The White (House) conference on teens

Columbine made teenage problems national news -- but kids need community action, not anemic P.R.

Published May 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week at the White House, President and Mrs. Clinton held an all-day Conference on Teenagers where the president unveiled a shiny, happy report by his Council of Economic Advisors. With only a drive-by nod to the "significant opportunity gap" between white and minority youths, he focused on the report's "good news." Teenagers, he told the conferees, are "far healthier, more prosperous and look forward to more promising lives than ever before in our history." Who'd they survey -- 'N Sync, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys?

The world of "far healthier, prosperous teenagers" is not the one Geoff Canada deals with every day. Introduced at the White House conference by Mrs. Clinton as a "hero to many for his groundbreaking work in Harlem," Canada felt that the conference was about one America while the crisis is in another.

"It was exciting to have a conference putting children front and center," he told me, "but what I found disappointing is that we did not use the moment to address the plight of millions of our children. Here we are in the middle of this great prosperity, with a $67 billion budget surplus, and only the most fragile infrastructure supporting huge numbers of our kids."

But instead of a call to action, the conference sounded an urgent call for parents to have dinner with their teens. "They were speaking to a part of America that feels that's their issue -- that they're not connecting with their kids," said Canada. "But they missed the larger issue -- this huge disconnect with the other America."

The other America -- with its 13.5 million at-risk kids -- is the one Canada knows inside out. In his office in central Harlem hangs a color-coded map showing the "Harlem Children's Zone," a 23-block area he has carved out to provide the infrastructure and the personal support that the children there have been missing.

"There are real enemies of children in these 23 blocks," he said. "And to the degree that we can create community support, we can defeat some of these enemies." Including one of the deadliest: indifference.

I asked him to explain the different colors on the map. "The yellow squares," he said, "are city-owned housing. We change them to red when we've organized the tenants to apply to become a low-income co-op. Brown means the residents have purchased their apartments." Like many of the hardest battles, it's block by block. It's also a child-by-child effort. The establishment of a new "baby college" provides support to parents even before their children are born.

It was a rainy day in New York when Canada took me on a tour of his projects. It was like going from one healing outpost to another -- from the baby college to the Technology Center to the Employment Center to The Rheedlan University for Community Education (TRUCE) -- a building teeming with teenagers bursting with creativity.

In one room, there was an editorial conference going on for "Harlem Overheard," a monthly youth newspaper covering the community; in another, a group of young people were putting the finishing touches on a public-service announcement about the Diallo murder -- as 41 shots rang out, the faces of 41 Harlem teens flashed on the screen. In a third room, a large mural of Harlem, reborn, was being painted.

These kids may not be prosperous, but they are full of hope and productivity. "If it were not for what we're offering in these 23 blocks," Canada told me, "these same kids that you see here would probably be in jail."

Ever since Canada returned to Harlem with a master's degree from Harvard and a third-degree black belt, he's been telling America through his speeches, his books and his life that "we have failed our children. They live in a world where danger lurks all around them, and their playgrounds are filled with broken glass, crack vials and sudden death. And the stuff of our nightmares when we were children is the common reality for children today."

But what is common reality for these children only touches the middle-class teenagers at the center of the White House conference when the monsters come out in white suburban schools like Columbine. In fact, tepid as it was, would there even have been a White House Conference on Teenagers but for Columbine? And what precisely is achieved by such conferences other than the illusion of action?

Canada, who is a frontline soldier in this war, was given only four minutes at the conference to share his experiences. "The problem cannot be solved from afar with a media campaign, or other safe solutions operating from a distance," he said. "The only way we're going to make a difference is by placing well-trained and caring adults in the middle of what can only be called free-fire zones in our poorest communities."

What the embattled teenagers in our inner cities need is fewer hyped-but-anemic White House conferences and more tangible resources -- private and public -- of time and money.

When one of the children Canada has been working with testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he explained how a Rheedlan worker had helped turn his life around: "He made a deal with me. If I went to school and did well, he would take me to a fancy restaurant once a week." When asked what kind of fancy restaurant, he replied, "Wendy's." The senators laughed. "A child's life turned around," Canada summed it up. "The cost: time with a caring adult and a couple of hamburgers."

Surely we can afford this -- multiplied by a few million adults and a few billion burgers. Just imagine the sign: "Over 13 Million Served."

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Crime Teenagers White House