The second day of the National Summit on Authentic Youth Engagement got off to an invigorating start with a keynote address by Dr. Steve Perry. Perry is the founder and principal of Capitol Preparatory Magnet School, a high school that serves at-risk, inner-city youth and has managed to send all graduating students to four year colleges since 2006. As a social worker, Perry has intimate knowledge of how important it is to authentically engage youth. According to Perry, effective social workers “work themselves out of a job.” In order to truly engage our children, adults need to hold themselves accountable for ensuring that children become successful independent adults, instead being clients for the rest of their lives. This task is often made difficult due to what Perry calls “funky” attitudes of young people. Often, youth grow an exterior hard shell to protect the inner pain results from early difficulties, including abuse or neglect they may experience at home. It can be challenging not only to engage youth, but to feel motivated to do so when a young person continually tries to push you away. However, as Perry explains, the best leaders recognize that the children with the hardest shells are the ones who are softest inside. Rather than be offended by a youth’s attitude, adults should take it as a sign that the young person needs guidance. When you continually stand by children, through bad and good times, they will grow to trust in you. That healthy bond is crucial, as it may be the only positive relationship in a life defined by turbulence.

Perry also highlighted the importance of encouraging youth to be proud of their stories. When we teach youth to be proud of their roots, the pain they carry can become a source of pride. Youth can begin to recognize their uniqueness and worth and appreciate that it comes from being survivors, and this realization can be one of the most empowering moments of their life. When we show young people that they are beautiful when they feel scared and tainted, they will start to act beautiful. Far too often, youth act poorly because they feel they are not worthy of acting better. By showing them that their circumstances do not define them, these youth will be able to rise above their challenges.

Far too often, adults pity youth. Pity is poison: pity is what you offer someone when you think they have nothing to offer the world. Dr. Perry encouraged us to change how we view some of society’s most vulnerable youth. Instead of viewing them as forever broken, we should see the untapped potential that lies within them. By offering youth concrete guidance rather than pity, we can help them realize that potential and become productive members of society. Doing so is difficult but absolutely essential to the wellbeing of our most vulnerable young people and to our communities