Sunday, June 19, 2005

Record number of ex-convicts return to streets. Two-Thirds will be rearrested within 3 years.

Have you every heard of a concept called mind mapping?

You take a clean sheet of paper and put a circle in the middle. Add a topic, then start brainstorming everything you know. As you think of things, draw spider lines from the circle and write down each idea. As you think of related ideas, add them as lines extending from main thought lines.

Today I applied this thinking to my Sunday, June 19, Chicago Tribune. One front page article headline was "Record number of ex-convicts return to the streets." As the topic of my mind map I decided to map out all of the articles in today's Tribune that were related to this, or that were offering a strategy to keep youth from prison in the first place, or help them to meaningful jobs after prison so they would be less likely to return. I don't know how to put a graphic on my blog yet, so if you'd like me to fax you my mind map, post a comment below.

I found 18 stories, including two full page advertisements, that I could relate to this topic.

In addition to the front page story, which was followed by two-full inside pages and a map showing that most ex-offenders go into just a few West side and South Side neighborhoods, there were two other stories that I would call "negative news".

For instance, there was a page two story titled, "Happy slap” yobs breed fear, anger" which talked about anti-social behavior associated with working-class youth in Britain’s urban centers." Prime Minster Tony Blair was quoted as saying, “It’s time to reclaim the streets for the decent majority. People are rightly fed up with street corner and shopping center thugs…” I've read similar editorials in Chicago papers over the past 12 years.

There was a page 3 metro story with a headline "3 killed and 4 wounded in weekend shootings." This was not Iraq, this was inner city Chicago.

In the story about ex-offenders, President Bush's 2004 State of the Union speech was quoted. In it he said, “America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

In same article, Douglas Marlowe, director of the Section on Criminal Justice Research at the Treatment Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, was quoted as saying “All of our solutions have been simplistic.”

That's the problem. Our solutions have been much to simplistic. I seldom see anyone holding up a chart like you can see on the http://www.tutormentorconnection.org web site, that shows a timeline from birth to a career, with elementary school, middle school, high school, college/vocational training, job, as stages that inner city kids go through. I don't see people showing prison or juvenile detention as just a detour on this journey.

My mind map was not a simplistic drawing. It showed the 18 stories that could have been connected in an editorial or Internet strategy.

If we're going to have a sophisticated strategy we should not just be focusing as prison as the place for "corrections". If you think of the growth of a child from birth to the beginning of a job/career by age 25, a few years in prison or a juvenile detention center could be looked upon as just a detour between birth and a career.

The time before prison should be an opportunity for young people to "get it right the first chance. Most should not need the second chance President Bush calls for. If the country were investing more consistently, and in more places where poverty is the enemy, to make prevention, youth development, education, and career aspirations programs more available, we might not need to be talking about so many people in prison and returning to the streets with no skills and few employers waiting to hire them.

While parents, teachers, social workers, mentors, etc. push kids to stay in school and reach their potential, some kids live in neighborhoods where there are too few people modeling positive aspirations and providing significant support. In these neighborhoods business needs to be more involved, using its people, dollars, jobs, youth apprentice and vocational education programs to influence choices kids make, starting as early as 3rd and 4th grade.

Programs that try to change behaviors that have been learned over the first 15 to 20 years of life are doomed to failure, unless there is a significant investment by industry to create career paths for ex-offenders. It's far less expensive to do it right the first time.

The map in the Tribune article shows that many neighborhoods on the west and south side of Chicago are dumping grounds for ex offenders. Statistics show that 2/3 of these will return to prison. If these are the role models for kids between age 3 and 10, what career choices do we expect these kids will make?

Let me go back to my mind map. Here were a few other stories that I put on my mind map. These were not negative news. They were positive.

On page 1 of the Metro section there was a story about teens who get up early in the morning to take public transportation from one end of the city to another, just to get to a good school. On page 2 of the Metro section were two stories telling about a kids video project and a youth with “empathy for the poor”. In the Tribune magazine insert there was a story about a youth program called Changing Worlds. And in the Sports sections two pages recognized scholar-athletes.

However, nothing tied these stories together. There was no mind map, or blueprint in the Tribune, or on its web site, suggesting that these are all part of a problem/solution mosaic that could be leading the 600,000 readers of the Sunday Tribune into a learning/reflection/innovation process that leads more Chicago area residents to take responsibility for making sure that every child in the Chicago region has a better chance to reach a job/career, even if he had a detour in jail.

All of the stories in the Perspective section and in the Editorial page of today's paper were about Dad’s and Father’s Day. No effort was made to talk about how programs like the video project or Changing Worlds could be in every inner city neighborhood, providing an alternative to street life, and building aspirations that could compete with the careers modeled by ex offenders.

There were even two stories in the Business section that could have tied in to this. One talked about how GM pays workers who are laid off, but still on the GM payroll. Another talked about the highest paid CEOs. There was no brainstorming in the commentary section suggesting that these CEOs could be using some of their huge income to support charities that mentor kids to careers, or ex cons to jobs. Neither suggested a strategy on the part of the car company to engage non working employees as coaches or mentors to ex offenders or inner city youth.

I think about these concepts all the time. I'm trying to get others to think about them too. I don't have an advertising budget. But as Sunday's Tribune illustrates, there were many stories that reminded me of the problem and showed me many solutions. However, this is not a simplistic process. We need people who will help us see eduction, violence, public health, incarceration, workforce development, etc. as part of a web of issues related to poverty and too many simplistic solutions.

I encourage you to take next Sunday's paper and create a similar mind map. The stories will be different, but the problems will probably be the same, regardless of what city you are in. As you do this, think of ways your map and my map might connect, or how we might draw more people into this thinking.

I think this would be a great project for kids in a high school or college service learning program or internship. It really shows how events are connected. I think it's a strategy that can get more people involved.

If you can put your map on a web site or blog, let me know what your web site is.

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