Under-served and un-deserving: Youth empowerment programs, poverty discourses and subject formation


Youth gardening empowerment organizations are growing in popularity as an urban model for youth-focused nonprofit work within the United States. These organizations aim towards progressive goals of poverty alleviation through holistic youth empowerment but encounter tensions between the imperatives of funders to distinguish (or discipline) youth in terms of performance and their own impulse to include all those in need. Despite benevolent mission statements, however, these organizations perpetuate long-standing poverty discourses that distinguish between deserving and undeserving poor subjects. I explore these tensions through fieldwork with Youth Grow, one such youth gardening empowerment organization in Seattle, Washington. I argue that residual poverty discourses persist due to the contradictory positioning of progressive organizations within a neoliberalized landscape of social service provisioning. This nexus, between donor dependence and cultural imaginaries about poverty, produces the mismatch between relational program goals and residual practices. I propose a more self-reflexive approach to programming that considers the subjective, lived experiences of youth participants in relation to the material and discursive frictions that create these tensions.

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United States