By Ruben Austria, Executive Director
The need for self-improvement springs from an inner conviction to pursue our dreams. Developing our gifts and talents makes us feel more alive, drives us to push through obstacles in pursuit of our vision. Efforts centers on our flaws quickly become demotivating.
Youth – especially youth in the justice system – are no different. A strengths based approach that taps into young people’s dreams energized and motivated them. Forcing youth to focus on their needs, their mistakes, and their “risk factors” is the best way to drain them of their drive to do better.
Bizarrely, most juvenile justice interventions focus primarily on risks and needs. Youth are mandated to anger management, drug treatment, evening reporting centers, mental health services, family therapy, and a host of other programs fixated on minimizing whatever is “wrong”. It is unsurprising that many resist compliance or stop participating as soon as they are no longer required to attend.
The heart of the problem is the lens through which we view youth. If we see young people as problems, we try o fix them. If we see them as assets, we seek to develop them. Dr. Jeffrey Butts, a Researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice puts it this way: “The problem perspective tends to isolate ND control problem youth. The juvenile justice system is perhaps the most extreme example of this mindset. Young people are assets to be valued rather than problems to be controlled.” (Barton & Butts, 2008)
At South Bronx Community Connections, we are betting that our strengths based approach is more powerful than any deficit based one. We recognize young people in the justice system have numerous risk factors and unmet needs. But we also believe that helping them tap into their dreams, develop their gifts, and exercise their leadership abilities is the best way to keep them out of trouble. Our young people are planning talent shows, developing community gardens, educating their peers, and organizing safe parties. None of these practices are “evidence-based” … yet. But once the final evaluation is complete, we are confident that our model ill have done more to reduce crime and create healthy young adults than any risk- or need-focused approach.