“At Risk” – Why It’s in Quotes
This week, we are focusing on the “at risk” label. Informing my lecture are the national and international research done by scholars listed at the end of the lecture and my own research in the Los Angeles inner-city community of South Central. I encourage you to use at least one of these articles and incorporate the material in your work this week.
What is Wrong with “At-Risk”?
Most of you are working with populations that are considered in need of support, help and/or intervention. We have many labels to describe these populations: marginalized, underprivileged, disadvantaged, at-risk.
“At-risk” is particular troublesome for a number of reasons and is the focus of our lecture.
But, please note, all terms used to described people with considerable less resources, less power, and more challenges should be given your laser-like focus. The key here is thinking beyond the individual and looking at larger public issues that maybe the root cause of what seemingly is a personal trouble, also known as using your Sociological Imagination.
Your challenge as public sociologists and public criminologists: Stating picking up on what are the terms that your colleagues use to describe your clients, whether they are dogs or humans. Be sure to begin including this analysis and reflection in your journals – this week and beyond.
The concept “at risk” is used widely in professional settings, human services offices, schools, and even in some academic disciplines. Yet, very few have attempted to create a singular definition that is used across settings. Instead, Foster and Spenser (2010) argue that the at-risk label has become “a label attached to young people whose current behaviors and social backgrounds predict, statistically, a later life of ill health, poverty, criminality, or social disrepute” (130).
Therefore, Pica-Smith and Veloria (2012:34) argue that the label of “at risk” must be deconstructed, interrogated, and problematized in order…to develop a critical consciousness that extends beyond the individual level of analysis.” This is based on their research in which they found that for their participants, who were “predominantly white, middle-class women, the term is understood as synonymous with students of color, poor youth, or youth with disabilities. [They] demonstrate assumptions that other students are inherently at risk based on their racial, class, and disability identities.”
So, one of the main problems with this label is that entire groups of people get put into the label of “at risk” without a critical perspective on recognizing the institutional and structural forces that are shaping the realities for people.
Swadener (2010:9) writes that individual-based labels such as “at risk” have an enduring effect: “Blaming the victim is one way of locating pathology and deficiencies within the individual and/or family, and has had the devastating effect of being accepted as common sense…and a pervasive stereotype of those at the margins of dominant culture. In reality, [research shows] the vast majority of impoverished people are law abiding, resourceful, and willing to work.”
Side note: Test your own common sense notions versus Sociological research that is posted in Cougar Courses. How did you score?
The “at-risk” label is extremely individualistic at best and, at worst, connotes a sense of hopelessness.
The other main issue that problematic for the “at risk” label is that it based on “deficit thinking,” which means that you are looking at the person as “less than” or “missing something” rather than beginning with their strengths. Angela Valenzuela calls it “subtractive thinking.” Many researchers, such as Jason Irizarry, write extensively critiquing this practice. While most academics in social sciences and educational fields agree that deficit model thinking is not good, in practice, many out in the field – working with clients like yours – practice this notion. Do you?
Another challenge this week is for you to identify forms of deficit model thinking at your site.
My graduate student, Cynthia Arellano (2012), conducted an MA thesis called, RELIENCY: BEYOND THE REPORT CARD. Her research arose from her experiences / praxis as an ELD middle school teacher in Poway. She wanted to understand the ways in which the young immigrant males were labeled by the school community as “at risk,” when she viewed them as quite resilient. She examined the previous research on resiliency, which is grounded in the psychology field. While she found the basic definitions of resiliency applicable to her population – young, recently arrived, Latino immigrants – their experiences were not well represented in the literature. Instead, her population seemed over-represented in the field that examines (alleged) “at risk” youth. Cynthia was able to critique both fields and then lead us to how she – in her scholarly analysis and voice – wants resiliency to be utilized.
Cynthia used a method called “journal-elicitation interviews.” She used the concept of photo-elicitation interviews (or “photovoice”), where participants take photos and discuss them with the interviewer. Cynthia created journals for her participants to draw and write. She wanted to see how and if her participants would generate data that could fit into a new resiliency model. Her method was quite successful and she found many forms of resiliency, along with many instances of structural and institutional barriers that shape their opportunities and experiences. Cynthia also drew upon “validation theory” introduced by Dr. Laura Rendon.
The articles that I present and use this week all “interrogate” and deconstruct the notion of “at risk” and also offer alternatives to that label. Here is an example from Foster and Spenser’s article (2010:126): “Drawing on the stories relayed to us by 50 women and men who frequented a youth drop-in center in downtown Ottawa and received income support from the province of Ontario, we present an alternative way of analyzing and understanding the lives of young people whose behavior and circumstances are framed as ‘negative outcomes’ by the risk approach, and whose triumphs are deemed circumvented risks by the resilience approach.”
Beth Blue Swadener (2010) wants us to use the term, “at promise” and bases her argument after having “literally hundreds of conversations with parents-African American, Latina/Latina, Native or indigenous American, Kenyan and South African, many of whom are single parents living below the poverty line” (8). And she argues for the term, at promise, to truly encompass the potential in all children. She elaborated this point here: “Getting out-of-school children back into school or enrolled in vocational programs was a major agenda of our volunteer organization, but I found that the arts program and the use of dance, drama, song, and visual arts (drawing, painting, and wood carving) were powerful antidotes to life of and on the streets. I use this brief example to underscore my intent that we view all children as children "at promise," however privileged or difficult their circumstances may be” (24).
Swadener ends her article by showing what being “at promise” means by sharing a poem written by an 8 year old Mexican-American girl who was participating in a bilingual family literacy program:
On the day l was born the earth shook and the angels wept.
On the day l was born the sky turned green, the clouds turned orange.
On the day l was born, they discovered Atlantis.
And books overflowed my house.
On the day l was born the earth was clean and there was peace.
On the day I was born my family scampered in to see me.
On the day I was born the sun fell in love with the moon.
Finally, in an article entitled, “Gender and being ‘bad’: Inner-city students’ photographs,” I compared the lives of two elementary school children who were labeled as “bad” (Clark-Ibáñez 2008). Note, the entire school in South Central contained kids who were allegedly “at risk” and so I focused on the boy and girl who received the most negative labels in the class of 40 students. I found that the using photo-elicitation interviews let me see their lives in a different light AND it contradicted some of the notions of their deficits. I witnessed strength where others saw peril. Yet, it was not equally experienced by both students. The “bad boy” was actually in better shape that the “bad girl.” I won’t give away more because I invite you to read the article.
I will “toot my own horn” and share with you an email I received about this article that might entice you to read it as well! :-) It’s not everyday you have such a nice, unsolicited compliment on your work!
I just finished reading your "Gender and Being 'Bad': Inner-City Students' Photographs" chapter in Doing Visual Research with Children and Young People.
I just wanted to compliment you on writing one of the BEST pieces I've ever read about researching children in my 30+ years as a university instructor. The two case studies you profiled were so elegantly and poignantly written--I felt that I knew these two children so well after I finished the chapter.
This is a work that I want my own students to read. I'm in K-12 theatre education and I teach qualitative research methods at ASU. Your piece is a masterful exemplar of case study research and ethnography. To my knowledge, this is my first exposure to your work, and I look forward to reading more about your research in the near future.
I wish you a good summer. Thanks, again, for a great read!
Johnny Saldaña, Professor
Arizona State University
This week’s case studies are about how regional research – research done in your own community – can contribute to social change and improvements. Our CSU system has nine regional / public research institutes, including the one at Sacramento State University mentioned in Case Study 3.4, that relate to our studies of public Sociology and regional research. Every one of you can find yourself and your site in these case studies!
Case Study 3.1 focused on “place” based research and trying to understand how to build and focus research on places rather than people. I really liked the graph on the income diversity of neighborhoods (page 124). What is the income diversity of the communities you serve in your internship? Is it different than where your actual site is located? Connected to our lecture and topic this week is their “take” on resiliency, which is based on neighborhoods (pages 127-128) – which communities bounced back from the housing market crash?
Case Study 3.2 is an inspiring explanation of how CSU professors in Sacramento have spent the last decade creating a regional portrait of thoughts and trends in their area. It motivated me to ask my colleagues about doing something similar for North County! Check out the way that undergraduates are involves and getting amazing experiences from this project. Our very own National Latino Research Center is very similar to this organization in the scope and importance of projects.
Case Study 3.3 focuses on how using regional, state, and even national data helped improve conditions for Oregon in the middle of a food crisis. It was interesting to see how the state government dealt with its image of being the “highest hunger rates” (page 138).
Case Study 3.4 explains how they created an online resource to combat poverty in North Carolina. It seems like Dr. Leslie Hossfeld is a one-woman public scholar running an important website to help practitioners around her state help advocate for and identify those in need of resources. Loved the story about visual mapping – GSI – and am inspired to learn from my colleagues at CSUSM who are beginning a program on this area.
The final Case Study 3.5, is an amazing “biography” of Dr. Paul Luebke, a Sociology professor who became a state legislator in North Carolina. It was pretty amazing to read how a professor / activist become a lawmaker!
Another connection to the readings and your internship site…Think how and when research is collected at your work. Ask your supervisors if they have ever done a “needs assessment” or “evaluation” research project at your site. Ask if they have ever written a report based on their clients and services. What type of data did they use? Was it quantitative, qualitative, or both? Did they collect the data or did they rely on outside sources, such as county data sets, state-wide statistics, or Census data? Read those materials and use this or next week in your community forums or journals.
Tattoo Tales on “Compassion” (Chapter 3, pages 61-82)
Once again, this chapter “hit home” in terms how lovely it fit into your own internship sites and with broadening our understanding of “at risk.” Compassion requires that you reject the “at risk” label and any other language that dehumanizes, “others” and otherwise reduces the chances of individuals.
This week, instead of my comments for each quote, I present my favorite “stand outs” and leave it up to you to apply them to your experiences and your internship site!
When he moved when saw folks who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd.” He had room fro everybody in his compassion. (page 63, paraphrased)
After Betito was shot, paralyzed, and then died, they found those who did it. “When they were caught and I found that I knew them, it was excruciating not to be able to hate them.” (page 66)
It is the highest honing of compassion that which is hospitable to victim and victimizer both? (page 67)
Said to Looney, just out of camp, scared, and alone. “I know you think you are in a deep, dark hole, pero la neta, you’re in a tunnel. It’s in the nature of tunnels that if you keep walking, the light’s gonna show up. Trust me, I can see it – I’m taller than you are.” (page 70)
“[He] didn’t seek the rights of lepers, he touched the leper before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast, he was the outcast. He didn’t fight for the improved conditions for the prison, he simply said, ‘I was in prison.’”(page 72, paraphrased)
The stink of the church hadn’t changed, only how folks saw it. The people at Dolores Mission had come to embody Wendell Berry’s injunction: “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.” (page 74)
Compassion is “dismantling of barriers that exclude” and “ripping off the roof of the place, and those outside being let in.” (page 75)
Matteo, crying, has the Montana newspaper on his lap: “I just read this article again. I don’t know….It really gets to me.” He puts his hand over his heart. “Makes me feel like I am somebody.” I lean across and whisper, “Well, that’s because you are somebody.” Matteo and Julian had never been inside before. Now, a new place of fellowship had been forged, some roof in Montana has been ripped right open, and those outside have been let in. (page 79-80, paraphrased)
What do you do to rip off the roof? How and when does your internship site rip its roofs off? What are the effects? If it does not (or you don’t), how could you envision a new practice or approach of compassion?
Phew! I feel like I packed a lot into this lecture. :-)
I look forward to seeing your reflections and reactions of what you “digested” in this lecture when you write your community forums and journals. I gave you various hints and suggestions for you to connect it all together. See the hyper links embedded in this lecture and the items I poste as additional material to help you further.
References for At-Risk Critiques
Cinzia Pica-Smith1 & Carmen Veloria. 2012. “At risk means a minority kid:” Deconstructing deficit discourses in the study of risk in education and human
Services. Pedagogy and the Human Sciences, 2, 1, 33-48.
Clark-Ibáñez, Marisol. 2008. Gender and being ‘bad’: Inner-city students’ photographs, pp. 95-113. In Doing Visual Research with Children and Young People: Stories from the Field, editor, Pat Thomas. Routledge Press.
Foster, Karen and Dale Spenser. 2011. At risk of what? Possibilities over probabilities in the study of young lives. Journal of Youth Studies, 14, 1, 125 -143.
Riele, Kitty te. 2006. Youth `at risk': further marginalizing the marginalized?
Journal of Educational Policy, 21, 129-145.
Swadener, Beth Blue. 2010. "At Risk" or "At Promise"? From Deficit Constructions of the "Other Childhood" to Possibilities for Authentic Alliances with Children and Families. International Critical Childhood Policy Studies, 3,1, 7-29.