Grazing each other’s lives

Max A Greenberg, Twelve Weeks to Change a Life: at-risk youth in a fractured state, University of California Press, Oakland CA, 2019, pp. xi and 240.

Max A Greenberg has written a very worthwhile book combining description, analysis and understanding. Now an early-career lecturer in sociology at Boston University, he began the research which became Twelve Weeks to Change a Life whilst a graduate student. The result of over three years of ethnography in Los Angeles is a multi-layered consideration of the ‘interpersonal violence prevention programmes’ delivered to young people across the United States: around two-thirds of high school students are now ‘put through’ some such programme during their education.

Greenberg’s ‘touchstone’ and focus for study was the range of programmes which he saw delivered by Peace Over Violence, an impressive ‘non-profit’ in LA which is contracted to go into schools and youth organisations to run sessions promoting ‘healthy relationships’ and ‘positive youth development’. Key issues covered include ‘teen dating violence prevention’, gang culture, self-esteem and ambition.

On one level, his book provides closely observed narratives of the interactions between the young people on the programmes and the POV facilitators: a range of human stories, clearly assessed and sympathetically conveyed. Greenberg then connects these narratives to sharp insights on the various ways that state funding and initiatives are refracted through the non-profit sector and its attendant systems of evaluation. He shows how the end results diverge in significant respects from stated policy aims: this is critical assessment of social work and youth provision at its best.

Greenberg sets out the scale and nature of the non-profit sector. These are now ‘the primary deliverers of services in the US’, involving around 200 000 contracts and grants, most of which are short-term and uncertain, even when recurrent. Their growth represents ‘a dramatic shift in the way that the state approaches social problems’, by funding grassroots organisations instead of providing services, as in the past, directly through ‘government bureaucracies’.

He considers the critique that the growth of non-profits has the (possibly consciously intended) effect of pacifying ‘grass-roots activism’ by funnelling would-be radicals into low-paying work. They deliver ‘band-aid’ measures whilst the status quo continues in spite of their efforts, or is even reinforced through them.

Moving beyond this, he identifies how the non-profit sector has led to a ‘new kind of work for a new kind of state’. Here, Greenberg introduces a stimulating and useful distinction between the ‘slow state’ which processes people over relatively long periods of time (schools, courts and incarceration units / prisons, welfare providers) and the ‘ephemeral state’. In this ephemeral mode, ‘the state acts through a multiplied field of fleeting interventions into institutions and daily life … policy blinks into existence for a short time and then vanishes’.

POV’s facilitators are representative workers in this new ‘ephemeral state’: ‘the street-level representatives of social policy’. They promote messages about how young people should change their lives to their ever-changing cohorts of participants, with whom they work with for a few hours, days or weeks, at the same time as gathering depersonalised metrics and data for the layer of ‘grant-fidelity inspectors’ and ‘technical assistance’ organisations who oversee the programmes.

Greenberg evidences the many positive ways in which POV’s highly-motivated people and other such workers attempt to make a real difference in local communities, and how they seek to negotiate and manage the pressures and constraints they are under. He also evidences how real and meaningful connections are sometimes made between facilitators and some of the young people he met through his study.

But, overall, his assessment is that the structure and nature of the ‘public health approach’ programmes he describes mean that they do not – cannot – address the roots of the problems they are supposedly dealing with: ‘young people marked as at risk and the facilitators tasked with changing their lives – citizens and the state – grazed each other’s lives, unable to understand one another’.


Review published June 2019