Harvard Educational Review
  1. Urban Sanctuaries

    Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-City Youth

    By Milbrey McLaughlin, Merita Irby, and Juliet Langman

    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994. 246 pp. $23.00.

    The authors of Urban Sanctuaries paint a sobering picture of everyday life in the inner city: 24 percent of urban kids have witnessed murder, 25 percent have been shot at or threatened, and homicide has become the leading cause of death among urban youth (p. 11); the birth rate among unmarried inner-city girls is increasing exponentially (p. 12); by age eighteen, "more African American males are in jail than in school" (p. 11); in Chicago, 63 percent of African American and Latino students do not graduate, and fewer than one quarter of those who do are able to read at the level of the national average (pp. 11–12). But Urban Sanctuaries is not just another study of what is wrong with inner-city kids and their often chaotic environment, documented in a plethora of outcome measures. Instead, Milbrey McLaughlin, Merita Irby, and Juliet Langman invite the reader inside the lived experiences of six young people who, even though they are not "especially gifted or otherwise advantaged" (p. 12), have managed to find a sense of purpose and hopeful future in the neighborhood organizations and the supportive relationships they have established with the adults who run them.

    While numbers like "25 percent shot at or threatened" might reflect the odds of a child dying on the street, it tells us nothing about what living with such odds might mean to an individual child. In this volume, we meet Keisha, Rosa, Tyrone, Buddy, Teri, and Tito, six inner-city kids who live with these odds and have managed to "duck the bullet." Safety, we come to understand through their words and experiences, is a much larger concept than mere physical well-being. Their first need is to survive, of course, but the bullet they must also duck, as one youth advocate puts it, is "not just out of the gun but verbiage from their peers, a girl pregnant by sixteen, a man incarcerated by eighteen — that's the bullet" (p. 4).

    Contrary to popular myth about urban teenagers, these young people are not lazy, undisciplined, and disaffected from their community and its institutions. In fact, as we discover in following them through their daily routines, they crave meaningful work and responsibility where rules are administered in caring, supportive ways. Where and how these young people connect with the "sanctuaries" in which this becomes possible constitutes the powerful heart of this story.

    In neighborhood programs as varied as the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, as well as church, park, and recreation groups, the authors introduce the reader to extraordinary "wizards." These are leaders of organizations who, in giving back to the same or similar communities from which they themselves grew up, have dedicated their lives to creating environments in which the children of inner-city America can imagine a positive future. Their "wizardry," we are told, "is not magic, but it is almost as difficult to emulate because it is highly personal" (p. 37). Even though their work is not given to "program replication," there are several "traits" that the kids themselves identify as common to them all, in spite of the substantively different organizations they run.

    Because the wizards see genuine potential in inner-city youth, they place the needs of the individual kid at the center of their work. This does not entail simply acknowledging the youth's interests, "but also listening to youth and allowing them to take part in decision making" (p. 105). Because inner-city kids have often been burdened at an early age with responsibilities for themselves and their families, they "reject settings where they are `told to,' ordered around, or excluded from any say in how the organization works" (p. 105).

    In working to create relationships of trust and support with inner-city youth, the wizards offer safety; they are generous in the number and types of opportunities for involvement they offer; they provide real responsibility and real work:

    They encourage self-discipline through their clear and consistent rules and attitudes. And they are future focused, encouraging youth to develop "real life" as well as educational skills. All these qualities add up to positive self-identity, tangible successes, respect, responsibility, and autonomy for participating youth. (p. 104)

    But above all, the kids tell us, the wizards are "authentic" — they are individuals whose personal lives and work embody and exemplify the values they espouse.

    As the work of transforming our schools and other social institutions continues, Urban Sanctuaries challenges us to examine venerable assumptions about the sources of learning, care, and problem-solving in our communities. At the same time, it invites us to ask broader organizational and policy questions such as who possesses knowledge, where authority should rest, and, ultimately, who should control the resources and resource allocation decisions. Because learning and development are ecological, it suggests, taking place across a wide spectrum of settings, the results we desire for our children can only come from mutually reinforcing investments across the several settings in their lives.

    This innovative and clearly written volume tells not merely the poignant stories of children and adults who live the realities of the inner city, but offers valuable insights into how all of us, on personal, community, and institutional levels, might work to create hopeful futures for all our youth, and, ultimately, for our society.

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    Book Notes

    Urban Sanctuaries
    By Milbrey McLaughlin, Merita Irby, and Juliet Langman

    By John Edgar Wideman.

    Children Solving Problems
    By Stephanie Thornton

    The Smart Parent's Guide to Kids' TV
    By Milton Chen

    New Directions in Portfolio Assessment
    Edited by Laurel Black, Donald A. Daiker, Jeffrey Sommers, and Gail Stygal.

    The Tao of Teaching
    By Greta Nagel

    Emergent Curriculum
    By Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo.

    Teaching Hand Papermaking
    By Gloria Zmolek Smith.

    Postmodern Theory
    By Steven Best and Douglas Kellner.

    Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes
    By Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw.

    Towards Inclusive Schools
    Edited by Catherine Clark, Alan Dyson, and Alan Millward.

    Fabled Cities, Princes and Jinn from Arab Myths and Legends
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    Educational Action Research
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    By Terry Eagleton