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[Review] 'You Can't Be What You Can't See: The Power of Opportunity to Change Young Lives'

September 26, 2018

Concrete, practicable solutions to society's urgent challenges are rare, in part because the debate around such issues too often is driven by philosophical differences and partisan political calculation. What is needed instead are compelling stories that explain those challenges through the eyes of the people affected and suggest possible solutions based on their lived reality. You Cant Be What You Can't See, by Milbrey W. McLaughlin, tells one such story.

Book_you_cant_be_what_you_cant_seeIn the book, McLaughlin, the David Jack Professor Emeritus of Education and Public Policy at Stanford University and founding director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, documents what happened to more than seven hundred young people from Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project who participated in CYCLE, an out-of-school-time tutoring program started in 1978 in the basement of Cabrini-Green's LaSalle Street Church. Over the next decade and a half the program evolved into a comprehensive afterschool and summer support program for neighborhood youth, the history of which McLaughlin traces through the lives of the young people who participated. Along the way, we learn, through the kids' own voices, how the program altered the trajectory of their lives for the better.

For much of its existence, Cabrini-Green — which comprised the Frances Cabrini Row-houses and the William Green Homes — was portrayed by the national media as a sort of urban version of the Wild West, a place where crime, drugs, and guns were all-too-common and lawlessness prevailed. Like many narratives, this one was overly simplistic. McLaughlin starts her story at the beginning, in the early 1940s, when the Chicago Housing Project built Cabrini-Green "to replace the crime-ridden slum widely known as Little Hell with clean, family-friendly, affordable housing" for (mostly) white families. As those families grew more prosperous in the post-WWII boom and began moving to suburbs, low-income black families, many on public assistance, moved in.

The 1950s and 1960s were "a time of hope and relative racial calm" in Cabrini-Green. The two-story row houses were a great option for low-income families with children, and major high-rise expansions of the complex in 1958 and 1962 meant that more low-income families could afford to live there. "It was paradise compared to what you had before," remembers Craig Nash, a CYCLE alum who became coordinator of CYCLE's I Have Dream scholarship program. "When the high-rises first went up, they were beautiful. There were trees, there were families — mother, father, children, working families."

But over time, the effects of the "redlining" practices that were common at the Chicago Housing Authority during the period began to shift "the make-up of Cabrini-Green from the 1960s-era community of two-parent, working families to, by the late 1970s, "an economically, racially, and socially segregated" series of projects comprising thousands of units, mostly occupied by struggling black single mothers. "Neighborhoods are not accidents," Tim Huizenga, an early CYCLE board member, told McLaughlin. "They are the products of systematic sorting processes….For a while, the high-rises were decent places to live. But, for a variety of reasons, eventually they became the place where people that just had no options were living." As the condition of the buildings and in the neighborhood declined along with expectations, gang violence, teenage pregnancy rates, and social and institutional isolation increased, creating a toxic dynamic that fed on itself.

Founded in 1978 by Greg Darnieder, a Christian activist in the Reinhold Niebuhr mold who was heading up the tutoring program at LaSalle Street Church, the CYCLE program was born out of that despair. McLaughlin walks readers through the program's inception, highlighting the core overarching values that shaped the program's culture and approach: 1) program activities had to reflect the evolving youth development movement's view of young people as resources to be developed rather than problems to be fixed; and 2) Judeo-Christian tenets of respect, love, and trust were expected to inform how youth, staff, and volunteers treated each other. Joining those beliefs were five "principles of practice": an open door (all Cabrini-Green kids were welcome, with no application, screening process, or fees required); a safe environment (CYCLE staff went to great lengths to assure kids and their parents that participants would be safe); minimum rules, maximum impact (what rules there were were clear and consistently enforced); commitment to the individual; and developmentally appropriate activities (all CYCLE activities — tutoring, cultural outings, adventure outings — were carefully structured to ensure participants' active engagement).

The program gained traction throughout the 1980s, and by 1992 more than three hundred kids were being tutored twice a week by volunteers and Junior Staffers — an annual cohort of thirty Cabrini-Green high school and college students tasked with planning and carrying out activities, supervising, and mentoring younger kids in the program — benefiting not only from academic support but also from meaningful relationships that many viewed as essential to positive youth development. Between 2012 and 2017, McLaughlin and Darnieder conducted interviews with many of the participants and staffers, and though most were in their forties and fifties by then, they were eager to speak about the joys and challenges of life both in and outside the program. One former Junior Staffer, for example, remembered that she "felt wanted, needed, valued. [My job] was not just to keep the young ones in line and get their ABCs, but I felt really that what I was contributing was valuable, special."

Scholarships were another important component of the CYCLE model, and by the early 1980s Darnieder had begun, as McLaughlin writes "to actively engage Chicago-area philanthropists [in] CYCLE's mission, enlisting them to support the kid's education through five distinct scholarship programs." The program introduced us "to an idea of a better life through education," one alumnus told McLaughlin, adding that "it wouldn't have been possible for us to navigate through school by ourselves." While every year a few kids dropped out of the program, those who stuck with it graduated from high school and attended college at higher rates than kids in the Chicago Public School system.

As effective as CYCLE was in keeping kids on track and out of trouble, the dynamics of race cannot be overlooked, and McLaughlin does not shy away from addressing the topic. Most of those running the program were white — Darnieder, the board, and many of the volunteers on which the program relied — while the children participating in the program were mostly African American. According to McLaughlin, Darnieder, the board, and staff did their best to foster shared learning opportunities for volunteers as well as students. For instance, Michelle McConnell, then a volunteer coordinator, created a manual for new white volunteers who would be tutoring kids in the program. "I would say," she remembers, "'I know you might be coming into this with some ideas of what you think this community is. I'm here to help you experience what this community is really like.' I tried to provide a lot of educational materials, things to talk about…white privilege...urban slang and speech; about how to be a mentor to kids, to be a real role model for them but also learn from them."

So, how did CYCLE enable most participants to take, as McLaughlin writes, "a different path through high school and into adulthood than the one predicted by the Cabrini-Green address"? To answer her own question, she highlights three key factors: exposure — the idea (captured by the book's title) that "you can't be what you can't see"; mentors — caring adults willing and able to help kids acquire a concrete understanding about how to achieve the newly imagined adult futures they wanted for themselves; and a "community of belonging." As McLaughlin puts it:

Most CYCLE participants were able to grab the opportunities presented them because someone cared, showed them what to do, coached them in how to succeed, [and] walked with them to new challenges and experiences….In a community context where less than half of African-American females and less than a third of males graduated from high school, and where gang membership and early pregnancies were the norm, CYCLE participants' accomplishments stand as exceptional....

For all its accomplishments, CYCLE closed its doors a few years after Darnieder, in 1992, was recruited by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to lead the Chicago Cluster Initiative — a community revitalization effort that might have enabled him to build on CYCLE's work and success if city agencies had sufficiently supported it. (He left MacArthur after a year to become the executive director and first employee of the Chicago-based Steans Family Foundation.) Meanwhile, a new leadership team brought in by CYCLE's board to run the organization had its own ideas, and its focus on scripted curricula, reporting requirements, and narrowed expectations about the role of staff quickly "fractured" the program's sense of community.

McLaughlin closes the book with three takeaways for those working to replicate and scale CYCLE's successes over a generation: lack of opportunities keeps poor youth stuck in place; addressing the opportunity gap for impoverished youth requires attending to both the cultural and structural elements of poverty; and a youth-centered, relationship-based program should be a key element in any such effort.

You Can't Be What You Can't See is neither a light nor quick read. Rather, it's an in-depth look at the root causes of poverty in one urban community and an inspiring guide for anyone interested in starting or working for an out-of-school time program that really makes a difference. It effectively highlights core values and the importance of keeping individual participant's needs front and center, and offers solutions that are practical, satisfying, and replicable. If you believe education is the future, Milbrey McLaughlin's book is one you'll want to pack for the journey.

Laura K. Wise is a regional event specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and a journalist who writes about social justice issues and impact. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

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