Three sociologists in Baltimore spent a decade getting to know young people growing up in the city’s most impoverished communities. Their new book, “Coming of Age in the Other America,” chronicles the hardship in these neighborhoods—and how some adolescents manage to defy the odds.
For many of the book’s subjects, the barriers they bumped up against seemed impenetrable. As young adults, they suffered from unstable housing, economic insecurity, and in some cases trauma or abuse. Communities like the high-rise developments where the youth live, write authors Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin, have “a legacy of deep racial subjugation, intergenerational poverty, and resource-depleted neighborhoods.” Adversity is institutional. Yet the authors found that the teenagers differed greatly in their abilities to navigate young adulthood, graduate high school, stay healthy, and pursue higher education or a career.
The authors wondered: “What separates young people who stay on track from those who do not?”
Past studies found that personality traits like grit and ability to delay gratification play a large role in determining a child’s destiny. Was “grit” the saving grace here? The authors have their doubts. All the youths they studied exhibited extraordinary resilience and determination. Yet by their teens, many had succumbed to the grinding pressures of poverty. They had lost hope. In other cases, the young people hung onto their dreams only to have serious trouble fulfilling them.
Social forces and systemic obstacles “can shortchange the dreams of even the grittiest and most determined,” the sociologists write.
So what, then, set apart the few who managed to stay hopeful and achieve some of their goals?
The researchers found that the secret was being able to follow a passion and build an identity through it. Some of the teens were obsessed with comic books. Others customized cars or produced music. The authors call those interests “identity projects,” because they gave the youths a sense of pride and purpose.
“The youth who best managed to persevere found a passion through an identity project, which can serve as a virtual bridge between challenging present circumstances and an uncertain, but hoped-for, future,” they write. In some cases, the teens’ interests could be connected directly with lessons at school or job opportunities.
There is a growing awareness that such “interest driven” learning improves kids’ chances at success. In a video at Edutopia, Constance Steinkuehler, professor of digital media and former White House advisor, talks about the moment when she realized the power of interest-driven learning. She was running an afterschool program in which many high school-aged participants were reading years below grade level. When she gave them books about their interests (video games, in this case), their literacy levels improved dramatically. They were willing to devote the time and effort to comprehending the content.
According to learning scientists like Mimi Ito, the education system needs to do a better job of supporting interest-driven learning.
“Most kids need much more adult scaffolding, support, institutional invitations, and connections in order to connect the interests that they do have to opportunities and trajectories of learning that will really serve them in their adult life,” said Ito during a Connected Learning webinar.
Ito’s point speaks to the value of out-of-school learning programs. Organizations like many in the Remake Learning Network provide space, mentorship, and materials for youth to build on their interests—be it in a gaming club or a community garden. Trained adults can help young people figure out how to turn their existing passions into academic or professional opportunities.
Creative pursuits and the search for identity are part and parcel of any American adolescence, but for low-income students particularly, authors of “Coming of Age in the Other America” find, these experiences can make a huge difference in their ability to transition successfully into adulthood.
As the sociologists said, “Their identity work was not just about discovery, it was about survival.”