Monday, June 29, 2015

Were Orville and Wilbur Wright At Risk?

Don Siegel
From my last post, I have been thinking about ways that we in PC can enrich our neighborhood and create more positive interactions between staff and youth. When I pondered this, it immediately became evident to me that how we use language is critical. As a case in point, over the years I have cringed when I heard staff refer to PCers as at risk youth. I wondered how it would feel if I were a PCer and heard others refer to me as at risk. Clearly, this term connotes troubled or on the precipice of spiraling downward into some netherworld of hopelessness.  As a thought experiment, I pondered what such a label would mean to me today if I were referred to as at risk, and listed some things that came to mind. Being 67, I am at risk of succumbing to many things such as senility, a heart attack, or various forms of cancer. Actually, when one thinks about it, we are all at risk for something(s). But, for the most part, we aren’t typically labeled as at risk, do not wish to be defined as such, and do not want to live our lives just trying to avoid threats to our well-being. Instead, I prefer to think of myself more positively, as one working toward building, or, at least, maintaining capabilities that I believe will help me to thrive. I suspect that this is the more productive way for PCers to view themselves. Staff using the term at risk to describe kids sends the wrong message to them.
In essence, living a healthy and productive life entails actively seeking challenges that require acquiring new knowledge and skills, without being overwhelmed by the risks associated with such activities. As a case in point, I just finished reading David McCullough’s new book The Wright Brothers. In it he shows two brothers who were dreamers, self-taught engineers, entrepreneurs, and risk managers. Over multiple years they were certainly at risk of killing themselves on multiple occasions in an airplane crash. While they were at risk I don’t think that they defined themselves by the risks involved in building and testing airplanes, but by the successes they achieved in getting them to fly, and subsequently building a company that produced and sold them to others. I suspect that if, on the other hand, they had defined themselves as at risk and lived their days simply trying to reduce it, they probably would have stayed on the ground in Dayton, and spent more time selling and fixing bicycles, than venturing year after year to test their new designs on the sands of Kitty Hawk.  
Again, my point is not to deny the existence of risk to the Wright brothers, or to the underserved adolescents that we work with in Project Coach, but to assert that risk is a part of life, and living one’s life as a builder of assets, is more productive than living one’s life with the intent of simply reducing it. Consequently, I contend that it is much more productive to help our kids develop identities in which they see themselves, like the Wright Brothers, as energized, creative, enterprising people, whose approach to life is to acquire new knowledge and skills in order to change their worlds. I doubt that the Wright’s would have achieved much of anything had they viewed themselves as deficit prone, and encouraged by the people around them to spend their days fixing themselves rather than fixing the aircraft that they crashed on numerous occasions.

I believe that how kids think about themselves plays a large part in how they develop and who they become as adults. The language used by those around them to describe who they are is critical in shaping who they become. To this end, I contend that we should stop using deficit language such as at risk and help kids build identities more like the Wright Brothers who were called such things as brave, curious, excited, hard workers, smart, friendly, amazing, resourceful, and honest by Ms. Sullivan’s 3rd grade class. In contrast, the term at risk connotes such labels as: urban, poor, ghetto, inner-city, minority[1], troubled, school drop-out, drugs, gangs, and teen pregnancy[2]. Now, which descriptors do you think a kid would, and should be, identified with if helping them to thrive is our goal? How one thinks about one’s self is intricately connected to one’s feelings and behavior. If we want kids to thrive we need to help them to create identities like Orville and Wilbur. My guess is that the term hard working risk taker or resourceful risk taker would be a better way to view oneself than at risk.

[1] Pica-Smith, Cinzia, & Veloria, Carmen, At risk means a minority kid:” Deconstructing deficit discourses in the study of risk in education and human services. Pedagogy and the Human Sciences, 1, No. 2, 2012, pp. 33-48.

[2] Dobizl, J. K. (2002). Understanding at-risk youth and intervention programs that help them succeed in school. Unpublished masters thesis, University of Wisconsin-Stout.

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