Community Building and the Key

A week ago I wandered down to ‘Art on the Water’ gallery and visited with Dean Kjerland about his newly acquired collection of fossils from Hamline University and his ideas for development on Northfield’s West bank. The conversation meandered to the Key and the Northfield Union of Youth, which has been under some discussion recently in the News. Dean said something I found very interesting and important and that was how he enjoyed visiting with young people on their way to the Key. He said he didn’t approve of everything thing they did but he liked engaging them in conversation. He appreciated their perspective and interacting with them. Having worked with youth most of my adult life I found this a refreshing comment for a downtown building owner to make. Too often it seems the attitude expressed is that we want to eliminate the presence of young people.

The last time I had a similar conversation was when I used to talk about various students of mine with Bob Jacobsen. I would stop in to shop often for things I couldn’t find anywhere else or pick up my daughter who worked for Bob. Bob would stop and ask me what I knew about this young person or that one, someone he had taken a particular interest in. Bob was into community development of all sorts but this was one aspect of community too many overlook. He knew instinctively that what young people of all types need is someone to take an interest in them. Someone who sees them for the interesting individual they are. A lot of times they think no one notices and no one cares. Sometimes they expect rejection and dress accordingly and if you ask them they might say, “I don’t care what you think.” But they do care, in fact they want to know you care that they challenge you even though they make it hard for you to breakthrough and connect.

But these young people are also doing something important for themselves and for us. Their doing the business of finding out what it means to create a new world with their name on it, sometimes they make it hard to appreciate them, but if we can remember to be curious and interested it helps. But they are also stretching us getting us to see things in new ways ask different questions and seek new answers. I believe it really is community building. Most of the young people I work with are likely to stay in town. We must connect with them and I know it is not always easy. But I have found time and time again it is well worth it. Youth of all backgrounds need to be offered opportunities to enter the community conversation. They will not know everything about how to do it or what to say or how to say it but they will learn through the interaction. As community members it is our job to help them find a connection and see the value of community. If we fail at that we fail our selves not just them. That’s not to say we don’t respond to behaviors that are disturbing but we remind ourselves that the behavior is not the person.

Recently the ALC, the school I work in, was moved out of the Northfield Community Resource Center. A decision made with little if any input from the ALC staff or students. Had I been asked I would have had many reasons to reject the move, among them moving the program away from the high school, but the most important reason for being at the NCRC was the potential for being part of a community and interacting with it. Some at the NCRC were receptive to that and enjoyed the interaction, others disliked the young people and just wanted all of us gone. I guess that would be a neat way of dealing with social differences – just putting out of sight all those folks you found disagreeable but maybe not the best way to build a community.

The ALC will have to find new ways to connect young people to the community from our new location at Longfellow School. I hope the Key can continue to offer young people in the community a place to come to and be a presence down town to challenge us and keep us growing.

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