By Karen Pittman
CEO, the Forum for Youth Investment
Any parent would be thrilled to hear a preschool teacher describe her 12-month-old son as "joyful, happy and in love with life." Erika Wright was indeed elated to hear that during a parent-teacher conference. But when she then asked what she should do to help Gabriel keep progressing, the answer gave her pause.
"Let Gabriel be Gabriel," the teacher said.
Gabriel being Gabriel
Erika, the violence prevention program lead at the New Orleans Health Department, found the statement a bit troubling. It made her realize how quickly forces beyond her control would pressure Gabriel (at right) to not be who he is. "Very soon the world will be telling him that being confident and being outspoken and being a leader will make him threatening," Erika said. "And dangerous and aggressive. But being vulnerable and being sensitive will make him weak. And he won't be respected."
Erika shared this story during a panel discussion at the recent Ready by 21 National Meeting. In the weeks since then, I find myself coming back to the question that hung over the room of 400 people after her observation: "How long will Gabriel be allowed to be Gabriel?" (Watch Erika tell her story.)
It seems to be a simple question, but it's an extremely powerful one. A similar question hangs over young people all around the country, especially poor and minority youth. Many find their pathways to readiness narrowed by the forces that Erika feared would stymie Gabriel. The systems and settings where children and youth spend their time inadvertently create "readiness traps," which affect some young people disproportionately, narrowing or cutting off their paths forward. These traps are often unintended and develop in all sorts of ways: by limiting access to supports and opportunities, by pressuring youth to conform their behavior and aspirations to the expectations of systems, and by defining readiness according to proxies like age, time in a program or completion of a course. (See this short discussion of readiness traps, along with links to resources.)
These traps fuel harmful gaps in achievement, expectation, opportunity and skills. Before you know it, a young person with potential is derailed.
How do we help our children and youth avoid or escape these traps? It will take more than our current efforts. We need to dedicate ourselves to making readiness a right for all young people. The Forum for Youth Investment has taken on this mission across the board, in all that we do. You can see it most clearly through The Readiness Project, our commitment to dedicate focused time and talent on two things:
Shining a spotlight on the common traps in youth systems and settings that contribute to growing gaps in young people's readiness.
Advancing cross-system and sector commitments to name and nurture the universal abilities and practices that get young people ready to meet life demands and responsibilities
Join the Readiness movement. Take advantage of the free wealth of news and reports that highlight readiness traps and gaps, and join us as we work to build out tools and guides for leaders to identify policies and practices that promote readiness and reduce these traps and gaps.
We need to believe that every young person has a right to be ready - so that, as Erika hopes, Gabriel will grow up ready and "be the rule, not the exception."
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