Finding a Framework for Trenton Adolescent Success

Tyrone A. Gaskins

Beautiful Trenton, utilizing the Trenton Community Café framework to engage citizens identified the following concerns about youth development in the City of Trenton.  I have capsulated the main themes as there seemed to be some duplication.  Basically, participants felt:

  • Youth can be engaged effectively now to make Trenton’s built environment and atmosphere more beautiful;
  • There is a need for student internships within the city – drama, law and journalism;
  • City youth should be able to participate meaningfully and enthusiastically in the city’s coordination of arts, culture, history and marketing.
  • There should be a youth/adolescent caucus; a means for youth political involvement;
  • We should engage youth in civic and community projects to cultivate their interests in City of Trenton.

While framed in what I think is a touchy feely notion of cultivating in our youth a love for the city, I do believe participants in the café seem sincere about their aspirations to create more supports for youth in the city.  The fact of the matter is that too few African American, Hispanic and other youth in Trenton, are growing up experiencing the key ingredients for their healthy development.  Many do not experience valuable support from adults that build relationships across generations and that allow them to hear consistent messages about boundaries and values. Many have too little to do that is positive, constructive and that is not tarnished by commercial media influence…  And while in the Trenton community, there are some degrees of structured support, and some youth are progressing to manage the developmental hurdles they must navigate; many of our children and teenagers in the city are not being prepared for the 21st century in terms of basic skills, marketable personal attributes, growth mindsets or any exposure to learning, training and vocational opportunities that will support their maturation toward becoming contributing city citizens.

Trenton is not atypical.  Urban youth across America, do not have these supports.  And like other poor, post industrial cities, the Trenton community is overwhelmed with problems and need in the lives of our teenagers – this can be confirmed by a walk through any middle or high school satellite in the city on any weekday. The real challenge facing educational and youth development professionals, the legal system and people generally, is to shift our thinking toward a different, more encompassing approach; an approach that addresses the deeper social and economic factors tending to limit positive outcomes for urban teenagers.  An approach that does not marginalize urban adolescents, but chooses to embrace them; one that doesn’t exploit their choices for growth and development by reaping gains for political, penal, recreational and entertainment mediums; but instead, provides alternative solutions to the entrenched economic, social, familial and individual challenges they face.  Some of these challenges are:

  • Trenton’s nuclear families continue to be under the attack of shifting economic demands and a need for two wage earners; often there is only one.  This scenario is compounded by the saturation of drugs and crime in the community.
  • Many adults no longer consider it their responsibility to play a role in the lives of young people outside their nuclear family.  Often, many cannot afford to extend themselves or are fearful of their own children.
  • Adults and institutions are increasingly unable to articulate values or enforce appropriate behavior without being punitive, condescending and judgmental in their approaches.
  • The mass media continues to be the primary influence in many of the lives of underdeveloped and underexposed urban youth.
  • Society continues to become increasingly age segregated, providing fewer opportunities for meaningful intergenerational relationships.
  • Socializing systems (families, schools, congregations) are becoming more isolated, competitive, and suspicious of each other.

As problems and solutions have become more complex, more of the solutions for adolescents have been fueled by punitive responses.  Further, judicial, educational, penal and other human service professionals are sorely under prepared to manage our teenagers.  Penal and educational models used to manage urban adolescent populations currently give lip service to their cultural and developmental needs.  We have failed to reframe our teaching paradigms to approach the urban adolescent; we have removed all creative genres from public school curriculums in response to federal legislation or economic restraints and emphasized only the basics; as if emotional intelligence has not been identified as an essential ingredient towards balanced human development.

Our attitude toward minority youth in cities, needs to change folks… regardless of the interventions initiated, the laws passed; boot camps built or certified professionals hired; the experiences of urban adolescents will not and cannot change, unless parents, teachers, neighbors and others are able to alter fundamental views about this group’s needs and identify suitable and authentic ways to approach them.  In Trenton, we act as if the young developing African American and Hispanic men and women, standing around in areas around the city, are simply invisible and unreachable.  This is a tragic mistake that wastes some of the urban community’s most valuable energy, ideas, enthusiasm and impetus for change.  Our most innovative efforts should be geared toward urban youth who stand on Trenton street corners each day; whose lives dramatically impact our own; whose presence dramatically impact the regional perception of our city; its hopes for revitalization and its economic development.  We must begin to value the humanity of urban youth; not just our own children, but the teenagers who seek their identities in commercial idols because their families and neighbors have not stepped up to the plate.  These youth are disenfranchised, often angry, and many exist in survival mode only; but they continue to deserve attention and a fair share of the city’s public resources.  It’s up to us to find solutions to their challenges and to garner these solutions from the adolescents themselves.

The city will continue to miss the boat regarding positive outcomes for this population if we do not include youth in policy-making roles. In the past the city has convened summits and formed youth councils that don’t have any youth input.  These will never be enough…and our adolescent charges see right through the veneer of our insincerity.  Seats for youth with ample decision-making latitude on our youth policy boards and commissions must be seen as a method by which innovative strategies relevant to empowering teenagers may bear fruit.   Now all that said, here’s a few hints at potential pathways for the city to pursue a real youth directed agenda:

  • Identify youth leadership models across NJ and the country in coordination with local youth, youth serving agencies and the Trenton Board of Education; let a youth led contingent determine which models to examine and send them on a fact finding mission to explore these “best practices” and to report back to the Trenton Community.
  • Re-establish the City’s youth summit using the Community Café Model to cull the youth community for their needs and perspectives;
  • Re -invigorate the youth seat on the Trenton Board of Education with appropriate training and preparation to support gainful involvement;
  • Establish a youth caucus to Trenton City Council with youth in assigned roles to participate in city planning meetings that impact any portion of their human or built environment; with appropriate training and preparation to support gainful involvement;
  • Create an Office of Youth Development within the Mayor’s Office with a name that doesn’t promote partying and alcohol consumption (i.e., MOET) – admittedly not a youth program but the point is we need a little more thoughtfulness in planning;
  • Encourage the state to continue County Youth Advisory Boards and explore the models being used in foster care to support youth in transitional housing and their re-entry into the community – these youth have resiliency skills that other young people can benefit from;
  • Provide increased funding and support for proven models of youth entrepreneurial development like the Minding Our Business program coordinated out of Rider University by Dr. Hernandez with a specific emphasis on re-educating street corner entrepreneurs.

An indoctrination of youth core developmental assets, values and skills, are the basis of what must happen for Trenton adolescents in order for them to become contributing members to the city and the redevelopment that is currently taking place here.  This type of approach must emphasize:

  • Nurturing relationships with adolescents that simply “let’s them be who they are” in a climate of trust and acceptance, while modeling and providing mentorship built on mutual respect;
  • Seeking youth contributions in their vision for themselves and their communities – this means viewing and encouraging teenage character assets by providing opportunities for personality, skills, knowledge and creative development;
  • Duplicating achievement and building upon small successes to motivate larger goals; and teaching teenagers to do this in their own life plans.

For additional information, questions, concerns or to review our portfolio of youth development workshops, please contact Targeting Alternative Growth (TAG) Resources Inc., at:


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