In his song "Me Against the World," rap musician Tupac Shakur relates how poverty, unresponsive institutions and attending futurelessness fuel the deadly cycle of youth gun violence: "What's the use?/ Unless we shootin''/ No one notices the youth." As this tragedy gets played out in New Bedford, we as adult community members must take notice, understand why so many young people lack hope for a better future, and become active and full participants in the lives of our youths.
A recent survey on health risks among New Bedford's middle and high school students revealed high rates of alcohol and drug use (read: "self-medication"), suicidal thoughts, and involvement in and fear of violence. One out of four middle school respondents reported that they had seriously thought about killing themselves. One in 10 middle and high school students had attempted suicide. More than one in 10 high school students reported having skipped school due to threats of violence at school or on their way to or from school.
More than one-quarter of New Bedford's children live in poverty. Our moral compass in America is out of kilter when the wealthy receive tax cuts they don''t need and the growing ranks of poor youths receive budget cuts. If our leaders can find the money to fight a war in Iraq, then we can afford to win the war at home against poverty.
Although the upcoming election will have enormous consequences on the lives of youths, they do not have any voice in the outcome. We who are eligible to vote have a responsibility to see through the smoke screen of campaign rhetoric and support local, state, and national candidates who will make budget and tax choices that help feed, house, educate and protect young people. On Election Day, we can be teachers and role models by taking a youth on our trip to the voting booth. And between election cycles, we should keep track of how the people we elected to office vote on legislation that affects youths.
We must demand that they make good on their pre-election commitments to make young people a budget priority.
In addition to using our voice and our vote to support the needs of young people, we each have a civic and moral duty to reach out in our everyday lives to the young people in our extended families and our community. The young people dying in our streets are not other people's children. The young people of today will be the workers, the parents and caretakers, the voters and the community leaders of tomorrow. A momentary act of anger that gets frozen in time, each homicide -- the victim and the murderer -- represents lost opportunity, wasted talent, our failure to nurture and protect. Every day we fail to act, eight children and teens die and 40 are wounded by firearms in what has been called "America's undeclared 21st-century civil war."
We all bear responsibility for where the young people of our community are today and where they will be tomorrow. All young people need caring, concerned adults in their lives. A strong, consistent relationship with at least one caring adult, whether they are a parent or not, is perhaps the single most important factor in shaping a positive future of youths who are at risk. Research has found that high-risk youths who could identify a single adult (in addition to their parents) for support are more likely to develop into healthy, self-sufficient adults than those who are unable to do so. Youths who have a close, positive relationship with an adult other than a parent are less likely to become involved with drugs, violence or crime.
In short, each of us, regardless of our status, education or circumstances, can play an invaluable part in improving the lives of young people and helping them become successful adults: Be a mentor, talk to the troubled kid next door, help them with their homework, coach a youth sports team, volunteer in a school or youth program, become a foster parent, hire young people from your neighborhood, drive your neighbor's child to the doctor, take care of a child who would otherwise be left home unsupervised. The possible ways we can assist, guide and support young people are limitless.
No young person should have to experience the sense of abandonment, isolation and invisibility of "It's just me against the world." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant theologian who died standing up against the Nazi Holocaust, stated, "The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children." Are you willing to help our community to pass this test?
Mr. French is the associate director of United Front Child Development Programs.