as well. It is humorous but true that it may be that the first people we should be developing are the dealers on the corner. By doing so, we eliminate them as a threat while also possibly equipping them to join us in the fight to create positive development.
I will stop here and look forward to your responses. In reality, we face a battle between self-interest, ignorance and apathy on one side and care, compassion and health on the other. You yourself will have to decide which of these will motivate you and on which side you line up. I hope that we get to fight together to walk out these words and many more that will proceed out of this conversation.