Respect and a challenge

January 14, 1996|By Sara Engram

GREAT EXPECTATIONS can inspire great successes, just as predictions of failure can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. That's important to remember when thinking about the future of today's young people.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee's International Narcotics Control Caucus issued a report on the potential effects of a demographic bulge on teen drug use and on violent crime committed by this age group.

Because of a recent baby boomlet, the nation will have to trim the rate of drug abuse among young people simply in order to keep numbers steady. Ten years from now, if usage rates remain the same, we will have 250,000 more young people than today who will abuse drugs by the eighth grade.

Drug abuse by young people could also fuel a frightening increase in violent crime. Already, there is a stark contrast between the falling rate of crimes committed by adults and a surge of juvenile crime, much of it connected to teen drug abuse.

The report is a cautionary tale of the power of demographics. But it need not be a self-fulfilling prophecy -- and there's good reason to think it won't be. Another recent survey asked teens themselves what they thought about violent crime and what they thought they could do about it. The responses were not surprising.

Carefree adolescence

Crime has seriously affected teen-agers' lives, especially those who live in neighborhoods seriously hurt by crime, drugs and gangs. The effects are insidious and long-lasting. Teen-agers protect themselves by carrying weapons, skipping school, changing their routes to and from classes, changing friends or letting their grades slip. For many American young people, the carefree days of adolescence are a nostalgic fantasy.

One of the directors of Teens, Crime and the Community, a Washington, D.C.-based education group that commissioned the poll, described crime and violence as ''this generation's Vietnam.''

Yet the bad news is not the whole story. The Teens, Crime and the Community survey, which interviewed some 2,000 randomly chosen public-, private- and parochial-school pupils in grades seven through 12, also asked teen-agers whether they thought they could help in the fight against crime.

The answers showed young people reluctant to give up on their communities. And despite the fact that few of them thought they could make a dent in the problem individually, more than 80 percent were interested in joining community-based programs which could make their neighborhoods better places to live.

More than 70 percent would like to participate in communication or youth-leadership programs. Many said they already volunteer their time at school or through religious organizations.

Regardless of any hardships in their lives, most young people today retain those great natural assets of youth -- hope for the future and the urge to make a difference.

What they need from adults is the opportunity to pitch in and do it. One man who understands that is Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who has made it clear that his success in his role as head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will depend in large measure on his ability to draw young people to the group and inspire them with its ideals.

He stands a good chance of success, since he understands that young people rise to challenges when they are taken seriously and included as part of ''the team.'' His formula for revitalizing college chapters of the NAACP is simple: believe in young people, have an important task for them and given them ''authorship'' -- let them share in the planning, as well as in the success or failure.

My prediction is that when they are given respect and a challenge, young people in the NAACP and every other organization willing to take them seriously will do great things. That approach will always be the best defense against all the pitfalls of youth.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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