The Community Youth Center Emerges - 1938
Most communities in the United States offer meager recreational facilities for young people who are out-of-school and out-of-work. And they are the very young people who need most the normal spare-time activities of youth—athletics and games, dancing, music, dramatics, hobby clubs—or just some place to meet friends.
The youth who has a job can afford to pay for membership in some organization that provides these facilities; the young man or woman who has little or no work and whose parents must struggle constantly to stretch every dollar to cover basic family needs can afford neither a membership fee for a club nor a dime or a quarter for a swim, a basketball game, or a gym class.
Most high schools and colleges have elaborate athletic and social programs for their students; few have opened their doors to youth whose names are not on their enrollment lists. From the beginning of the NYA work program, supervisors and State directors have tried to find or create recreational opportunities for the economically and educationally underprivileged youth in their communities.
Their greatest problem was finding space. As more vocational workshops and homemaking units developed, housing often became a major problem. A carpentry shop or a kitchen required good lighting and ventilation. Storerooms and tool rooms were in demand. Many boys and girls were eager for study classes and training closely related to the work they were doing.
From this need for workshops, study rooms, and recreational facilities have grown many and varied NYA community youth centers. In different States they are called by different names; "Youth Opportunity Center," "Occupational Development Institute," "Youth Occupational Institute," and "Youth Center" are used in four of the States we have visited.
Almost every State today has some sort of youth center in which, under one roof, the young people of a community may find work and study facilities, athletic and social opportunities. Sometimes under NYA impetus already existing organizations which serve young people have been integrated or expanded.
In other instances, NYA boys have reconditioned buildings to serve as youth centers. With the extension of the NYA work program into the construction field, many youth centers are being built from the ground up by NYA workers.
Local governmental agencies, civic organizations, and individuals in many States are co-operating with NYA and furnishing substantial sums of money for materials and maintenance. The youth center solves one important NYA problem. It draws many groups of youth of the community together and prevents the isolation of unemployed youth.
Clubs or athletic teams made up exclusively of NYA boys or girls are discouraged; they are not a group apart; they belong to the integrated life of their own communities. We have described under the construction projects several community centers that NYA boys are building.
These are a few more examples which illustrate the divergence both of physical set-up and of organization of activities: In the Negro slums of Chicago, the South Side Boys Club had struggled for years to give Negro boys of all ages healthful outlets for their spare time.
During the depression, lack of money made it necessary to stop most of the work in the club. The building deteriorated so that much of it could no longer be used. NYA agreed to rehabilitate this club as a Negro youth center.
First, NYA boys renovated the structure: they laid a new concrete floor in the basement, repaired plaster, painted walls and woodwork, and reconditioned the swimming pool, gymnasium, and locker rooms. Now several thousand Negro boys of all ages use this center for athletics, clubs, classes, cultural and social activities.
NYA boys have a carpentry shop in the basement and a radio repair shop on the second floor. NYA youth assist in conducting classes and supervising clubs and athletic games for younger Negro boys. The Library Board of the city of St. Cloud, Minnesota, purchased a large granite and brick church which had been abandoned ten years before, and has rented it to NYA for a nominal sum.
One hundred and twenty NYA boys worked part-time for two and one-half months to recondition this building for use as a community center. They put in new floors and window frames, repaired plaster, painted, and assisted in the installation of plumbing and electricity.
We went through this completed center, where NYA boys were constructing portable bath houses for a community beach and girls were sewing for public institutions. One unusual work project in this center was a gravel-testing laboratory where five NYA youth, under a chemist supervisor, test gravel for the city, county, State, and WPA engineers.
We saw the kitchen, reading, conference, lounge, and social rooms, and the auditorium, which seats 565 people. All the facilities of this building are available at no charge to community organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the St. Cloud Chorus, church groups, teachers' clubs, and farmers' associations.
In Jacksonville, Florida, 50 Negro NYA boys are working on a Youth Community Center for which the city gave the land. The Negro YWCA raised $1,000 for materials and other Negro groups have collected an additional $3,000.
This center will house NYA workshops and home economics rooms, an auditorium for music, dramatics, lectures, and discussion groups, and social activities for all the Negro population of the community. "Health, jobs, homemaking, citizenship, and leisure activities—those are our goal in the NYA work program in Oklahoma.
Because the Youth Center provides all of these, we're building them as fast as we can," Mr. Houston A. Wright, the State Director, explained. Seven Youth Centers in Oklahoma had been completed by NYA youth and 15 were under construction on May 1, 1938. They are community buildings for the use of children, youth, adults, and all civic organizations.
Usually they have NYA vocational and homemaking shops. Girls on NYA projects make curtains, rugs, and other furnishings for these centers. Most are built of native stone, although some have brick veneer, and one at Stillwater was constructed of tamped earth blocks with a stucco finish. They vary in size according to the needs of the community.
City and county governments, boards of education, civic organizations, and individuals have contributed extensively for materials with which NYA youth erect these centers. One of the larger Youth Centers, at Paul's Valley, was finished in March 1938.
The City Council of Paul's Valley voted a $5,000 bond issue as its contribution to this building, and paid the salary of one construction superintendent. Additional contributions of $4,500 were made by individuals of this town. NYA boys quarried native stone for this center in the Arbuckle Mountains, 36 miles south of Paul's Valley.
Under the direction of two NYA foremen, they did all the concrete work, stone masonry, carpentry, plumbing, plastering, and painting. This stone Youth Center has eight rooms and an auditorium and meeting room, 60 feet by 40. There are manual training shops and homemaking rooms.
Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the 4-H Club, all civic clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations use this building for gatherings. It is a place where youth may feel at home to work and play and study. "Many of the boys whose labor built this center," Mr. Wright said, "had never before done any work in construction crafts."
This is a panorama of the NYA work program today. Not all its projects measure up to these we have pictured. We saw, for example, one group of girls whose only work was knitting sweaters for destitute school children.
This project, we felt, was an uneconomic use of time, as machine-knit sweaters would have met the needs of the children at far less cost, and the girls who were employed as hand-knitters were receiving little training of real worth. We saw some poorly equipped workshops and sewing rooms, with scraps of lumber or cloth as the only materials on which the youth were working.
Lack of materials and efficient equipment prevents the production of useful articles and gives young people inadequate work experience. There are a few projects in which youth are employed to make puppets for use in schools and community clubs; while the making of puppets and costumes demands some fine skills, the training it affords is in far too narrow a field.
In New Mexico weaving projects have economic justification, since there are reasonable earning possibilities for Indian and Spanish youth who can produce these traditional rugs and fabrics. In another State we saw girls weaving blankets for public institutions; we doubt that the training they receive in this work will prove useful to them either as homemakers or in the industrial world.
Frankly, we had expected to see more of these dubious work projects; we found them to be by far the exception rather than the rule. Some States have eliminated them entirely, and others are replacing them as rapidly as sounder new projects can be developed.
Since NYA can spend only a small percentage of its funds for materials and equipment, local communities must co-operate in providing both. In most States, this co-operation has been obtained, as evidenced by the amount of money sponsors have contributed for the establishment and maintenance of work facilities for relief youth on NYA.
Although individual States have great latitude in working out their own types of projects and their own organization of these projects, their common experiences in the two and one-half years of the work program have produced some general techniques which can be utilized in further developments of this phase of NYA.
"Rotation" is one of these techniques. Many young people have never had a chance to learn what types of work they are best fitted to do. Work projects should be so organized that the youth have an opportunity to discover their own work interests and aptitudes.
NYA does not pretend to give sufficient training to produce highly skilled workers; it merely starts young people on their way to potential beginners' jobs. It is desirable that, within projects, youth learn as many phases as possible of various trades and occupations.
For example, if a boy is "learning by doing" in a carpentry shop, he should have as much experience as he can in a wide range of carpentry work. For this reason, workshops must produce a variety of articles. The growth of the construction program in NYA has helped to widen the work experiences of many boys, as building demands many different skills.
All the State directors with whom we have talked agree that volunteer supervision of NYA projects is unsuccessful except in rare instances. Skilled craftsmen who have the ability to teach have proved the best foremen for work projects.
Because NYA employs youth approximately only one-third of their working time, the question of how to arrange these hours of work has arisen. It seems now generally recognized as desirable that work projects be arranged so that youth are employed on them for standard working days of seven or eight hours.
This time aspect of learning the work routine is considered valuable. Thus a boy working 44 hours a month on NYA is employed for four seven-hour days and for two eight-hour days a month.
Since in most cases NYA youth pay their own transportation to and from work, it is a saving to them to have their hours of work arranged so that they will spend the minimum of their small pay-checks for transportation.
Standards of work discipline on NYA projects today are generally strict: boys and girls report to work on time, take regular lunch hours, are held responsible for the materials they use. In several States we saw monthly progress records of each boy and girl. They are kept by supervisors and indicate improvements in work abilities.
The NYA work program is based on the supposition that the energies and skills of young people are going to be in demand, that our civilization will provide jobs for those who are capable of filling them. The depression and its attendant unemployment have worked hardships on large numbers of youth who in normal times of employment would have held jobs as beginners.
By providing these first jobs NYA has helped large numbers of young people to fill the dangerous gap be. tween the time that they leave school and the time when industry shall absorb them. The NYA work program by no means pretends that it does or can solve all the problems that face young people reaching maturity during the depression.
It gives part-time employment only to unmarried youth on relief rolls. There are hundreds of thousands more who want the chance to earn some money, to do some real work, and to get some training for at least a toehold in the industrial life of the country.
We have heard questions like these brought up a number of times: "Doesn't this NYA work kill ambitions in young people?" "Aren't they satisfied to work part-time and earn a little money?" "Won't we have boys and girls considering NYA as a career?"
We have found little evidence to support such suspicions. We noted that young men and women enrolled in the NYA work program seldom referred to "my NYA job." Instead, we often heard: "I work at the hospital," or "I'm laying bricks at the new school," or "My job's out at the new park."
NYA youth usually take private jobs when they can find them. They go into the harvest fields, into stores at rush times, and into other temporary work which may lead to permanent employment. Some of them step directly into full-time regular jobs.
In the first two and one-half years of NYA, approximately 500,000 out-of-school and out-of-work youth have been employed on NYA jobs. Complete records have not been kept of the movement of NYA youth into private industry through-out this period. But in the twelve months ending March 1, 1938, during which 150,000 boys and girls, on the average, were on the NYA work program, 60,522 of them found jobs in private employment.
During four of those months, employment opportunities generally were shrinking owing to the sharp recession in business. Remembering also that most of these young people had had extremely poor educational preparation, that few of them had ever held regular jobs, that many of them had sought work in vain for several years, and that no small number of them had suffered from undernourishment and other physical deficiencies, the large number who moved from NYA rolls into private employment would seem a good indication of the value of the experience and training received on NYA work projects.
Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "The Community Youth Center Emerges," in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 60-67.