Learning from our experiences is a key to growing, as educators, parents, young people and social workers, and as humans. More than 20 years ago, I wrote an academic reflection on my decade-long experience as a line-level youth worker starting when I was 14. I’m not sure what to do with that document now, but I want to recap some of those experiences to share with you.
My story isn’t unique, as I’ve meant dozens of more longstanding, more effective and more authentic practitioners than myself. I’ve had the privilege of reflecting on a lifetime of service though, always seeking to leave a better world behind me than what I inherited as a kid. So here’s the story of my early attempts to do just that.
As I’ve told thousands of people around the world, my career began when I was 14 years old. Before that, I’d thrown newspapers and sold vacuum cleaners, but after that everything started coming together.
Idu Maduli, called Ernest Nedds by some people, was Omaha’s premier African American theater director who ran a program called You’re the Star. Approaching me to teach with him when I was in the 8th grade, Idu told me I’d learn to teacher drama by watching him. For the next few summers, I did just that. We went around North Omaha to a few public housing projects and other neighborhoods bringing low-income kids to the stage, Idu leading them in traditional African tales while I taught stage basics and watched him in awe. After three summers together, I decided I wanted to be just like Idu. I’ve resigned to the fact that I’ll never be as tall as him, but this next summer I’m growing out my hair in hopes of having fantastic dreadlocks…
My high school years in Omaha weren’t easy. Instead, I struggled with a sense of being an intruder into the African American neighborhood where I lived; being a low-achieving student among the brilliantly dedicated white kids who attended the magnet programs in my urban high school; having a green card in a city beating the drums of patriotic Americanism; and having only lived in the neighborhood for a few years, being an outsider in a minority community in a racist city that routinely scowled at poor people.
However, my high school years were packed. Somehow, through the grace of the social workers, community advocates, watchful neighbors and my parents, I found activity after activity. While my neighborhood friends became consumer in gangs and guns and drugs, I volunteered at the elementary school as Santa for four years in a row. When my school friends were grinding into the books, I was unloading the food bank delivery truck into the food pantry where my family got subsistence. Other kids’ dads were absent or working while mine was simply struggling through his PTSD from Vietnam, taking my brother and his friends on night hikes through the Missouri River bogs and swamps of East Omaha, then starting a Scout troop where I earned my Eagle Scout award. Along the way, I worked at three summer camps running nature programs, including at Camp Kitaki (pictured), Camp Wagon Wheel and Camp Wakona.
Throughout my teen years, I also volunteered at my mom’s youth programs when she was a VISTA in our neighborhood. I joined the city’s Methodist Church youth council, then developed a youth council for my neighborhood when I was 17 years old. As a frustrated sophomore in 1991, I tried starting an environmental activism group at my high school, especially since then year before, when I attended a year-long youth leadership program through the Urban League of Nebraska, and went to a youth entrepreneurship program led by the NAACP. I knew that activism was the way to fight the environmental racism destroying my community. The churches in our neighborhood drew me in, and I attended the local Methodist church, was mentored by a Unity Church minister, and I listened frequently to the Church of God in Christ Sunday mornings around the corner from the place I went.
As much as anything, it might have been the Nebraskans for Peace rallies where my dad read his poetry about Vietnam; the community council meetings and PTA my mom went to; the government food subsidies program where we got cheese and peanut butter and more to fill my belly; or the gratitude of Mrs. Hickerson when I shoveled her walk and mowed her lawn and she thanked me with the stories from her long life. I’m not completely sure how my neighborhood got me out, set my on my path so strongly, or kept me walking ahead in such a determined way, but it did.
All of this kept me from spray painting around the neighborhood more. Or stealing. Or running from the group of young men wearing singular colors who tended to throw and swing and shoot when they saw me.
Some of this made me the wiser, teaching me lessons about education, about social justice and white supremacy, and about community building that a lot of people from my station never bother or have the opportunities to learn. Loading the food pantry made sure that I understood the humility of helping others; being homeless still reminds me of the vulnerability of being young and poor. Feeling the fear of violence breathing down my neck kept me on my toes, and I learned to relish paychecks of any size, which made me adept for nonprofit work. My dad’s PTSD was his burden shared, and while my siblings and I suffered, it made us stronger, too.
I also learned basic skills, like communication and conflict resolution, group management and motivating others. My advanced logic ability was sharpened as I wanted to accomplish major tasks like youth empowerment, interracial relations and community building with minor fiscal support or technical assistance. With and without adult guidance, I strove to close to the sun sometimes, and my wings melted. But every now and then I’d become warmer and more successful than I could imagine.
So many of these lessons cost so much, and while they might have sucked at the time, they’ve challenged me to become a better person, a better youth worker, a better consultant, a better dad, and a better human in general. I made lifelong friendships with Jimmy and Jeff; discovered restorative connections with my brothers in the hood like Kal, Shawn, Tracy and Joe; and keep fond memories of the kindness shown to me by Bethany, Mary, Athena and Jeff.
Today I know there’s more still to mine from all that, but that’s a bit about how I started youth work as a youth.
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