Basil and the Wisdom of Youth

Basil Savitsky says that youth today live in “a post-Apollo world.” And this insight fuels his passion for working with youth in peer mentoring and leadership in the schools in Polk County, where I live and work right now.

The program in Polk is one manifestation of an asset-based approach called Positive Youth Development, which is national in scope but local in application. The PYD team Savitsky works with brings together five sectors: schools, faith communities, after-school providers, mental health (dual diagnosis with substance abuse), and public health (for prevention and health promotion). All of them communicate and work together in common cause.

As we talked in a quiet corner of Openroad Coffee in Columbus, he explained that young people now in their teens see the world as a limitless vista of potential, and see the Earth as one—the by-product of growing up after the Apollo 11 moon landing and photographs of earth from space that captured its oneness as never before.

The traditional view of adolescents as bundles of problems to be fixed no longer works because these youth are different, he says. They’ve grown up with surprise and potentiality rather than predictability and limits. For them, no political boundaries are insurmountable. Racial divisions don’t make sense. They realize that good planets are hard to find.

And they have a wisdom beyond their years.

“They need us to be quiet and listen to them first,” he says, “but they also need our vision, and our even-keeled-ness.”

Based in Asheville and working in substance abuse prevention in several Western NC counties, Savitsky puts his PhD training to work in the field, building positive relationships among youth and the adults in their lives as a foundation for prevention and health promotion. In Polk, PYD’s assets-based approach began when Lance Smith, the former Associate Minister at the church I serve now, invited him to do a presentation on this approach at the Thermal Belt Ministerial Alliance, presenting research that Peter Benson and the Minneapolis-based Search Institute pioneered in the mid-90s as an alternative to traditional youth development approaches, which weren’t working. (See of focusing on outcomes alone with a single age group in economically diverse Polk County, they chose to take the long view and address broader issues that affect communities within the County, where one sees affluence side by side with extreme rural poverty. The exciting part for me, as a faith leader, is that it focuses on a balanced approach to fostering “teen wisdom,” combining psychological, sociological, and ecological facets to essentially address spiritual needs within the public schools.

The program now has 30 8th graders that are part of a club to develop teen wisdom to ready them for the middle school to high school transition. This year, they’ve added rites of passage to support this transition, and expanding the mentoring program into Polk’s Early College.

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