As I've mentioned before, I am the director of a small non-profit organization focused on working with youth who are starting to get in trouble. That means we provide counseling, mentoring, guidance and support to youth who have been arrested for the first time (with a special long-term focus on youth who have developed delinquency histories before the age of 10), are chronically suspended from school and/or are in the midst of a family crisis.
A few years ago we began to recognize that is wasn't enough to ask these youth (and their families) to change. We also needed to work with community members to make some changes in how they support these young people.
So we did things like host a forum with the local Children's Defense Fund on their report about the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. And we sponsored a premiere showing of the documentary film "Beyond the Bricks" about how/why our public schools are failing to educate African American boys.
We also provided training to staff in local libraries, schools, and recreation centers about how to effectively engage young people who they would otherwise suspend or expel from activities due to bad behavior.
But while smaller in scope, nothing has been as inspiring as something we call the Ambassadors for Youth Academy. We go into specific neighborhoods of the city and invite adults who are interested in making a difference for youth in their community to attend an 8 week course. They are provided with information about youth development, engaging disconnected kids, and local community resources. At the end of the 8 weeks they are asked to write an action plan about what they are going to do to engage youth in their community. If they've had regular attendance and written a plan, we have a wonderful celebratory graduation ceremony and they are provided with $200 as either a stipend for attending or seed money for their plan.
To date, we have held 3 academies and graduated over 100 adults. But even more important than that is the fact that we've engaged people that typically don't get involved in community issues.
Participants have ranged from their 20's to their 70's with a pretty equal distribution of men and women. Many are living in poverty and some have graduate degrees with lucrative employment. Overwhelmingly they are African American.
At graduation, each participant is asked to go in front of the gathering and say at least a sentence or two about what they plan to do. I have literally never been more inspired in my life.
One young man that I will call Donnie talked about growing up in a gang culture in Chicago. He had seen his first killing by the time he was 13. He made it out of that life by the skin of his teeth and is now married and the father of 2. He'd gotten his GED, but never went to college and worked occasionally in construction.
After the academy, he volunteered at a local boys correctional facility and is planning on going back to school to get a college degree so that he can work with kids professionally. Here's what he said about his experience:
The academy gave me hope and confidence that I could use my experiences to help youth living in poverty. I give credit to the Ambassadors for Youth Academy for showing me the value in my life experiences and assuring me that my struggle was not in vain. I recommend the academy to anyone who wants to understand today’s youth and work with them to find the value they have to offer our society.
At our first graduation event, the commencement speaker was Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds. She reminded us that most often the anger and bravado we see from young people comes from their pain…and that we need to be willing to engage them in love. She also emphasized that what these young people lack is the kind of access to opportunities most privileged youth experience throughout their lives, and that it is our job to “stand in the breech” to provide them with that access. And she quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
How can you not believe in the value of the long-term struggle when you have the privilege of working with folks like this?