The other day I saw a note that said poor people are more mentally prepared for the pandemic than anyone else in society. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, and I know that statement was ultimately made to alleviate the pain people are facing right now.
However, growing up as a homeless kid then in a poor family, I knew what it was like to be stuck at home and not being go out. I knew what it was like having empty cupboards and skipping meals because we didn’t have food. So I see the validity of that point, too.
Poverty makes people invisible, and when you’re poor it can feel like you’re left behind by everyone else in society.
During this pandemic, middle class people and upper class people are panic buying toilet paper and stuffing their pantries full of excessive groceries, they’re using their internet and subscriptions to saturate their minds with high-quality entertainment; buying online tutors for their kids; working out in their home gyms; paying all their bills on time; and so much more.
Meanwhile, poor people living without money are struggling to stay housed; suffering from hunger and poor nutrition; faced with anxiety because of overdue bills; living without healthcare; and all the way around, frequently struggling with overburdened responsibilities undue to their station in life.
To think of all the people living that way right now, you have the power of your survival and I know you’ll stay strong. I see you, and I believe in you.
To the people working to stop the pain of people living poor right now, I’m glad you are working so hard to alleviate the suffering people face in all the ways they are. If you are doing that, thank you for doing what you’re doing. I see you, and I believe in you, too.
Standing in the dark, cavernous sanctuary, I shouted from the stage into the midnight silence of the empty pews before me:
For the next three hours, I let loose with all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, concerns, criticism, conclusions and questions I could muster. Speaking with my greatest vibrato and whispering in my lowest loud tones, I was excited, nervous, scared and frustrated.
The previous year had been a roller coaster for me. That night, I was the 19-year-old youth director at a suburban church in the Midwestern United States. With little practical knowledge of how to do the job, I ran off of inspiration and enthusiasm, generally winning the hearts of young people with my personality before appealing to their minds with my abilities.
Before that night, I went to college for several months before having to give it up for both fiscal reasons, and simply because I had no idea what I was doing, literally. I worked at this church during that time, as well as running a youth program at another church and working in an independent living skills program for foster, homeless and other disconnected youth.
Out of frustration, a few months before then I’d packed my car full of all my worldly possessions—bed comforter, dress clothes, high school diploma, etc.—and headed off to make a life in New Orleans. I had no idea what I was doing then either, and halfway there my car permanently broke down; the drive shaft separated and went into the oil pan as I drove down the highway. A scrap heap, I sold my car and almost everything I owned to a wrecker for $50. Buying a bus ticket, I continued onward, only to run into rejection, theft, violence and loneliness for the next three weeks. Sleeping behind dumpsters and playing my harmonica on a street corner at the edge of the French Quarter after Mardi Gras, my parents and other adults back home wouldn’t save me, send me money or otherwise help me get on my feet. When my brother finally returned from an overseas deployment in the military, I asked him for help and he sent me a bus ticket. I went back to the city where I lived and took the youth director job back at that church.
Working late into the nights anytime during the week was my norm. I didn’t enjoy the nightlife of the university city where I lived, and I wasn’t really connected to other young people there, so being at the church all the time was comfortable for me.
By that point in my life, I was well aware that I wasn’t a traditionally religious person. My upbringing was punctuated by my mother’s zealous appreciation of Gandhi, who she constantly quoted and whose life she made lessons with. I became enamored with the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my teenage years, reading Letter from a Birmingham Jailrepeatedly by then. I didn’t read the copy of the Koran I kept that often though, and the Tao Te Ching didn’t make a lot of sense to me then. I constantly listened to U2, though, and that wasn’t a bad leadoff for the spiritual development of the teenage me. Sure, I flipped through the Bible and henpecked my favorite scriptures, too.
I adamantly didn’t believe in the tenets of the faith though, and it was increasingly awkward for me to be working at this church. My job there was to lead Bible studies, teach Sunday school classes and informally counsel the youth there. Many of these teens grew up in the church and were stronger in their faith than me, as well as more determined to grow into their faith. Others were rebellious in ways I had never been, and I couldn’t relate to the struggles they wrestled with.
Oh, and the other part of my job was to co-lead church services with the minister. Once a month I got to deliver a sermon. These parts of the job were exhilarating for me. There was nothing as rewarding as weaving together my favorite Gandhi, King, U2 and Bible quotes with stories from my own life, and an occasional piece of news or other tale I’d picked up, only to have a kind middle-age mother come to me after the service to say she understood exactly what I was saying, or an older parishioner tell me she loved how dynamic I was. As much as I relied on metaphor and analogy, I strove to be understood and found it rewarding when people “got it.”
There were times when I didn’t get it though. Standing at the pulpit in the story at the beginning of this, I was wrestling with the universe as I stood there. That call was purposely Godless, distinctively direct, and purposefully submissive. I didn’t want to think I knew it all, because I felt responsible for the cataclysmic shape of my young life then, and clearly knew then that I just didn’t know what I was doing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this kind of midnight ghost preaching. After being invited to talk in many churches during the three years before that, I was (over)confident in my abilities as a speaker.
I share this memory with you to share with you my dream. When I was 15, I participated in an Urban League youth leadership program that included Toastmasters training. From that point forward, I wanted to speak professionally, captivating audiences with magically woven words to enlighten, educate and engage broad messages that flowed magically from my complex mind.
I have had success accomplishing that dream. However, I still feel like my work in this way has just begun, and I’m looking for ways to improve myself, improve my messages, and improve the vision in my heart and mind.
That job didn’t last long after my last midnight sermon. At some point towards the end, I painted a wild image of Golgotha, or Calvary, on the wall of the office I kept there. While I don’t have a pic of it, the image is burned in my mind. I didn’t feel like Jesus or a savior when I worked at that church or preached anywhere. Instead, I often felt like the thief basking in the shadow of greatness, hoping to be forgiven right before my own imminent demise.
Tumwater, Washington is a small city wrapped around a large hill. The first town in western Washington, it was started in 1845. In 1999 and 2000, I spent a year running a youth center there.
I moved to Olympia, next door to Tumwater, a year before. A young man, I was determined to continue my youth work career and expand my heart and mind. It was a challenging time personally, as I’d been out of college for a few years and simply working. My partner at the time was excited to move to her family in Olympia, so I went along for the ride.
Olympia was a damp, glorious place to visit. After growing up in the Midwest and being born in Alberta’s prairies, I was excited to live by the ultimate combination of the ocean and the mountains, near Seattle and Portland without being in either one. The Evergreen State College was a big draw for me too, and I envisioned graduating there. The place called to me, and I answered.
The city of Tumwater is mostly working class white people. 20 years ago, there were several low-performing elementary schools in the city, and one of the high schools was a football powerhouse. The two main features of the city are its beautiful waterfalls, and Tumwater Hill. In 1999, the City government completed a renovation of the old fire station/city hall at the bottom of Tumwater Hill and opened a youth center there. I was the first director hired to run it.
Immediately, I set about developing programming and opportunities for young people in the surrounding neighborhood to come in. Typically, we offered after school safe space along with organized sports and games. Groups of children and youth teens would come in for a few hours every night, I’d make sure there were snacks and volunteers to hang out, and everything buzzed along for a few months. Then…
One night a group of the young teens who came in were ready to fight. Rarely causing trouble, this was the type of crisis I was warned about by my manager. She knew I’d worked in much more challenging situations, and she wanted me to be ready for this place to be challenging.
However, in my own style, I quashed the beef before it got out of hand. The young people who wanted to fight each other were mad about something that happened in school, and after they started trouble, I stood with each pair of youth and explained I would be calling their parents, and calling the school if anything got out of hand at the youth center. Incredibly enough, that worked! There was some unusual vandalism around the center the following weekend, and when confronted everyone involved denied they were complicit.
Afterward though, an interesting thing happened: The popularity of the youth center tanked. The young people involved in the debacle were connectors who had led their peers into the center for the months prior, and when they stopped attending, they encouraged their friends to hang out with them elsewhere.
Without young people coming in to the community center, its worth was questioned and my leadership was challenged. I struggled to bring back the young people after that, and while I had occasional successes the numbers weren’t as robust or consistent as they were originally.
While I was successful at managing volunteers and making the case for new part-time staff and managing them, and I did make the shoestring budget work by wrangling donations and more, I simply wasn’t able to raise sustained interest by the neighborhood youth after what happened. The center needed new energy for that.
I learned a lot from this experience, like these things:
As important for youth participation as recruitment is, retention is vital, too;
My prior professional experience in a disenfranchised community didn’t guarantee success in a new one, especially when the disenfranchisement was different;
Youth participation happens on a continuum, and its important to understand that individually, we can’t be all things at all times, and;
No single adult can serve all the functions successfully 100% of the time.
After several more months of varying popularity in the youth center, I was recruited to a fellowship focused on youth involvement. Taking my time as a youth center director with me, as well as my decade of experience before that, I was enthralled to go to Washington, DC to learn and grow in ways that still benefit my professional and personal life.
However, that wouldn’t have been as valuable without that year in the youth center at the bottom of the hill.
With early roots as a free child, I have lived fortunately despite all appearances. There were a lot of challenges throughout my early life, true, but none of those were unique. Its the sum of the parts that make me unique, and make me who I am today.
Childhood homelessness, parental addiction, illegal border crossings, constant school-hopping, and eventually settlement into an African American neighborhood with my white, half-Canadian/half-Montanan family formed my identity as a young person. Trying to make meaning of the extreme differences between my interests and the curriculum of schools was a constant experience. As a 10-year-old in a black school, my cowboy boots and corduroy pants clashed with the Air Jordans and parachute pants around me. Feeling alien among my peers as a teen climaxed when I was 19, when I got my first “green card” to let me to work legally in the US. I even felt challenged on the block where I lived, constantly different than the gang members, drug dealers, and basketballers I grew up around.
All these realities created some of the boundaries that formed my identity as a young person. The titles of White, poor, academically challenged, depressed, angry, confused, and unfocused hung on my neck like placards waiting their turn. Exacerbated by a steady stream of popular culture and mainstream media, my labels also included the branding forced onto my generation, which alternated from apathetic to hyper-violent. I wore these titles heavily, and they stayed around for a long, long time.
Luckily, somewhere along the way they didn’t stick too closely to my skin. Despite hearing the mantra, “You just need to apply yourself” repeatedly from my teachers, I didn’t do that in school. Instead, I applied myself outside of school. Youth leadership programs, volunteer opportunities, and other service activities dominated my high school life. I volunteered at the food bank where my family got food when my dad told me to, and I played Santa Claus at the elementary school my younger sisters attended. Over and over, I shook off the berating social conception of who everyone thought I should be by doing what I wanted to do, following my own inner guidance, and listening to the direction of adults in my life who respected me, and who I respected.
When it came time for me to get a job with my new green card, I started working at a nonprofit in my neighborhood. After spending several summers working in a Theatre of the Oppressed-oriented youth program with Omaha’s premier African American actor and director, I knew that I wanted to spend my life working for youth empowerment. I had some early experiences of what that empowerment felt like, and I wanted to share it with others. Since then I have done exactly that.
This is how I grew up a free child. The experiences I had before I was 20 formed the trajectory that I’ve followed for the rest of my life, from serving three terms in AmeriCorps to organizing The Freechild Project, writing dozens of free publications for youth and youth workers around the world and creating my consulting firm.
Today, I continue to live the extent of Neil’s prescription, dismissing fear as readily as it arrives and springing forth every day to do the work that should be done by me!
Another example of Freechild on the cutting edge: ABC News in Australia has posted a story about a hip hop project in Melbourne that is credited with helping young offenders change their lives. You might remember that about five years ago Freechild posted a webpage about Hip Hop Activism, emphasizing the power engaging young people in hip hop culture to create social change.
I say that while I’m listening to Talib Kweli, Brooklyn MC whose music always provides inspiration for my action. I would encourage anyone with an interest in hip hop to give him a listen, especially his new album Ear Drum.
Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see if the centralized hip hop movement will yet come through with anything significant – only time tells, right?
We live in a time when being labeled a terrorist can lead a person to be indefinitely locked up in prison as a preventative measure designed to keep terrorists off the street. That’s what Guantanamo is for, and that’s what Mahar Arar suffered.
Mother Jones magazine has followed the long-standing diligence of the National Youth Rights Association to expose what they call a “School of Shock” where students who are labeled autistic, mentally retarded, and emotionally troubled are routinely treated like prisoners at Guantanamo, complete with food deprivation, isolation and electric shocks.
Out of the United Kingdom comes a story that proclaims that all “teenagers drinking, taking drugs and being aggressive” are “juvenile terrorists.” This from the country that brought us a large and damning study that shows how ephebiphobia – the fear of youth – is actually driving people to move away from the places they grew up. Oh, and let me correct myself – its not one story, or two, but dozens. Its not a new problem, either, and its not particularly English: a 2003 book exploring film making in the U.S. identified more than modern one film that uses “juvenile terrorism” as a plot point.
Now the American Youth Policy Forum thinks schools and youth development organizations should learn how to reach disaffected young people from the U.S. military, which is reportedly effective at doing that. Karen Pittman from the Forum for Youth Investment is helping them. Its discouraging to know that the leaders who purport to lead this field support institutions that systematically disenfranchise all of their members, meanwhile expecting organizations to learn from the very legion responsible for Abu Ghraib. That’s great.
KIDS ARE NOT TERRORISTS! EMPOWERMENT AND PREVENTION AND TREATMENT – NOT IMPRISONMENT AND DETENTION AND PUNISHMENT. Its so frustrating to have to consistently see this type of regressive, punitive and destructive thinking tearing at the heart of young people today. On top of the standardization they live in every single day, with the testing and the laws and the advertising and the programming directed at their every waking moment, now more than ever young people are the targets of demonization and alienation within the places they live! We’ve got to stop that. Got to.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will prevented from working at all. – Mario Savio
I can think of no more suitable quote to express my frustration today than this one. There is so much that needs changed in this field where I work, and I need more avenues for action.
Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form? Maybe one of the greatest challenges of building youth/adult partnerships is the continuous point that so many people like to draw out and get hung up on: We’re one, but we’re not the same.
On one hand, it’s right: youth are different! Their intellectual and emotional capacities, cultural norms, and social interactions evolve with every passing day, and because of that we can easily see that young people are different. Sociologist Mike Males explores a lot of these real and perceived differences in his writing, often demonstrating that differences between the racial and economic composition of young people today and previous generations leads to ephebiphobia. Henry Giroux, Kathleen Cushman and John Holt do this to some extent, as well.
But wait! That’s wrong – youth are part of us all! Every single person on this planet who is an adult has been a youth before. The experiences of young people vary so much, but the notion remains the same: For a period of our lives, each person is all commonly afflicted by the hallmarks of youth, which change from society to society, culture to culture. Youth aren’t so different from us that we cannot relate to them. No matter how we choose to relate, we all co-occupy this gigantic ball of Earth, and we’ve all got to learn to change it. Why not do this together?
Somewhere in the middle of that is a lot of tension related to adultism, adultcentrism and adultocracy. Its easy to admonish people for not understanding each other, particularly when we refuse to see difference. But there are differences that must be acknowledged and embraced. All that I’m looking for today is to stop the tendency of so many adults to make young people so different from ourselves.
Thinking about my previous post where I beg for a new vision for youth leadership, I realize that maybe another tension is in here: Adults who think they “know” youth and “get it” are the ones who seek out and readily interact with the youth who act most like themselves. Ooow, that’s a tough statement right there. Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form?
These last few weeks my blog posts have been on the road, as I’ve traveled almost 5000 miles to and from the Northeast on two different trips. During these two trips, both at the insistence of my friend and colleague Giselle Martin-Kniep. I met Giselle last year during a project we were both working on with the New York State Student Support Services Office.
Earlier this year she invited me to become a fellow with the Center for the Study of Expertise in Teaching and Learning, recently renamed Communities for Learning. A few weeks ago I joined the C4L crew, along with about 40 other fellows, in the woods of rural Connecticut to explore the power of working in a cross-field learning community among education-related folks. I learned a lot, mixing and mashing ideas with K-12 teachers, principals, school coaches, higher ed faculty and others who simply “get it” on a lot of levels. I also presented the meaningful student involvement frameworks to folks, and was able to learn from the experiences of a wide range of educators from across New York State. Very cool. (Note: I’m the first out-of-state fellow in C4L; everyone else is from New York.) I spent more uninterrupted time concentrating on my work than I had in a long time, and for the most part unconstrained by the stuff that shares my daily attention. It was awesome.
If that weren’t enough, the next week I was able to spend three days outside of Boston with Peter Senge, one of the “Top Strategists of the Century”. With Giselle’s prompting, I was invited by Jaimie Cloud of the Cloud Institute to attend the Society for Organizational Learning‘s Core Course, facilitated by Senge to launching a “National Learning Community of Schools and Communities that Learn for a Sustainable Future”. While that seems pretty high-minded, it actually was. Senge strikes me as someone who spends a lot of time thinking and creating high-minded solutions to issues that strike much of society. Check out his book called The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization to find out more about his theories and work.
I’m continually amazed by the range and possibilities of this work around meaningfulness in schools, and I’m concerned that it apparently hasn’t struck folks more powerfully before now. Giselle, Peter and Jaimie all show me that the doors are wider than I’ve imagined, and I am hopeful for a powerful future for this work.
One of the biggest problems with standardizing education is that by creating standards – concrete, non-variable, measurable learning outcomes – educators actively ignore the nature of childhood. Young people are inherently moving, increasing and decentralizing their conceptions of the world. Standing them still and making them look in one direction should be illegal, because it robs children and youth of their very nature: That of the constantly evolving and transformative creature.
My mom put together a program in North Omaha called “Young Time”. She believed that the low-income kids in our neighborhood were forced to grow up too young, too fast:
Commercialism promotes crass-consumerism, often driving low-income young people to want things beyond their means, leading to early (and poor) employment experiences and dissatisfaction with family and community norms.
Empty homes where moms and dads were working full-time, two jobs and more drew many young people indoors to babysit during times when outdoor play could be happening.
A hollow sense of community among neighbors that leads to distrust and alienation, driving children and youth to loose contact with neighbors, and forcing neighbors to constantly survey youth and children throughout the community.
Anytime that socio-economic backgrounds are homogeneous with a community the perspectives of young people are going to become and stay static. That robs young people, whose perspectives are inherently moving. Let’s aim to be dynamic in learning. Standardized education assumes that there is learning – any learning – that is stagnant and worthy of learning. That there are base skills and knowledge that every student should learn. While I value the ability to read, I don’t believe that every young person needs to know deep mathematical theorems and scientific hypothesis. Education that forces students to learn is bound to fail.
Similarly, there are a number of youth programs that do the same. However, perhaps more dubious than schools, these programs don’t have the federal mandates or the sense of disconnected democracies that educational systems have. Instead, these programs are operated by nonprofit organizations that are effectively little tyrant organizations: While they are being hogtied by foundations, these nonprofits have chosen to give into the demands of funders and simply be held accountable for standards that simply do not apply to them.
Let’s not rob the perspectives of young people – let them have their views from wherever they stand. Those perspectives are valid, valuable and powerful.
Rereading this post, I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s quote:
The essence of recognizing the evolving capacities of the child is seeing that everyone is a creative genius – and we must learn to embrace that. We have so much energy!