Ready, Willing and Able
by Karen Pittman, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
The words above were frequently invoked in my church when I was growing up. While "God, family and country" directed my loyalties, "ready, willing and able" guided my actions.
As an African-American teen in 1960s Washington, D.C., I knew I had to be ready to excel at any challenges put in front of me, fair or unfair; willing to do what was asked of me explicitly or implicitly; and able to navigate in unfamiliar territory. I had a firm sense of who I was, a clear sense of where I was going, and the self-discipline and social skills to get me there. I believed that hard work won out over luck, that talent was wasted when not matched with effort, and that ambitious goals could be accomplished if they were grounded in accurate assessments of self and guided by well-vetted plans.
I knew these things because the adults around me - family, teachers, parishioners, youth workers - made sure I was socially, emotionally and culturally prepared. They sometimes preached, and not just from the pulpit. What stuck with me most, however, were the lessons of my experiences - lessons from school, in the D.C. Youth Orchestra (my youth program of choice), at church and at home.
None of these settings would be considered privileged by traditional standards. But by this measure they were: In each place the adults reinforced the ready, willing and able themes through practices that named and nurtured the skills and dispositions that we children would need to succeed.
Maybe you enjoyed the same privileges. Like me, you probably didn't think of them as privileges; you thought they were normal. But for many young people, these gifts are scarce. Two new reports remind us of that reality, while a new book might help us confront it.
This month, Civic Enterprises and America's Promise Alliance together released two reports on "opportunity youth" - the 6.7 million 16-to 24-year-olds who are out of school and out of work.
One report, an economic analysis, confirms what you'd expect: Each year these young people cost taxpayers $93 billion in lost revenue and even more ($252 billion) in services. The other report, a youth survey, also confirms the expected: These young people remain hopeful that they can achieve the American Dream, but know that their lack of readiness trumps their willingness to beat the odds.
When asked what they would need to succeed, the youth asked for advice and mentoring from successful peers as well as from educators and employers. These youth don't just need programs; they need the people associated with these programs to understand how to meet them where they are personally, socially, emotionally, financially, academically. They need people who understand that many of them are disconnected now because they have not had these kinds of relationships in their lives.
Delivering people who can forge such relationships is easier said than done. We find them all over, but they have to be recruited and trained.
This is why I was so excited after reading an upcoming book: Ready, Willing and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success, by Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzane Bouffard.
When I was asked to review this book, I steadied myself for disappointment. I expected the authors to simply review the literature on why disadvantaged teens are not prepared to succeed in college, or to offer uplifting personal tales of students who were ready but got buffeted off course by oppressive systems.
Surprise: I can't remember the last time a book from the academic press taught and inspired as masterfully as this one does.
Ready, Willing and Able is a must-read for everyone who believes that preparing young people for college, work and life means more than improving reading skills and mastering the FAFSA, but who doesn't know how to address the missing piece: supporting adolescent development. Packed with real stories and examples, the book wonderfully complements the two reports.
It begins with this story: Ronaldo gets nudged by a teacher to attend a college-prep program, and does fine until he's wrongly accused of tagging a wall. The experience reinforces his belief that people see the gang, not him. He drops out of the program, reconnects with a gang, disconnects from school and graduates from an alternative school years later. No college, no job. Another "opportunity youth."
In the prep program, Ronaldo improved his grades when he had college in his sights. Why? What could Ronaldo's teacher have done differently to prepare him for immersion in a college culture? By pushing him to try without the skills to persevere, did she make things worse?
In order to help more young people, we must anticipate and address such questions before a young person disconnects.
I urge you to read the reports and place an order for the book (or ask your library to). Then think about what you can do to provide all young people with the privileges that got us where we are today.