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August 29, 2005

autonomous youth culture

In yesterday's Washington Post, Darragh Johnson has a long article about 14-year-old Calixto Salgado, a devout altar boy, first-generation American of Salvadoran ancestry, nice, soft-spoken guy, and C student. He attends Gaithersburg High School, a large suburban school in a fairly affluent Maryland community (median household income: $60k), where the overall graduation rate is 87.2% (pdf, p. 189), 72% of seniors take the SAT (pdf, p. 40), and college is expected, at least for the White kids. The Latino kids, however, face a lot more challenges. About one third of them score "proficient" on the state exams, compared to 61% of whites (pdf). As for Calixto, he is under intense pressure to join a gang. I feel that I almost know him, since he resembles some of the Salvadoran and Mexican kids I have worked with at Hyattsville's Northwestern High School, which is 23 miles to the southeast across Washington's suburbs.

To varying degrees, adolescents live in their own world, separated from adult life. This is especially true for a person like Calixto, whose parents immigrated from El Salvador and lack knowledge or experience relevant to his life. Besides, gangs like MS-13 try to make youth culture as opaque as possible to parents and other adults, going so far as to require their recruits to commit violent crimes so that they will be tied together in a secret conspiracy. But such tactics are in some ways just extreme versions of the general (modern) adolescent urge to have a separate culture.

It matters enormously what that culture is like and how each student navigates it. According to the Post article, White/Anglo students at Gaithersburg High School recruit youth for groups like Key Club by saying, "It looks great on applications!" There is presumably a fair amount of pressure to do well in school, and respect for those who do. Students who belong to that culture are very likely to go to college and then live another 6-8 decades in affluence, safety, and good health. (In Gaithersburg as a whole, almost half of adults have college degrees--compared to 36% for the US.) But Calixto is "at risk" of entering an alternative gang culture, in which case his future will be far bleaker. The stakes are extremely high.

There are things that parents and schools can do to improve young people's odds. (For example, I'm still enthusiastic about making high schools smaller than Gaithersburg's 2,200 enrollment.) However, to a considerable extent, Calixto and his peers have a problem that only only they can address--collectively. For any individual kid, the pressure to join a gang (for self-respect, for safety, to impress the opposite sex, to satisfy the older brother who's already in) may be overpowering. It's a lot easier to resist pressure if you have company. Most of the school's clubs appear to be dominated by Whites, and Calixto doesn't have the grades to play sports. But if there were groups within the school that were created and led by Latinos, they could become safe havens. Ideally, Latino students could work together to change school policies so that the official anti-gang efforts were more effective.

This is a tall order. I'm suggesting that Latino kids in the DC suburbs should do something harder than anything I have ever done--create an alternative youth culture in the face of MS-13. But that may be their best hope, and it requires civic skills and habits that adults may be able to teach and model. (Indeed, Calixto is a member of an after-school group called Identity that seems to be helping him.) Kids instinctively understand the need to organize, but some have responded to MS-13 by creating rival gangs like Cien Por Ciento Latino and Sangre Pura. Somehow, they need to steer a course between those groups and the Key Club, which is unlikely to help them--or even to admit kids like Calixto.

Calixto's situation underlines why we should care about what people in my business clunkily call "youth civic engagement" and "civic education." Teaching kids to work together effectively can be a deadly serious business. It's for that reason, and not merely because I want young people to know the three branches of government, that I'm in this business.

Posted by peterlevine at August 29, 2005 07:25 AM

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