As part of The Narrative Renewal Project, Insight Labs recently convened a group of education experts to discuss how communities like East Chicago, Indiana can refresh their collective story. In the classic board game “Life,” players are asked to start out by choosing between work and college. This Lab showed us we need to think about a third path.
In our visits to East Chicago, we discovered that the people with the most optimism about the future of the community were juniors and seniors in high school. Older folks might love their town, but even the best of them tend to say, “Let’s make this community the way it used to be.” As a group, teenagers have a better read on the situation. They say, “Let’s make this community whatever we want it to be.”
But that discovery led to a more sobering corollary—in East Chicago and thousands of cities like it, that hopeful energy is being squandered as soon as students cross the stage at graduation.
Consider the typical mix of students who graduate from high schools in economically depressed communities. Because of their age, nearly all of these students can still imagine many different possibilities for who they will be and how they will live their lives.
For the small percentage of students who leave home and go to four-year colleges, this process of self-actualization continues, as it should. But the majority of students enter low-wage jobs (or if that fails, the welfare system) leading to a sudden collapse in their imaginative possibilities.
This Lab proposed that we create a third path that directly connects young people’s optimism and imagination with the community’s needs. This path could take many forms. Here’s one version:
After high school, a group of about 20 high school graduates would leave home, living for one year in a dormitory-style building. Using community-organizing techniques, a trained staff would help the young people answer the question, “How would we make this town different if we were in charge?” The students would then spend the rest of the year designing and implementing a major initiative to make that change happen. The students would also operate a business or other venture that contributes to the program’s sustainability. <Read more.>