by Efrem Smith
When I was growing up, I was labeled at risk simply because I was African- American and lived in the city. On further review, once it was known that I lived in a two-parent, middle-class home, that label was lifted (for some). Some people label youth at risk because of how they look; I’m even guilty of seeing a group of young people standing on a corner wearing dorags, sagging jeans, and oversized athletic jerseys and wondering if they were at risk.
There was a time when I didn’t see the possibility of an at-risk young person living outside the city. This all changed after I graduated from college, entered into ministry, and participated in a weekend retreat for at-risk suburban youth. At this retreat I met young people dealing with cutting, drug addiction, and parental divorce. So my understanding of at risk began to grow beyond gang members, project apartments, and the city juvenile detention center.
But I still wrestle with the term. Does it just refer to kids who face problems, make bad choices, or constantly live out negative behavior?
There are issues specific to inner-city life that make all urban youth at risk. When urban public schools face budget cuts, when urban park and recreation services are lost, when community agencies see a decrease in funding—these all put affected youth at risk. When there are over 30 homicides in a city in less than a year, it puts all young people living in the city at risk. You don’t have to be a problem child to be at risk.
You don’t have to be in a gang or live in a single-parent home to be at risk. You can live in a two-parent home, have good grades, and go to church—and still be an atrisk youth. If you’re an urban youth minister, your whole youth group could be at risk. If you’re a young person living in an under-resourced community, you’re at risk. With this definition in mind, both Native American reservations and rural communities could also produce a very diverse group of at-risk youth. Being at risk is based more on the environment you grow up in than your behavior growing up. Considering this, I probably was at risk growing up.
At Risk vs. High Risk
When most of think of at-risk youth, we think of young people in gangs, in single-parent homes, living in project apartment buildings, and falling through the cracks academically. The Reverend Dr. Dean Trulear, a veteran urban youth worker on the East Coast, recognizes that many of our young people are at risk, so he uses the term high-risk when talking about these types of kids.
High-risk youth are those from an atrisk environment whose choices make it highly likely that they will be overtaken by their circumstances. For instance, a kid is at risk if she lives in an under-resourced community where it’s not easy to find a summer job. If in response to her condition, she decides to sell drugs or prostitute herself, then she’s made the jump to high risk.
The urban church must be able to minister to both at-risk and high-risk youth. We need to train adults to become mentors who will come alongside young people to help them successfully navigate at-risk environments. Through this relational approach to urban youth ministries we can prevent some young people from moving into high-risk behaviors. You can find out more information in this article by Steve Gonzales, the Mentoring Program Coordinator for the National Network of Youth Ministries.
The urban church must also partner with local schools and recreation centers by providing volunteers to be coaches, tutors, and conflict mediators. This kind of work not only helps prevent youth from becoming high risk; it also alleviates the at-risk environment.
Finally, the urban church must minister directly to high-risk youth. Recently, a group of men at my church gathered with some former gang leaders who’ve become Christians to pray and strategize about how to reach young people involved in gangs. Without a caring adult, resources, and relevant ministries, most high-risk youth won’t make it. It’s up to us to see that they do. www.youthspecialties.com