City Kids Might March To a Different Drummer
Proposal made to turn closing bases into schools for inner-city youth. MILITARY MENTORS
BOSTON — ANOTHER memo for the desk of President-elect Clinton: Norman Johnson, a retired admiral and dean of students at Boston University, may have found a workable way to help change the lives of many young people caught in the nation's violent inner cities.
Johnson proposes that inner-city youths be trained by newly discharged military personnel serving as youth mentors, and that military bases scheduled to be closed remain open and become residential schools.
At a Boston University forum last Friday, cosponsored by Business Executives for National Security (BENS), representatives from successful youth and veterans organizations, as well as military leaders, gathered to discuss this potentially far-reaching idea and to share their experiences working with youth.
"The military has a history of helping people from broken homes," said Johnson, "and there is a sense of belonging and family there. And now we have many trained and highly skilled people coming out of the military. Our nation could put them to work helping inner-city kids."
Currently there are about 122 military bases around the country due to be closed. "Many of them," said Keith Cunningham, a policy associate for BENS, "are groping for what to do." Unusual resource
Robert Silberman, assistant secretary for the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said, "We are downsizing military personnel five times greater than General Motors. These people can supply the nation with an extraordinary resource."
What most inner-city kids lack in their lives, say social-service professionals, are positive role models and mentors.
Charles Hirsch, executive vice president of the Amelior Foundation in New Jersey, an organization active in starting an urban youth program at Fort Dix (not scheduled to be closed), said, "We have kids begging us to get them out of the city because they don't expect to live beyond 20, and the parents ask us to help remove the kids from the neighborhoods. That's how bad it is."
Regarding the feasibility of trained former military personnel becoming mentors, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a military think tank in Washington, D.C., already has a general plan to serve as the skeleton of a pilot program for Johnson.
"We're thinking in terms of reachable youth from 13 to 18 years old," said Gary Horne, a senior staff researcher at CNA, but the definition of "reachable" is still to be defined.
"As of now," said Mr. Horne, "our plan has a support environment for the student composed of the school [and] the home base, but the main pillar of support is the mentor. What we want to get the student to do is to climb the ladder of self-esteem."
Johnson said the initial program could be two years in length and possibly service the most needy, Boston's homeless youth.
Prospective mentors could be drawn from several sources, including the Department of Defense, and then the program could be reoriented for dealing with street youth.
But many procedural, legal, and funding questions are still unanswered and political support must be garnered if the program is to go nationwide. Johnson and others at the forum point to the receptivity of key political leaders.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia has recently suggested that some form of Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s could be organized now. The CCC was administered by US Army officers, and more than 3 million young people were involved in building roads, bridges, trails, and state parks.
William McIntosh, director of program innovation at BENS, invited experienced leaders from around the country to contribute to the forum's discussion "so we're not trying to invent the wheel all over again."
For instance, Charles Hirsch is well along in establishing the program at Fort Dix in cooperation with the federal Job Corps. "We now have a board of directors for our Fort Dix Academy," he said, "and are trying to raise $6 million for the first year to help 300 high school dropouts."
Michael Brown, the co-founder of City Year, a nationally recognized Boston program with substantial corporate support, recruits and trains 215 energetic young people (out of 900 applicants) as volunteers in various community programs.
Giving his whole-hearted support to the military mentoring concept, Brown quoted Abraham Lincoln in suggesting that "we disenthrall ourselves from the ideas of the past." A special challenge
Bowie Johnson, program director of Citybound, a Boston residential treatment program for teenage boys, cautioned that many inner-city youths have problems that go beyond the reach of mentoring. "They have mental health and emotional needs," she said, "and they need help in getting control of themselves."
Silberman reminded the forum that officers assigned to the CCC in the 1930s actually "were a drain on the Army and almost destroyed some units."
He said that the military's primary mission is to be ready for combat, but he supported the idea that people leaving a downsized military were extremely capable and "would bring practical experience that can't be gained anywhere else." A date set
Despite all the obstacles to be overcome, Johnson has set a September, 1993 date to start a program at Fort Devens near Boston because "the need is so great." As for funding, he said monies could be made available under the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act and the 1990 Family Support Act.
"We just change the venues from community to military bases," he said.
To rally support in Congress for a possible national program, and to work with the new Clinton administration, BENS will consider lobbying political leaders, using the plan as refined by the Center for Naval Analyses.