Fighting Poverty with Passion
April has been the busiest month yet. Serving at an intermediary organization means doing behind the scenes work. Much of my time is spent in front of a computer or working alongside adults in conference halls and coffee shops to create systemic policy changes. This is a necessary piece to the complex puzzle of creating lasting city wide change. I love the work I do because of the value it adds but I still miss working directly with young people. April gave me the opportunity to do just that. Readyby21 held their national meeting in New Orleans April 2nd to 4th. Readyby21 is a national organization who works alongside local communities to create environments where children and youth are ready for college, career, and life.
The conference introduced the Readiness Project where young people share their experiences and interactions with their city. What programs are they a part of? What are their neighborhoods like? Who do they look up to? What do they want to fix about their city?Do they have access to healthy foods? What do they want to be when they grow up? What is helping them get there? What is holding them back? I traveled to 8 community based organizations to ask these types questions to nearly 100 young people from 6 to 20 years old. The idea is for young people in cities across the country to answer similar questions in the hopes of sharing the similarities an differences in the experiences of the countries young people.
These five balls of energy were part of the DiscoveryFest after school program at FirstLine schools. We decided to take a quick selfie break. We were unable to include all of the young people who shared their stores but the final cuts of the videos can be seen here:
This conference was unique in many ways because it happened in New Orleans. There were performances from Young Audiences African Drum and Dance Ensemble at West Jefferson High School: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YR10yzH8ojQ a second line from Landry Walker College and Career Prep Academy (seen below), and a block party catered by the young people of Cafe Reconcile. Shout out to fellow VISTA’s Liz, Beau, and Helen to helping pass out beads at the event. We won’t mention Tom’s absence 😉 The talents of New Orleans young people were on full display and reminded the adults to not forget who they work for.
There is always so much you can say after a conference. A few moments stood out for me. First, I met a young woman Madison Thompson. I was impressed so I spoke with her afterward in hopes she would expand on her story. “When I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. I felt alone and disconnected from people my age, adults, and my community. One day the The Civic Canopy found me and started my story of being connected back into myself, other people my age, and my community. I was connected to a caring adult and began to feel valued. I became a youth advocate working and speaking on behalf of my self and other young people. I was given an opportunity to take ownership of community projects and I felt my value grow. I always felt being different was a bad thing. The Civic Canopy changed the way I look at myself and the world around me. My advice to adults is to give youth a chance because we have something unique to offer. It is important to listen and value youth for the talent they possess because everyone has something to share.” – Madison Thompson
Madison’s story is not uncommon. Young people feel disconnected from their communities, schools, and themselves in different ways. For Madison it was her health but punitive discipline in schools, unconscious bias, affordable and safe housing, a lack of age specific activities, etc can quickly create disconnection. Her story resonated with me in her final advice. The first step in understanding something or someone we think we don’t understand is to listen and find the value of that thing or person. One of the speakers shared his take on the glass half full saying we all know. We should always see the glass half full, right? Otherwise we are being a cynic or focusing on what is wrong rather than building up what is right. Everything gets done through relationships. The relationships we have with ourselves, and those we have with others. He emphasized that everyone is half full and half empty. We all excel in certain ways and are flawed in others. A way he approaches relationships is to say, “Hey, my glass is half empty and so is yours. How can we help fill each other’s cups up? Allow me to share how I fill my cup up and you tell me how you fill yours.” There is no gaurantee and there are a thousand “best practices” of how to develop healthy relatonships. But, just like Madison said, starting from a point of listening and finding the value first created an environment of trust where we can, together, address each of our flaws.
A second impactful, or just proud, moment was seeing my co worker Nicole up on the big screen. Nicole has been working tirelessly in creating a city wide data sharing system, supporting the Children and Youth Planning Board, and making YouthShift – The New Orleans Youth Master Plan a reality.
The last salient moment was from another New Orleanian. Erika Wright works for the city and she shared a story of her son, Gabriel. You can see the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04UodzL4SCo
I felt it perfectly summed up what systems level change is, where the priorities need, and how we can never forget that systems means people. How, as a city can we create an environment where all children and youth have a chance to be listened to, heard, and can fully be themselves and be successful as who they are.
“I am going to approach this from a personal recommendation. I have a 12 month old. Yesterday morning at 7 am I was at a parent teacher conference at his nursery. Which I think is a beautiful thing because isn’t it great that we are talking about development at a nursury, right? His teacher spent the better part of 30 minutes telling me just how joyful, happy, and in love with life this 12 month old is. He is the baby who dances for good food, commercials, and baloons, right? He loves life. While I think he is exceptional I also recognize and prefer to believe that he can be the rule, not the exception. At the end of the parent teacher conference, his teacher said to me, “My hope for Gabriel is just that he gets to continue being Gabriel.” I don’t think she understood the gravity of that statement because she said it so simply. As I thought about it, very soon the world will be telling him that being confident, and being outspoken, and being a leader will make him threatening, and dangerous, and aggressive. But, being vulnerable and sensitive will make him weak and he won’t be respected. So I ask myself continually, how will he know how to keep being him with those messages.”
How can we ensure that Gabriel, and the tens of thousands other children and youth of New Orleans, can continue being themselves?