Last week we held our Community Forum on at-risk youth. This was without a doubt one of the most personally and professionally rewarding projects I've ever worked on. With a team of 10 young people, ranging in age from 17-22, we looked at the issues facing teens who drop out of high school, age out of foster care and who become teen parents. We collected peer interviews and researched national, state and local data to pull together a story of these issues in our community. Then we invited schools, community-based organizations, businesses, churches, government and everyone else we could think of to hear what these young people had to say. We wanted to pull the community together so that they could hear the stories behind the numbers. We wanted them to understand that when we talk about 704 kids dropping out of high school in a year, this isn't just some abstract number. These are human beings who are facing challenges some of us can't even imagine. And they're facing them with no support, as adolescents.
The young people we worked with just blew me away with their honesty and passion for the issues. One young woman stood up and talked about she got pregnant to have someone in her life who would always love her and would never judge her. Isn't that what parents should be doing? Or church? Or members of her community? This isn't a weight that should be put on a baby, but it's completely understandable when you consider the lack of any other supports in the lives of these young people.
Another shared the story of how when she sought daycare for her young son, a case worker condescendingly told her, "When I was your age, I was playing hopscotch." This girl broke down in sobs as she told us this, saying "Please don't judge us. We know we've made mistakes but we're trying to do the right thing." How incredibly sad, especially when you consider that she's someone who's been in foster care since she was 8 years old and is now enrolled in college to try to have a better life for her and her child. What she needs is not our judgment but our congratulations for getting this far on her own and our support to keep moving ahead with her plans.
One young man in the project dropped out of school at 17 in part because he was scared to go to school because he refused to be affiliated with a gang for protection. He survives because he stays "below the radar" as much as possible. Right now, he's working on getting his GED and helping to register voters in his city. At the forum, he talked about how he wanted to experience something beyond the few blocks of the neighborhood he's lived in for the past 19 years. "It's not that I hate where I live, it's that I want to know what else is out there. I want to find out what it's like to live someplace else and do other things," he said. Isn't that what we'd all like for our children? Mine have gone on a European vacation with their dad, while this poor kid just wants to get out of his tiny Pennsylvania neighborhood
Working with these young people was just incredible. Most people consider them "lost causes," but what I found was that they will do anything if they feel you personally care for them and you involve them in the process as co-decision makers, something they often have not experienced. They also LOVED using media to tell a story. It was a big part of what kept them engaged in the process. We had them get the videos and they decided on the key themes to highlight in our final presentation. At first we were going to script out the entire Forum to present it in more of a report format, but at their urging, we decided to let them respond to audience questions to further share information about their personal experiences. Even when people asked questions like "Why aren't you taking more personal responsibility for what you've done?" (a ludicrous question because the kids were taking responsibility), these young people handled their responses with a grace and professionalism that, frankly, was far greater than some of what I've seen from the so-called adults I've worked with in this arena.
I was also blown away by how these young people want to give back. They want to take their show on the road, going into local high schools to share their experiences and persuade kids to stay in school. They don't want other kids to make some of the mistakes they've made and their willingness to open their lives to other people so that they can all learn is really amazing to me.
Luckily we video-taped the Forum presentation, so our plan is to use some of that video for ongoing dialog and work. In the meantime, you can see the videos we put together and shared at the forum here. There are three videos on the channel. The first summarizes some of the statistics and research we found. The second is on advice that the kids who were interviewed have on dropping out ("DON'T DO IT!") and the third includes interview excerpts on issues like why students dropped out, whether or not their schools tried to engage them in staying in school, etc. This is raw, powerful stuff and I'm really proud of what these young people accomplished in a few short months.