Book Review:  You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

Book Review:  You Can’t Be What You Can’t See . 
By Milbrey W. McLaughlin

Opening Eyes

This book is well named.  Opportunity opens the eyes of young people to new futures.  Opportunity changes lives.  Milbrey McLaughlin, professor emeritus at Stanford University, shows how an Out of School Time (OST) program in Chicago’s Cabrini Green, has transformed lives since the 1980s.

Closing Opportunity Gaps

For those of us seeking ways to eliminate opportunity gaps, this book has dramatic answers – they just aren’t easy.

Success in Chicago

Cabrini Green is a Chicago public housing project known for violence, poverty and dismal futures.  CYCLE, started in 1980, stands for Community Youth Creative Learning Experience. Over the course of fifteen years, the program transformed 100s of lives.  Graduation rates doubled that of the neighborhood.  Virtually all participants, whether they graduated or not, learned important life skills that enabled them to live out positive futures with their families.

10 Keys to Success

What made CYCLE such a success?


Monthly field trips, camping, college visits, and seeing downtown businesses.  “Exposure” to new “possible futures.”  They helped youth see, feel at home in, and feel like they belonged in multiple settings they had never seen before.  You can’t Be what you can’t See.  They saw images of adult success, built positive relationships, and gained important life lessons.


All of the participants were wrapped into community where they saw each other, near peers, and tutors frequently each week.  Programming was all day, every day, including summers.  And the message from everyone was always, You belong here, We’ve got you, We believe in you.  The other half of their slogan is You can’t be what you can’t reach.  Participants had a place to go to ask questions, to figure it out and reach for their dreams.


“Junior Staff” – near peers just ahead of them and from Cabrini Green – served as mentors.  Youth that looked like them, lived where they lived, and had figured out a way forward through difficult circumstances.  Someone who cared, showed them what to do, coached them and walked with them through new challenges. They learned that hard work pays off.  And they knew they had “whatever it takes” support.

Safe Environment

They used vans to get kids to and from events to protect them from gangs.  The program created a ‘positive gang’ which offered some protection from the other gangs.  Participants received unconditional support in growing skills.  Adults never ever gave up on them.  It was the adults that worked hard to earn their trust and respect.


Everything was designed to say, We believe in you.  We know you can do it.  All those leading the program saw “young people as resources to be developed rather than problems to be fixed.”


Tutors made commitments to be there for the kids one day per week for 33 weeks.  They learned that they could not let the students down by not showing.  And students were expected to be there on time for twice weekly sessions.  Students learned to interact with White adults.  White adults learned to interact with students in extreme poverty. They learned that, You can’t be insensitive to anything … you’ll likely lose the kid.  Sessions were 75 minutes followed by crazy games created by older students.  Running record folders for each student helped each adult tutor pick up right where the student left off.  Sessions were not scripted or prescribed. The idea was to start where the student was and help them progress … not a deficit based, ‘fix the kid’ model

Wrap around services

They always had positive options for kids.  If you keep kids busy with a number of good activities, sooner or later something clicks.  And if students are busy with CYCLE they don’t have time to get into trouble.  As students approached college, they got help with applications, financial aid forms, and visits to campus.  After they enrolled in college, the staff continued to check in with them.  If they needed babysitting, help buying books – whatever it was – they helped.

Strengths Based

The founder, Greg Darnieder, felt that, Each person is born with gifts and talents to be developed and utilized for the benefit of their families and society.  His goal was to promote positive youth development; to figure out what matters to each student and set goals with them, not for them.  Leaders made consistent, long-term commitments to nudge, promote, support each student toward success.


All of this was created by two dynamic leaders with great vision, great staying power, and the ability to attract resources.  Their core values were eventually reflected and reinforced in every part of the program.  They believed in kids no matter what.  And they constantly reinvented the program to make it work.  When the leadership changed, the program faded quickly.  New leaders tried to turn lessons into scripts; leadership into check lists.  The heart of the program was lost.

Community of practice

The leaders created this great self-reinforcing community of learners.  Their Near Peer Pyramid is a seven-tiered model that encouraged students as young as middle school to begin the leadership process.  They started with responsibility for one other student, then three.  Then took on the work of planning and supervising events.  And over time, this group of Junior Staffers began meeting regularly to learn from each other.  They had a common mission and worked together to developed consistent coherent messages.  Together, they learned how to do even better, to solve problems of practice.  When they had a problem, they attacked it as a team.

Existence Proof

While the model may not be easily replicated, it certainly provides the existence of proof, the architecture, and the core processes that we can all learn from. In today’s terminology, they used improvement science to develop a network improvement community.  Together they figured out what worked and kept making it better and better.  As a result, 100s of lives were transformed.

  • Reviewed by Larry Nyland.
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