Michelle A. Behnke is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services.
When I was young, my parents divorced, and as with many divorced families, there was not nearly enough money to go around. Neither of my parents held a college degree. I was poor, black, and living in a single-parent household. The odds of my success were not good. I was statistically more likely to become pregnant, drop out of high school, or become involved in an abusive relationship than to finish high school, let alone go to college or earn a graduate degree. I was an at-risk youth before they coined the term.
Today, with the divorce rate at 50 percent, the overall birth rate among young women ages 15 to 19 at 41.2 births per 1,000 teen girls in 2004, and the number of families living in poverty rising annually, there are many young people who are classified as “at risk.” The odds of success have not improved significantly, particularly for students of color. In my hometown, the high school graduation rate for students of color is just over 50 percent, a number that should horrify us all.
I was fortunate as a preteen. Despite the divorce, both of my parents remained actively engaged in my upbringing and provided constant motivation to excel academically. Teachers and other adults acknowledged my academic success and helped me get opportunities that would not only enhance the likelihood of success, but also help me determine my career path. They mentored me before schools had formal mentoring programs. They set high standards for me and constantly challenged me to do my best. Most important, they were constantly and consistently involved. They insisted that I would not be merely a negative statistic. They assured me that success was on my horizon.
“At-risk youth” is such a sad term, but so descriptive. These youth are truly at risk of missing their lives; youth at risk of losing their liberty; youth at risk of losing their future. As lawyers and as bar leaders, we have a unique opportunity to make a difference for at-risk youth. What can we do? What do these kids need? The answer is easy and hard at the same time: Listen and become involved. At-risk youth need to know that someone is interested in their success, not just watching for their failure. At-risk youth need examples and good role models. At-risk youth need someone who will be interested in their long-term success, not just in today’s photo op.
This year, ABA President Karen Mathis has at-risk youth as a focus, and she has some exciting plans in store. Many bar associations may already be working in this important area. Law-related education programs and projects like street law or peer mediation programs geared toward helping young people resolve conflicts or get a chance to be diverted from the juvenile justice system are all keys to helping young people who might otherwise be at risk.
The most exciting thing is that working with the ABA on this issue does not have to mean beginning an entirely new project or jettisoning existing programs. The ABA would like to know what is already in place and succeeding at state, local, and specialty bar associations. I hope that you will share your success with the ABA. Working with the ABA on this issue can combine the forces of both your state, local, or specialty bar and the national association to show your community the importance of this matter and our profession’s commitment to the success of this nation’s youth. Working with the ABA on this issue can result in implementation of programs conceived on a national level or replication of a program from another jurisdiction. The implementation can be tailored to fit the needs of your state or local community, thereby creating a program truly designed to help youth at risk in your locale.
I hope your association embraces this issue. What if the next child you mentored grew up to be a teacher, a lawyer, a health care professional, or a computer programmer? You never know whose child is at risk and what he or she will turn out to be. He or she might just be a future member of your bar association—or maybe even a future state bar president!