The presence of youth violence in the St. Louis area is difficult to ignore. Headlines regularly point to the senseless violence that tragically takes the lives of young people too soon. We know many teens live in unpredictable and often times dangerous circumstances, and as youth program providers, schools, teachers, role models and mentors, our work is to provide stability, opportunities, and better alternatives so they can rise above what would otherwise bring them down.
Last week, Washington University’s Institute for Public Health hosted an energizing conversation around the role of public health professionals in preventing violence in St. Louis; which included important reminders for all professionals and community members.
Violence is not just a problem for certain neighborhoods. Anytime a young person is taken by violence – someone who will never even make it to high school graduation – this is a loss for our entire community.
We do know key elements and experiences that support young people on a healthy developmental path – and make them less likely to engage in violence. These experiences include:
- access to a physically and emotionally safe environment;
- structure and clearly defined acceptable behaviors;
- a sense of belonging and ownership;
- opportunities for growth and expectations that they can achieve goals; and finally
- meaningful, supportive relationships.
Young people are best served when their communities – parents and caregivers, neighbors, schools, youth serving organizations, and policy makers – apply these consistently and over time.
While the issue of violence can feel daunting – it is not too complex or too big for us to address as a community, but it does require a community-wide response. It requires us to think through innovative policy solutions as well as practice.
Social and emotional skill development for children and youth was noted as a public health opportunity identified by the Centers for Disease Control. Imagine if we embraced a cross-sector, research-based approach to intentional supports and development to teach young people communication, goal-setting, self-control, discipline and grit, so they can navigate difficult situations and make tough decisions.
If we, as a community, do not change the way we perceive and support youth from at-risk circumstances we are only perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence. Research is quite clear that holding and supporting teens to high expectations is a powerful and necessary contributor to their positive development. So let’s continue to offer stability, opportunities and better alternatives to equip young people for success. Because as long as we say “that’s just the way it is,” nothing will ever change.
Thanks to the Institute for Public Health for hosting the conference. The voices of Melissa Johnson-Reid, PhD, from The Brown School, Bridget McDermott Flood from the Incarnate Word Foundation, Flint Fowler, PhD, from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, Norman White, PhD, from Saint Louis University, and James Marks, MD, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brought broad and informed perspectives to this important conversation.