Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP2

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Youth Are at Risk, and So Are We...


Leah Cox Hoopfer
Deputy Administrator for
4-H Programs
Extension Service-USDA
Washington, D.C.

The youth crisis facing this country is real. We, as a nation, are inadequately preparing our young people to enter the work force in a high tech and global future. We, as an organization, Cooperative Extension and the land-grant university system, are at risk of responding poorly to what may become the greatest societal issue of the century.

Yes, youth are at risk, but the real problem is not teen pregnancy, substance abuse, or illiteracy. They are symptoms and outcomes of a much broader problem - our national neglect of children and families. When we focus on "fixing the kids," we try to ameliorate symptoms rather than root causes. Instead, we must recognize that it's our nation, our communities, and a way of life that are at risk. If we want to make a difference in the rotten outcomes the symptoms accentuate, we must create environments within communities where young people can grow into productive, competent, caring adults. We must assume the role of catalysts to create environments where the entire community CARES about what happens to youth and works creatively and proactively through schools, the corporate sector, public agencies, and youth support systems.

With a community of support for youth, we create environments where negative outcomes are reduced and the focus is on building youth instead of "fixing" them. With this commitment, we make a profound new and renewed investment in the Cooperative Extension System, in the land-grant system, and in our collective national future.

Youth Development Is Imperative

Youth development is no longer just a "nice thing to do!" Youth development is imperative if we're to remain an economically viable nation on a planet recognizing the potential of the interdependent global village. The corporate sector is already bracing itself for labor shortages of qualified workers. The national average of school dropouts is over 28%, with some states over 40%.1 Jobs will be exported to a qualified work force, while unemployment, job dissatisfaction, and welfare will rise among the unskilled.

Requiring a Leadership of Difference

We've been challenged from our many publics to be proactive rather than reactive. Let us act to make a positive difference in the lives of youth from the most rural reaches to the inner city. Cooperative Extension youth programming has a major role to play if we choose to take the leadership. It will require a leadership of difference; a leadership that's based on partnership instead of competition and inclusion instead of exclusion. A leadership that's team-based and co-creative; one that believes in positive, possible futures and works co-creatively with active design and implementation teams to effect the vision. It will take a leadership that thrives on challenge and options rather than wandering about waiting for someone else to produce the "answer" that's to be "conveyed by the delivery system." We must have a leadership that doesn't consider risk a four letter word, but something that accompanies the design and implementation of the future. We, each and everyone of us, must be that leadership.

Our response to the exponentially growing needs of youth will, in large part, determine our future and theirs. It's our future and theirs that's at stake, our future in the broadest sense:

    our future as an organization
    our future as a community
    our future as a nation


1. Hayes Johnson, "The Annual School Scoreboard," USA Today, February 26, 1988, 5D.