Shawn Ginwright

author, professor, activist

Is character development really enough for urban youth?

Few people would disagree that neighborhood conditions such as poverty, violence, unemployment can have a negative impact on young people’s development. For to many young people the daily struggle to survive in combination with no opportunities to reflect and heal, has brewed a toxic elixir of hopelessness. However, current research focused on character development, and social emotional learning has simply failed to tackle this issue head on. Researchers instead have focused on psychological research on brain development in order to suggest that young people can overcome the constraints of poverty if they had more robust opportunities to build grit, perseverance, and gratitude in their schools.

I don’t entirely discount the significance of character development for young people. However, character development alone is simply insufficient to address the needs of urban youth because it rarely compels young people to confront the very conditions that harmed their character in the first place. I recall a similar educational debate years ago about the importance of resilience, which is the ability for young people to “bounce back” from adverse experiences. Resilience research seeks to understand the qualities and conditions that allow some young people to excel despite difficult experiences. My colleague commented, “imagine that someone has their foot on your neck and it is very difficult to stand up! Resilience is like saying to young people that I’m going to make your neck stronger, rather than focusing on how to get the foot off your neck in the first place!”

In some ways, the current clamoring over character development, and social emotional health resembles this argument. Why haven’t researchers raised questions about the causes of poverty in the first place, and explored examples where schools, teachers, parents and community residents collectively challenge, and change the very conditions that cause harm to young people.  For young people, students and parents in low wealth communities, engagement in the conditions that shape life outcomes is perhaps the most potent and relevant form of social emotional health and character development. Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed is correct to raise questions about neighborhood conditions, and their impact on the healthy development of young people. He may have, however, simply focused on the wrong question, which was how do children succeed?

A more useful question would be, what constitutes social emotional health in the context of poverty and how might teachers build character in urban schools? My work suggests that culture, activism, relationships, meaning, and achievement (CARMA) are important character traits, and activities that confront inequality. Character is built for young people who practice grit daily when they dream, hope and toil for a better quality of life.  Teachers and youth workers build character among young people by putting matters of the heart out in the open, and collectively wrestling with difficult issues of the soul.


Excerpt from Ginwright’s Forthcoming Book; Soul Rebels: How Urban Teachers and Activists are Building Hope Among Urban Youth, Routledge Press

Copyright Shawn Ginwright All rights reserved.