Kids can walk around trouble if there is some place to walk to and someone to walk with.

-- Former Gang Member, Tito
Quoted by Milbey McLaughlin, Merita Irby, and Juliet Langman, 1993

There is no lack of gloomy descriptions of the disintegration of communities and the dire consequences of this disintegration. Gardner (1991) states that "without the continuity of the shared values that community provides, freedom cannot survive." And, discussing the fact that, as technology progresses, fewer workers will be needed to produce necessary goods and services, Rifkin states,

Only by building strong, self-sustaining local communities will people in every country be able to withstand the forces of technological displacement and market globalization that are threatening livelihoods and survival of much of the human family.
(Rifkin, 1995, p.250)

In the face of this gloom and doom, resiliency theory shines a ray of hope since a central tenet of that theory is that human systems are hard wired with self-righting tendencies. Being a collection of people in relationships, communities also have "this inherent transformative capacity to adapt and change" (Benard, Summer, 1996).

In a recent review of the psychological research related to urban neighborhoods and mental health, Wandersman and Nation (1998) use three different models to examine how neighborhood characteristics influence residents’ mental health. This article is unique in that not only does it detail the negative effects of problems such as poverty, noise, and crowding, but it also includes a section titled "How Do They Survive? Resilience. " They note that "research associating resilience with neighborhood factors is sparse" (p.6), but they go on to cite Garbarino (1995) who has suggested that "neighborhoods supplement the individual-level factors associated with resilience by providing a context in which children can be exposed to positive influences." They also cite Connell and Aber (1995) who see neighborhood institutional and social conditions as "the key factors that contribute to resilience in the face of structural and economic disadvantage." Healthy schools, churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other institutions not only provide positive role models for children, but they also provide an infrastructure for youth programs.

Wandersman and Nation further stress the importance of "a strong social network in which adults are connected to each other" (p.6). They cite other researchers who have demonstrated the protective effect of good social networks in preventing child abuse (Garbarino and Kostelny, 1992), and those (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls, 1997) who "found that collective efficacy -- the willingness of residents to intervene for the common good -- explained much of the relationship between neighborhood characteristics and violence" in Chicago (p.6). They conclude that "youth are mentally and physically healthier in neighborhoods where adults talk to each other."

Finally, the researchers discuss Saegert’s (1996) study of residents in distressed housing in New York City in which he "argued that those neighborhood factors that effectively produced resilient individuals and families also produce changes in the ecology of the neighborhood, so that residents and individuals can assume some control over key areas of their lives." Especially helpful was a program which enabled residents to purchase some abandoned buildings and turn them into residences. Not only did home ownership decrease the residents’ feelings of material poverty, but it also "raised their stake in and connection with the rest of society" (p.6).

As in the case in families and schools, protective processes in communities combine caring relationships, high expectations and adequate support, and opportunities to contribute to others.


In 1993, McLaughlin, Irby, and Langman published Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-City Youth, a report of their five-year research study of the role of over sixty neighborhood- based organizations serving over 24,000 youth in three urban areas in the U.S. They found that the "urban sanctuaries" which truly helped "at risk" youth develop a positive life trajectory were diverse in focus, content, organizational structure, and environment, and that "insiders and outsiders can be equally effective" as helpers (p. 95). They concluded that "a variety of neighborhood-based programs work as long as there is an interaction between the program and its youth that results in those youths’ treating the program as a personal resource and a bridge to a hopeful future" (p.5).

McLaughlin and her colleagues used the term "Hopefuls" to refer to the young people who did not get involved with drugs, violence, crime, and early pregnancies. All were poor, none had "normal" nuclear families, and all had lost a friend or relative "to the brutality of the inner city" (p.12). Most were not especially gifted academically, and all were highly critical of their schools. The researchers were unable to find "a single example of positive institutional collaboration between schools and local youth activities in their five years of research (Portner, 1994, 110). What set the resilient children apart from the others was "their expectation of a viable future, their belief that they can be and do something other than succumb to the desperate and dead-end prospects of their neighborhoods.... What enabled the Hopefuls to duck the bullet and choose a responsible and fulfilling future was their participation in an organization that provided the values, the support, the safety, and the competencies they needed before they could believe in their own futures" (p.34-35).

As is the case with successful schools, the critical component of the successful youth organizations was the "energy, passion, and mission of the program leader" (p.95). They saw the young person’s potential, held high expectations for them, and focused on their strengths. The researchers further found that the successful leaders, who they called " Wizards," had "their own strong sense of personal efficacy, ... their belief in their own ability to facilitate [the process of changing] a life trajectory from despair to hope and success." The Wizards all shared a desire "to give back to youth what others gave them as they grew up," and "they want youth to develop this commitment to providing opportunities and brighter futures to others" (Benard, 1994).

While the programs differed in many ways, they shared important features. They provided both physical and psychological safety. They provided opportunities for youth to have a major voice in how the program worked and thus gave them "the chance to develop responsibility [and] a sense of ownership and belonging" (Benard, 1994). The programs further provided chances to learn concrete skills and prosocial skills, plus they provided real responsibilities and real work and thereby provided "the opportunity for achievement and accomplishment and the structured learning environment that mainstream youth usually find in school, family, or community" (p. 108).

McLaughlin and her colleagues emphasized that the paradigms from which program planners proceed is critical: "The major message we want to get across is that perspective really matters. If adults are to stop viewing young people as something to be fixed and controlled and, instead, help enable their development, there would be phenomenal change in the lives and society in general" (Portner, 1994).


Community programs which have received considerable enthusiasm but only limited research attention are mentoring programs. In her review of research on mentoring programs, Rhodes (1994) states that there is general agreement that mentoring can contribute to resilience in high-risk youth, but our understanding of these relationships comes mainly from observational data rather than empirical studies and "many programmatic and conceptual issues remain unresolved" (p.187).

Rhodes’ review focuses more upon "natural" mentors rather than volunteers in programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters. These natural mentors generally include teachers, neighbors, extended kin, ministers, and so on. Rhodes maintains that, compared to relationships between professional care givers and their clients, relationships between natural mentors and their protegees, especially in low-income areas, are more intense, committed, and emotionally expressive, perhaps because these non-professional adults are closer geographically and sociologically to the individual in need.

Rhodes lists several questions about mentoring which remain to be answered: Does mentoring compensate for weak parental bonds or supplement strong parental bonds? How and why is this the case? Does mentoring actually promote resilience? Is there some underlying cause that more fully explains the increase in resilience? Are certain youth simply more skillful at attracting adults to serve as their mentors, and if so, what can be done for children who are poor at "recruiting" mentors? How can we improve the planning and construction of future mentorship programs to assure that the right adults are assigned to the right children? What are the differences in effects between assigned mentoring and natural mentoring, i.e., is natural always better?

Rhodes also calls for new ways to gather data while programs are being enacted, rather than waiting for retrospective accounts from participants, which inevitably leads to some bias in reporting. Also, she notes that planning must take place that will match mentors with protegees more systematically, and that we need to know more about what motivates mentors. It may be that the personal sense of efficacy the mentors receive actually motivates them, or that good feelings may be a by-product of the relationship.

The most thorough evaluation of a mentoring program is the four volume Public/Private Ventures review of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. This review is presented in the Programs Section of this paper, pp. .

Davidson and his colleagues (1990) have shown that a mentoring program in which college undergraduates were trained and supervised to be mentors to adjudicated delinquents could reduce recidivism by 34% and save $5,027 in criminal justice costs and $7,299 in victim costs per youth receiving the program. They stress the importance of training for mentors in order to produce benefits among young people who have already engaged in delinquent behavior.


It is worth repeating that, in the urban sanctuaries, the Wizards all shared a desire "to give back to youth what others gave them as they grew up," and "they want youth to develop this commitment to providing opportunities and brighter futures to others" (Benard, 1994). Certainly, one of the great joys of many community activities is that they provide such a plethora of opportunities to contribute to others.

As adolescents grow into young adults, paid employment is an appropriate venue for becoming a contributing member of society. Long and Vaillant (1984) did a follow-up study of 456 inner-city men from the Glueck and Glueck (1950) study of children raised in families marked by extreme poverty and a chaotic family life. Long and Vaillant found that, by adulthood, most of these "at risk" children were employed, had stable family lives, and had risen to the middle-class. While individual and family protective processes no doubt played a role in these successful outcomes, Long and Vaillant identify significant cultural protective factors: when these men entered the work force in the late 1940s, the employment rate was high and mid-level jobs were plentiful, plus many of the men who had fought in World War II took advantage of education and/or vocational training via the GI Bill. In short, the economic conditions of the country were such that the men were welcomed into the labor force. For a community to be able to provide decent jobs with livable wages for its residents is a protective factor whose value cannot be overrated.

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