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We started blogging late this summer and over the course of the past several months, the YMEJ Project Team has been joined by some members of the current cohort of YMEJ graduate students in contributing to this blog. They are:
- Emily Bailin
- Nicole Blandford
- Emeline Brylinski
- Katie Newhouse
- Laura Vernikoff
- Kelly Gavin Zuckerman
Click on their avatars (to the right, over there…) to read additional posts by them and stay tuned for more from us in 2014.
Collectively, we are educators, researchers, community members, adults in the lives of youth, and committed to the wellbeing of young people across multiple institutions; what has brought us together through the YMEJ Seminar, in particular, is our shared interest in better understanding the various contours and nuances of the lives, institutional navigations, challenges, possibilities, educational trajectories, dreams, and desires of young people involved with the foster care and/or juvenile justice system.
Below is a list of posts that seemed to catch your attention over the past several months. Check them out, pass them on, and feel free to suggest additional topics and resources for us to learn and blog about.
- Engaging Youth as Active Participants In/For Social Change: a teaser for YMEJ Member Tara Conley’s presentation for the Racial Literacy Roundtable Series at Teachers College, Columbia University on the creative and socially engaged approach to participatory design in justice-focused work with youth.
- Youth speaking about Stop and Frisk — Views from the reluctant experts: 2013 saw significant attention being given to the NYPD’s policy of “stop and frisk,” intended as a public safety measure but having serious consequences for the mostly Black and Latino male inhabitants of NYC who were disproportionately the focus of this practice. In a related post, Emeline depicts similar challenges that are ongoing in her native France surrounding racial profiling.
- The treatment of children is the focus of this next post, titled Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani, that builds from Andrea Elliot’s widely read 5-part series in the New York Times last month and presents a series of additional resources and connections. We — meaning the YMEJ team — are continuing to ponder this narrative and all the author was able to reveal about child welfare, city policies, and the persistent challenges of poverty through her in-depth profile of this young, 11-year-old girl. We hope to have more to say in the coming weeks and months.
- Another view of our nation’s treatment of children was profiled in the post focusing on child hunger: “Hunger hurts everyone” – A Place at the Table. We include information about the recent cuts to SNAP, links to a PBS special about child hunger and a related documentary, and highlight a university-community partnership headed by Mariana Chilton in an effort to interrupt the effects of poverty and hunger while also aiming to provide research that may catalyze changes to the policies that govern funding decisions at the local, state, and federal levels.
- In addition to Dasani, our imaginations were captured by two young men who were in the news: Avonte Oquendo and Davion Navar Henry Only. In their respective posts, Katie and Nicole raise important questions about how we see and understand the stories of youth enmeshed into large, impersonal bureaucratic systems, and about the ways in which their lives are represented and mediated. Of Avonte, we continued to hear that he was an autistic child who had gone missing and about Davion, we continued to read about the public plea he made in search of a family. Check out both of these posts to learn more about the young men and the institutional structures their situations call into question:
- We were grateful for a collaboration that sprung out of a twitter connection with @PrisonCulture, who, back in August, tweeted a series of youth-led change-making efforts going on nationwide. We compiled these resources into a handy list, and received additional recommendations via the blog and twitter that were also added: Youth Making Change Across the Country. This is just a drop in the bucket, and in 2014 we plan to profile several more organizations and groups who are working tirelessly to “be the change [they] wish to see in the world.”
- In addition to the above list of youth-led efforts, we also learned of institutional and community-based efforts to strengthen the lives of youth across settings, in the form of mentoring, higher education, and arts-infused activism. Learn more about these efforts in these posts:
- Finally, our attention was captivated by a book released earlier this year by author Cris Beam, who details the experiences of children and families ensnared in the child welfare and foster care system in her book “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care.” Reading her book took our own inquiries about care, family, home, and institutions to a variety of places and resources, which we have gathered in our post: Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care
There you have it — our top 10 (ok, if you were really counting, I snuck in a few more than 10…) posts from 2013. Thanks for being a great audience and we look forward to sharing more thoughts and dialogue with you in the year to come.
Wishing you a healthy, safe, and inspired 2014!
The YMEJ Team.
NPR’s “All Things Considered” recently ran a feature story entitled “Strained Foster Care System: A ‘Meter of Our Social Programs.’” By interweaving the stories and commentaries of Claudia Felder, a 21-year-old young woman who spent over 10 years in the foster care system, Claudia’s adoptive parent and social worker Kim Felder, Chris Beam, author of The End of June, and Alex Morales, CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, Arun Rath creates a complex picture of a foster care system struggling to support the 400,000 kids in its care. That is equivalent, Beam reminds us, to the total number of students in all Chicago public schools—elementary, junior high, and high school combined.
While it is important to recognize that there are foster care stories with happy endings, as in the case of Claudia Felder who found a social worker who would listen and in her a mother to trust, Morales reminds us that others whose lives are mediated by the courts are not so lucky. In the LA foster care system, for example, there are only around 3,000 homes, a fifty percent decrease from five years ago. As Morales describes, “The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or courts,” so young people are shuttled to group homes, institutions often characterized by bleak conditions and overcrowding. Beam adds that for many older kids who don’t end up with families by the time that they are 12 or 13, adoption no longer seems like a viable or even appealing option. Instead, many decide to run out the clock and age-out of the system. But that, Beam argues and Claudia confirms, is a dangerous solution. Independence without family support is a challenging endeavor. “You need to have somebody in your life,” Claudia explains.
So what do we do? How do we repair a broken system representative of a broken society? While there is neither a silver bullet, nor single answer, Beam identifies the need for more outreach influenced by a redefinition of family.
“ …what we really need to be finding for them are families. And by family, I mean one person to say, you know what? I’m going to stick by you. I’m going to care about you. I’m going to love you for a long time”
Beam’s definition of family may seem simple, yet its essence is complex and compelling. Family need not be traditional. Family need not be biological. Family is connection, care, and consistency. All youth need a family.
For More Information:
“[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?
- A Bid to Keep Youths Out of Adult Prisons (nytimes.com)
Juvenile in Justice is an image-based project aiming to document the placement and treatment of American Juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them. Richard Ross, a California-based photographer, began the project five years ago and it has been traveling as an art exhibit around the world for the last year.
From the website:
Juvenile in Justice includes images of over 1,000 juveniles and administrators over 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, plus extensive information collected from interviews. The hope is that by seeing these images, people will have a better understanding of the conditions that exist. Children’s identities are always protected and faces are never shown.
Juvenile In Justice is a unique source for images of the American juvenile justice system, which are made available to all institutions and non-profits aimed at youth justice system reform– including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
It was difficult to find any information about how Ross gained access into so many facilities and was able to interview so many young people. The only limited explanation of the process that I could find was in a press release for the Ronald Feldman gallery in New York City (one of the hosts for the traveling exhibit). It reads:
Ross gains access to the spaces of incarceration, and those working and living within them, through a complicated process of obtaining permission from all levels of administration, permission that is often at the discretion of individuals working in the system. [He says,] ‘I wanted to give a voice to those with the least amount of authority in any U.S. confinement system.’
It is interesting to consider the relationships among “youth,” “media” and “educational justice” as they intersect and emerge within the Juvenile in Justice project. Ross uses familiar art forms (photographs, video, audio recordings) to tell the stories of young people in the juvenile justice system. His work provides an incredible rarely accessible insight into what detention centers and incarcerated youth look like. While the quality of the footage both still and moving is quite beautiful, the images are chilling yet moving. At the same time, however, it is necessary to offer questions about space, audience, and power as they relate to this project.
By “space” I’m referring to the art galleries around the world that have hosted the traveling exhibition, displaying the project’s artifacts. I wonder about what we tend to associate with an “art gallery,” what assumptions we might make about who has access to these spaces? What kind of conversations are had in these spaces? Are the stark white walls and rather sterilized curation of the photographs meant to ironically mimic the environment of a detention center?
Closely tied to space, I think about how notions of “audience” relate to this project. Who is the target audience of this work? Who are the stakeholders? And which audiences have access to the spaces in which this work is shared?
And finally, “power.” It is always crucial to consider the inherent power dynamics that [tend to] exist between adults and young people, especially when the young people are already involved in a system that has rendered them completely powerless (in this case the juvenile justice system, specifically juvenile detention centers). Ross has documented and exposed this aspect of the juvenile justice system in an incredibly raw and unique way, and it is possible that drawing attention to this topic may result in a greater sense of accountability on the part of the justice system. Yet, we must also think about how Ross’ presence in the detention centers — his photographing, interviewing, etc. — may have been received not only by staff but by the young people. Where do we draw the line between voyeurism and educational justice?
I pose these questions not necessarily to elicit answers, but rather in attempts to encourage us all to remember, like John Dewey (1980), that “a work of art is not the object itself–the physical painting, sculpture or photograph…but what the work does ‘in and with human experience'” (cited by Hubard, 2013). Our lived experiences, the contexts within and lenses through which people may see and interact with these pieces are different and that is an important reality to keep in mind.
According to research from Casey Family Programs, a national charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care, estimates suggest that only about 7 to 13 percent of youth from foster care enroll in higher education. Out of those who matriculate to postsecondary institutions, only 2 percent of young people from foster care obtain bachelor’s degrees, in comparison to 24 percent of adults in the general population. Such sobering statistics reflect the critical need for policymakers, child welfare agencies, government officials, higher education systems, and educators at the secondary and postsecondary levels to address this issue facing approximately 20,000 youth age 16 and older who transition or “age” out of foster care each year.
Recently, several colleges and universities across the country have answered the call for action by creating programs that help foster care youth to fund and complete their college education. One such initiative, the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, has received accolades for its work supporting the educational attainment and life outcomes of youth and young adults (12-25 years old) who have lived some or all of their years in foster care. The program, now in its fifth year, provides tuition assistance and extensive student support services including mental health counseling, life skills training, and career planning to foster youth who have lived in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. Seita Scholars experience on-on-one coaching to help them navigate both the challenges of college life as well as those of the adult world more broadly, including filing tax returns, applying for Medicaid, and budgeting their weekly expenses. Given that many students from foster care do not have a permanent residence, the program ensures that a WMU dormitory is kept open through school recesses and summer breaks and organizes community meals and activities on holidays. Academic tutoring is available to all scholarship recipients as well as career advising and assistance with locating internships and employment opportunities in the Kalamazoo, Michigan community.
The Seita Scholars Program is an example of a comprehensive approach to assisting youth and young adults who age out of foster care. Its success can be attributed, in part, to its focus on the future rather than the past. While acknowledging and not diminishing the fact that many of its students have experienced trauma and harrowing life experiences, the program’s emphasis is on moving forward and equipping youth with the tools to manage difficulties, access resources, and succeed in college and beyond.
For more information, please visit:
To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care is the recently published book by Cris Beam that offers a layered, multi-faceted, and poignant exploration of New York City’s Foster Care System by focusing on the lives of the children and their families — both bio and foster — who are deeply affected by institutional and system-wide policies and practices. Beam writes based on her research — for this book, she spent five years interviewing and spending time with foster families — and from personal experience and positions the texts as an attempt to better understand why, despite the “more than a million adults [who] are directly or indirectly employed to ensure [foster children’s] well-being, and $15 to $20 billion a year [that] are poured into overseeing their health and management,” no one thinks the system is working. Beam’s book does not offer neat solutions. Instead, her rich descriptions and thoughtful prose offer different points of entry into the seemingly entrenched set of challenges that affect the people caught in the system at every level. Read the first chapter of the book here.
Arts, Media, and Justice: Multimodal Explorations with Youth is a volume edited by YMEJ member Lalitha Vasudevan and Tiffany DeJaynes and brings together a collection of chapters authored by practitioners and researchers who worked with youth in a variety of arts-based and media settings. Central to all of the chapters is an emphasis on how, through exploration with the arts and media, young people involved with the juvenile justice system may be engaged as agentive partners in reimagining education in their lives. Ranging from photography and theater to media making and creative writing, the contexts depicted in this volume hold important implications for educators, the field of youth development, and policy makers in how we might better support young people who find themselves embroiled court-involved — the thoughtful and illustrative writings of the authors suggests that rather than emphasizing punitive measures, we might create conditions in which exploration of self and world may occur in meaningful, collaborative, and potentially transformative ways.
(**All proceeds from book sales go to supporting the work of alternative to detention and alternative to incarceration programs in New York City. ***)