New Orleans has become a pilgrimage of sorts for the nation’s youth. It’s something I’ve come to realize in a big way while researching my new book, Do Greaters: The Kids These Days and How They’re Changing the World. Turns out that for Americans, in general, but especially for folks under 35, New Orleans has become the new rite of passage in our understanding of good works.

It’s generally great for the folks who head there. They learn about the complexity of infrastructure, maybe gain a few construction or landscaping skills, meet some new friends, maybe even get a tan. But what is the effect on the native residents of New Orleans?

This is a question I asked in a column over at The American Prospect not too long ago: “Like Juan Ponce DeLeon’s mythological fountain of youth, the Lower 9th Ward has become upper-middle-class America’s source of feel-good absolution….But the darker side of all of this well-intentioned activism is that it has created a revolving door of services and support in a parish that is in dire need of a strategic plan.”

And it’s now being answered by a series of homegrown activists. Some of their answers are chilling, like this one, from Timolynn Sams, executive director of Neighborhoods Partnership Network (NPN), New Orleans native: “We’ve become this laboratory, but we are not guinea pigs. We want to be part of the science, but as the scientists, not the experiment.”

It brings up all sorts of difficult ethical questions. When are our well-intentioned attempts to help more selfish than selfless? What can folks with big hearts, a little extra money, and a lot of energy do to help rebuild New Orleans? Should we urge all the eager post-college grads to head to Detroit and Cincinnati instead? Or will that just engender the same problems?

Food for thought. Would love to hear your ideas…

…what of the youth shaped by what some are already calling the Great Recession? Will a publication looking back from 2030 damn them with such faint praise? Will they marry younger, be satisfied with stable but less exciting jobs? Will their children mock them for reusing tea bags and counting pennies as if this paycheck were the last? At the very least, they will reckon with tremendous instability, just as their Depression forebears did.

This is an excerpt from a piece by Kate Zernike in Sunday’s Week in Review (always my favorite section!) about how these economic times will shape the generation just coming of age. In short, there were plenty of comparisons made to the tight-lipped, nose-to-the-grindstone depression-era babies—the grandparents who reuse tea bags and never buy lottery tickets. The author and her experts wondered, will the kids of today become stingy, safe, and square tomorrow?

I’m skeptical. As I research my new book, a collection of ten profiles of people under 35 doing interesting social change work, I’m coming across a very different trend. Tough economic times seems to have made young people creative and very practical—a stunning and hopeful combination. It’s not that they aren’t feeling the burn. It’s harder than it has been in decades to start a non-profit and get funding, for example. But here’s the thing: today’s youngest and most cutting edge thinkers aren’t really starting non-profits or trending towards traditional methods of making the world more just. They’re creating hybrid media companies, public-private ventures, drinking clubs, and secret societies. They’re rejecting charity models and trying to figure out how to get folks to align their own self-interests with altruistic causes. They’re thinking locally and globally simultaneously.

They’re not taking huge financial risks—either personally or with the funding they bring in, but that’s not keeping their philosophies or experiments “safe,” as the NYT predicts. It’s just motivating them to be incredibly creative, really resourceful, and organic in their interventions. What a silver lining, heh?

Richard E. Nisbett, a psychology professor from the University of Michigan, wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times last weekend about the importance of funding educational programs that really work. All this stimulus package talk has breathed new life into an old conversation: how do we measure the effectiveness of educational interventions?

Nisbett insists that we not overlook the little things, namely boosting children’s self-esteem through high expectations. He writes:

Consider, for example, what the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have described as “stereotype threat,” which hampers the performance of African-American students. Simply reminding blacks of their race before they take an exam leads them to perform worse, their research shows.

Fortunately, stereotype threat for blacks and other minorities can be reduced in many ways. Just telling students that their intelligence is under their own control improves their effort on school work and performance. In two separate studies, Mr. Aronson and others taught black and Hispanic junior high school students how the brain works, explaining that the students possessed the ability, if they worked hard, to make themselves smarter. This erased up to half of the difference between minority and white achievement levels.

In the age of Barack and Hillary, this is exciting news. The days of “you can’t be what you can’t see” are over for little girls or black kids destined for positions of powerful leadership.

But it’s also got me thinking of other implications for the “stereotype threat.” Is part of why young women are so plagued by eating and anxiety disorders that we are constantly reminded of a stereotypical version of ourselves (emotional, overwhelmed, perfectionist)? Would we be healthier if we were told that our quality of life was, indeed, under our control? How can we pull apart the cultural associations of femaleness and self-sacrifice/internalized anger/stress?

I struggle with this because I wrote a book that traces some of the contemporary causes of perfectionism behavior and disordered eating and exercise. Is Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women inherently reinforcing an unhealthy perfect girl paradigm just by exploring it? It’s a pretty paralyzing thought, especially for a  feminist and cultural critic. I’ve always believed strongly in the importance of speaking tough truths, naming things, giving voice to pain. But what if, by mirroring the most painful aspects of my generation’s struggle, I’ve inflamed it?

Where is the balance?

–Courtney Martin

I spent the last weekend with an extraordinary group of young people at an international high school called The United World College-USA . It is a magical place–the manifestation of global peace educators, activists, and philanthropists dreams. There are eleven such colleges (actually 11th and 12th grade in American parlance) across the world, and each houses and educated about 200 students from over 80 different countries. The only one in the U.S. is in Montezuma, New Mexico, of all places, and was originally founded in 1982 and largely funded by Dr. Armand Hammer.

I’ve done work with the school off and on, thanks to a serendipitous meeting I had with one of its great teachers, Selena Sermeno . This weekend I created and taught a storytelling workshop for a small group of enthusiastic students (largely based off of community organizer Herbert Ganz’ work on Public Narratives ). The students originated from countries as far-ranging as Iraq, Poland, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, Chile, Vietnam, India etc. etc.

One of the things that was so striking to me was the amazing paradox that these diverse teenagers inhabit. On the one hand, they are extraordinary. They tell stories of war, political upheaval, loss, and death that will make your stomach literally burn with outrage at the state of our world and the way that children suffer as a result of adult violence. The image of one young woman from Iraq talking about how she lost 200 fellow students when her college was bombed will never leave me.

On the other hand, many of the stories these students tell–even the ones from war-ravaged regions–are about parents fighting, first love, the loss of a grandparent. They could not be more ordinary. And these stories, too, will stick with me. The image of a bright-eyed boy from Poland talked about taking the train for 40 hours to see about a girl will also never leave me, for very different reasons, of course.

These kids have experienced unparalleled lives, but they are also–ultimately–just kids. They are self-focused and ambitious and fearful and in love and admire their mothers and wish their fathers would show more emotion and crave to be understood. Nothing could be more universal, perhaps, than the ache of adolescent searching.

I’m in the thick of researching and reporting my new book on young people and social change (finally!) and it’s been bringing up all sorts of new and exciting issues for me. Sunday I spent the whole day with a group of New York City high school students who have developed a fascinating project called NY2NO. I’m profiling one of the co-founders, an awesome young guy named Alex Epstein.

NY2NO takes NYC-area high school students down to New Orleans and teaches them about community organizing and gives them a chance to participate in making folks lives better down there—whether recording oral histories from ninth ward survivors or cleaning water damage in the first floor of a public housing building etc.

One of the things that strikes me most about Alex is that he is so deeply committed to face-to-face interaction. He and his friends were so inspired by the experience of canvassing in New Orleans—essentially going door-to-door and asking folks what they need, how they’re doing, what their stories are—that he came back to NYC and decided to do the same with homeless people. He and three friends took a video camera and went out and asked people of all different ages: how did you end up on the streets? What could you imagine would help you get off the streets?

The stories he collected about abuse and neglect, drug addiction and interpersonal violence, were so sad, and sadly unsurprising. Alex’s courage, however, surprised the hell out of me. He approached folks who he has been socialized to be scared of or just ignore altogether with such tenderness and curiosity.

There are two lessons I’m learning from the research right now: one is that young people are deeply committed to face-to-face interaction and the power of storytelling, and the second, is that young people are far more adept than previous generations in making connections between local and national, and even international, issues. Alex saw the effects of institutional racism and poverty in New Orleans, so he looked at NYC with new eyes and started making all kinds of connections right in his own backyard.

Talk about hope.

–Courtney Martin