High risk neighborhoods may have more of an impact on low risk youth—affecting whether or not they become criminals as adults— than they do on the high risk youth, said Patrick Tolan, director of Youth-Nex at a Curry talk.
“It is important and unexpected,” said Tolan of the findings from a study examining poor, inner city communities.
Tolan spoke last Thursday at the Youth-Nex Works In Progress meeting. The talks are designed to encourage faculty and graduates from different disciplines across Grounds to discuss their work on a range of topics in positive youth development.
Tolan said this raised questions about how to best protect these low risk youth. The answer, he suggested, might have to do with social organization of the neighborhood—which includes how engaged people are with each other and how much informal regulation exists within the community.
“These kids who grew up in impoverished neighborhoods with more social connections among the people living there, were more able to stay out of crime than similar youth in neighborhoods that did not have this social fabric, he said.
“It may mean you don’t save budding gang leaders by organizing the neighborhood, but you might save the kids who would get pulled into it,” Tolan said.
Tolan also found that living in high risk neighborhoods affected how early delinquency started and how much crime there is.
In a current study, the Youth-Nex director is working to try and better understand neighborhoods using a more complex approach than done previously in the field.
“Since settings may have more of an effect on behavior than an individual’s tendencies,” said Tolan, “it’s important to learn how adolescents can use their neighborhoods and how neighborhoods can take care of adolescents.”
But capturing these data is particularly hard to do, said Tolan. “How do you measure neighborhood characteristics? Do you take collective perception as representing the truth or do you look at what key, well-informed members can tell you? A lot of it is perception,” he said.
Tolan describes a hypothetical situation. “Five young men standing on a corner. Is that danger or are they just finding a place to hang out as friends? Neighbors perceive this in different ways, despite being from the same community. Neighbors of different ages see it differently. What makes people perceive that one way or another,” he said.
In the spirit of Works In Progress—discussing approaches rather than only reporting findings—Tolan asked colleagues for their input about how to assess and test the ways teens spend time around their neighborhoods.
Faculty and students raised issues about differing perspectives between adults and youth with regard to perceived safety. Some suggested considering youth’s territory, differences in gender,
and norms within neighborhoods.
Associate professor from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Ellen Bass offered her perspective to look at “what action possibilities are afforded in neighborhoods and therefore what different behaviors occur.”
Perhaps kids hang out around school because it affords them open space, she suggested.
Others were not familiar with the theory of affordances. Appearing delighted with this example demonstrating the value of a multi-disciplinary approach, Tolan said “It’s important because we can think about it differently. We could get a whole lot of understanding that we wouldn’t have gotten if you wouldn’t have been here and brought that term up.”
- Ellen Daniels
Youth-Nex, the U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, hosts monthly Works In Progress meetings. For more information about the center, visit: http://curry.virginia.edu/youth-nex