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home for the holidays.

home for the holidays.

there are songs about it.  hallmark makes a fortune selling cards either affirming the practice or lamenting ones ability to get there.  its something i look forward to with great anticipation.  however, this year, while i was sitting in my dad’s recliner that he never actually sits in when i’m home, eating a dinner lovingly and deliciously prepared by my mother, while enjoying silly conversation with my 6.5 year old niece and nephew, i thought back to the youth we have had the chance to talk about over the last semester.

what does it feel like to experience the holidays without a home? something i always take for granted.  something that seems to me to be as special a time in the year as any, that i have, for the first time stopped to think, that many do not enjoy.  learning too early that santa only brings presents to some people (perhaps not in the foster home or group home, certainly not in prison or juvenile detention centers).  or perhaps of being in a foster home, away from siblings, extended family and parents.  wishing you had such a luxury to go “home to the holidays”.  perhaps not even able to comprehend what that might look like.

and i enjoyed my time even more.  but with a hint of guilt, or sadness.  at the experiences, holidays being just one, that i have always known and take for granted which i am now keenly aware is not the case.  and i wonder what it is like to not be home for the holidays.  not have a home to go to, or even if you do, not be able to get there.

soon after the joy of christmas we welcome the new year.  hallmark sells more cards filling us with the rhetoric that it is a time of new chances, new opportunities, where anything we dream can be true.  yet, once again, that rhetoric is only true for a select few.  those who perhaps didn’t have many struggles in the previous year, or even if they did, were surrounded by the warmth of home, support and family needed to overcome.  but to add salt to a fresh wound, we celebrate new opportunities and new chances with people who have little to no control over their outcome.  who rely on other adults to make their future better and brighter.  and while the world celebrates opportunities and fresh starts, they are left with the same slate, the same past, the same obstacles as they had at 11:59.

happy holidays.

happy new year.

full of promise and opportunities and new beginnings.

for some.

Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani

Last week, thanks to Andrea Elliott‘s five-part series in the NY Times, the name Dasani came to mean much more than a label found on the side of a slender, blue-hued, plastic water bottle.

The series, which profiles young Dasani and her family as they experience various dimensions of homelessness and institutional forms of support and challenge, has received a significant amount attention in the mainstream press as well as across local contexts including our twitter stream, classroom discussions, hallway conversations, and, in one instance, a bus ride debate.

I am still very much mulling over the intricate layers of information and analysis of child homelessness that Elliott’s narrative offers, so in the meantime I thought I would share a collection of resources that I have gathered to help my own ongoing analysis and sense-making:

 

Additional Resources (taken from the Reading Club and other sources)

Who Really Belongs in Adult Prisons?

“[T]he young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.”

This line jumped out at me as I read this recent New York Times article (link below). I have heard, and used, many variations on this argument over the years when trying to convince people that putting children in prison is not a particularly great idea. Basically, the idea is that kids and adults are fundamentally different. Therefore, while it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons, children who have been convicted of crimes should experience something different, administered by a more forgiving, nurturing, juvenile justice system.

But where I have been getting stuck lately is the implication that it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons. It started as a bit of an age problem—do I really believe that eighteen year olds have all the wisdom and maturity of my 94 year old grandfather? Would I feel more comfortable if the age to be tried as an adult were raised to 21? 25? At what point do I actually feel that putting people into adult prisons is helpful for both the person being incarcerated and society as a whole?

So lately I have been wondering if age should be such a major defining feature of our justice system. As far as I can tell, our justice system is based on the idea of individual responsibility and punishment. At some point, someone becomes solely responsible for his or her actions. At that point, that individual Deserves To Be Punished for any crimes or transgressions.

The United States incarcerates the highest percentage of our population of any country in the world. As of 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated over 2 million adults in state or federal prisons. People have begin poking at the edges of this problem—too expensive, too many nonviolent offenders, too many mandatory minimum sentences, too many drug related cases. But we always seem to leave a center, a group that is, at the end of the day supposed to be in prison. The really violent, incorrigible adult criminals that we seem to assume are out there and need to be behind bars. But who are these people, really, and what evidence do we have that we are all better off when they are removed from their families and communities and put into the sort of conditions that we no longer think would be acceptable if they had only been a few years younger at the time they committed their crimes?

Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care

Paris

Jef Aerosol public art, near Rue Mouffetard, Paris. For more about Jef Aerosol, see: http://www.jefaerosol.com/
(Photo by Lalitha Vasudevan, 2012)

 

I started reading “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care” by Cris Beam a few weeks ago. At this point I feel it necessary to say that I am usually a fast reader, a habit nurtured by years of reading voraciously by flashlight as an adolescent, long after “lights out.” And yet, I can only read this book in small chunks, 30 minutes at a time. Beam’s writing is engaging and her style brings stories of foster children’s and foster families’ everyday lived realities into conversation with institutional and legislative history, current social science research, and large scale demographic data sets. In short, her book is compelling. However, I find myself pausing to ponder after each scene is depicted or after one of countless bon mots dropped carefully along the reading expedition.

With the end of the book looming near, I find myself wanting to start the book again, as if I’m hoping for different realities or for the existing ones to change. And it is from this unsettling place of seeking agency that I recently read a related article in the Sonoma Index-Tribune: “The arduous journey of the foster child” by Jaime Ballard.

This is the first piece in a three-part series the newspaper is rolling out to call attention to how California youth experience that state’s foster care system. Like in Beam’s accounts, the voices of the youth who were interviewed for the piece call up questions about their caregivers and the conditions in which they lived prior to entering the system. Children being removed from their homes is a scenario that plays out over and over again in my mind in technicolor (and occasionally my mind drifts back to that vivid image of Elián González, the young Cuban boy who was forcibly removed from his relatives’ home; of course the circumstances were altogether different. Still, the image remains.) What must the circumstances be for a child to be removed and then placed in one of any number of placements that themselves may be viewed as “unstable” in a different light.

My friend and colleague (and YMEJ team member), Melissa Wade, is all too familiar with such stories and reminds me again and again that there must be an “imminent threat or danger to the life of a child” in order for a child to be removed. And in the same breath shares the story of a young person who was removed from her home because her parents were found guilty of “educational neglect,” or not enforcing her school attendance. One wonders not only who is making the consequential decisions that drastically alter a child’s path, but also how those decisions are informed. Who is on the side of the youth?

What stands out in the Sonoma news article as well as in Beam’s book are the many faces of pain evident in the words, actions, and postures of the young people who are held in suspended reality as a “dependent of the court.” To whom do I belong? To whom do I show allegiance? By whom will I be protected and nurtured? Who truly has my best interests at heart?

These are among the questions that lie underneath the sentiments that youth like Angie (pseudonym) express:

“I was a good kid, never did anything wrong, stayed out of trouble – but was always treated like a criminal by the courts.”

Or when Phoenix, another foster youth quoted in the article, says:

“Mostly I was a child of neglect and emotional abuse – being called names and yelled at all the time.”

These recollections are woven through a system that is characterized by and “strenuous and sometimes harrowing court proceedings” and “too few foster families available to care for children in need.”

Ballard’s article concludes with a note of advocacy: for more people to take on the role of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA*. In some ways, the piece plays to the public’s desire to do something in response to reading about the situations that comprise (and often compromise) the wellbeing in these young people’s everyday lives.

[Millie] Gilson [director of the Sonoma County CASA branch] said, “There is a proactive point of order. I would encourage everyone to become a CASA, to get involved. Being a CASA is one of the most unique forms of citizen involvement, and it’s very much a staple of the foster care system.”

Both Beam’s and Ballard’s writings about the foster care system, albeit in two different locales, offer glimpses into everyday realities of thousands of children and youth and the families who care for them, both biological and foster. But as the stories they weave also suggest, there may be a significant role for non-family adults to play, thereby begging the question: Who is responsible for the care of all the children? (and relatedly, Who is implicated in their care?**)

Whether relying on the interested other — the socially engaged stranger — is a flaw or force of the foster care system is debatable.  But that children and youth need caring adults in their lives — to inspire and nurture them, to push and attend to them, to listen and provide guidance, to see them — is not.

*For more information about CASAs, including the process for applying to become a volunteer CASA, check out these resources:

**During last year’s YMEJ Seminar, Joe Riina-Ferrie (then a graduate student mentor in the course; now a member of the YMEJ Project/Teaching Team) pursued an inquiry into the idea of care. His yearend publication brought together this inquiry in the form of edited interviews with members of the seminar, including youth, other graduate student mentors, and other members of the teaching team. Listen to these multiple perspectives on care:

what is care?

Mentoring in Harlem

If you’ve read a bit about us, you know that we are engaged in a project with a lot of moving parts, one of which involves a collaborative mentoring approach that we have been developing over the past year. There will be lots more on this to come… but for now, I wanted to tell you about another great mentoring effort happening in Harlem — a joint effort between Harlem CARES Mentoring Movement and Total Equity Now (TEN) (read what we wrote last week about the great work that TEN is involved in).

Next Tuesday, August 13th, 6:30-8:30pm — Harlem CARES and TEN are sponsoring a mentoring fair at the Minisink Townhouse (at Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street). From an article published in DNAInfo New York:

“More than 3 million children are being mentored in the United States today but another 15 million are waiting to be mentored. Many grassroots organizations simply don’t have the resources to recruit enough adults.”

and

“The fair hopes to eliminate the disconnect between adults who might be interested in mentoring young people and the many organizations that facilitate such relationships by putting them together in the same room.”

In our work with court-involved youth over the past two decades, we’re learned that not every young person will want a mentor, some won’t want to participate if the experience is called mentoring, and some may not realize that a mentor is exactly what they need in their corner. But one thing is certain: young people need caring adults in their lives. Young people flourish in unexpected ways when they know they have someone (and hopefully a few someones) in their corner. And it is here where we see the richness of mentoring to exist and it is in the liminal spaces of a caring ethos that unimagined possibilities may begin to thrive.

These aren’t mere platitudes. They are words written by someone who has been fortunate to have had mentors throughout her life; for their wisdom, gentle guidance, occasional admonishments, and constant strength, I will be forever grateful.

So, if you’re a “committed adult” who can imagine “building another positive, strong relationship with someone who can mirror to young people what is possible in their lives,” then head on over to the Mentoring Fair on August 13th.

Read more about the fair and the co-sponsors Rochelle Hill (of Harlem CARES) and Joe Rogers Jr. (of Total Equity Now) here.

“Hunger hurts everyone” – A Place at the Table

After a sweltering July, I took pleasure in the breezy feel of an unlikely August Sunday afternoon. I switched on the tv as background noise, but quickly became drawn into the stories being shared by two women as they sat and talked with the always astute Bill Moyers. The topic being discussed, among other things, was the film “A Place at the Table,” and Kristi Jacobson, one of the film’s directors and producers, and Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, were Moyers’ guests. Their argument was relatively simple: hunger hurts everyone.

I found myself nodding along, but was unprepared for the footage they shared from the film, which also documents the efforts of Chilton and her Center against the backdrop of the federal funding cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). One loving mother eats a bologna sandwich in the kitchen after serving her two small children a portion of pasta each. She does not “look hungry” as the argument sometimes goes, says Chilton, who notes in a comment to Moyers after this scene is shown that the mother even hides her nutritional sacrifice from her children.

We have seen this narrative many times: parents who care deeply for their children, but who are still unable to provide the necessary basics. Where are they meant to turn? What supports exist for adults who are working full time, often more than one job, and whose wages keep them perpetually “food insecure” — the term used throughout the film to signal an all too common phenomenon: not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from.

Moyers’ guests talk policy, change, action, and urgency, and yet the parting words have to do with the struggle to get noticed by legislators for long enough of a period to actually effect change. Too mired in uninformed definitions of dependency and misguided notions of socialism are the political arguments that seem to surface any time issues of great urgency — and this includes hunger as well as shelter, safety, and wellbeing of children — are brought into the realm of legislation.

It’s enough to make one ask what else can be done at the local, community, neighborhood level. This is one of the reasons I appreciate the multi-tiered efforts of Chilton’s Center at Drexel University that seems to bring together families — who they are calling “Witnesses to Hunger” — with a shared focus on community-based projects, actions, research, and policy.

Here’s another link to PBS Newshour footage about the film, featuring clips and additional interviews:

And in case you were wondering… yes, this is where YMEJ is headed. And we are thrilled to have learned about the Center for Hunger-Free Communities as inspiration. Universities, too, can be part of the work and not only in the business of posing problems and solutions.

Link to Moyers’ broadcast – or watch the complete program here:

Click for more resources connected with hunger, nutrition, and poverty.

Educational Justice — online video resources

The Global Action Project (G.A.P.) has a rich history of pursuing and advocating for effective social change through innovative uses of media. In preparing for Year 2 of our YMEJ Seminar, we found a collection of videos that G.A.P. has listed under the category of Educational Justice. Perfect, right? The videos (short flims, PSAs) address educational issues related to:

  • undocumented students
  • youths’ legal rights
  • homophobia and violence
  • the school to prison pipeline

This one in particular caught our eye:

This video questions why people leave school or fail to graduate. Rather than focusing on the more commonly held idea of “drop outs,” the video examines the trends of push-outs, and the many ways that young people feel discouraged by the educational system. Interviewing educational researchers, students, and each other, we try to present the stories behind the statistics. – See more at: http://global-action.org/video/set#sthash.9eM2qbfj.dpuf

Here are a couple of other online video repositories that include short films in a variety of formats that take up issues of social change and education in a wide embrace:

Follow GAP on twitter: @gapyouthmedia
Follow 3minutemedia on facebook and twitter

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