It’s about this time of year that I take a long look over the past year, pause, and reflect. As you know we have the privilege of walking alongside the most disadvantaged young people in San Francisco: youth who lack family stability and basic support networks, live in poverty, struggle with mental health and addiction––most of whom are in the justice system. Our role is one of trusted companionship as they heal in the context of safe relationships and begin to develop resilience and other life skills needed to live into a brighter future.
As we come alongside these vulnerable young people we begin to see the world through their eyes. And what we see is often overwhelming and disheartening: particularly systems that focus on self preservation and have lost their connection to humanity, operating in a punitive fashion, disconnecting people from their families and communities. It’s a discouraging reality we’ve faced numerous times this year. If you haven’t done so, take a quick look at the report published this month in partnership with Cornell University: Every Second: The Impact of the Incarceration Crisis on America’s Families. The report highlights the prevalence of incarceration––1 out of 2 Americans has had a family member in jail or prison––and its devastating impact on families.
This is on my mind a lot these days as I think about the young people and families who look to us for help. Research shows that community is absolutely a must in helping people to thrive and grow, but community can only exist in the context of proximity. We really only recognize ourselves in another person when we have some level of relationship to them. When we continue to only “deal with” people as objects that we must shuffle around in order to complete “our work” we forget what actually matters. For example, as long as I can separate myself from those people that are shooting each other on the streets, or those parents who are getting reported to Child Protective Services, or any number of desperate situations––I can feel superior and remain at arm’s length.
When I am in relationship with the young man who was shot or pulled the trigger, when we’re sitting across from one another as he unloads his fear, regret, and pain, I begin to see my own humanity reflected in his eyes. I begin to experience the empathy that must accompany hope.
So often when a young person “takes off” and disappears it’s because they are overwhelmed by the intensity of their lives and feel hopeless. When we find them and bring them back, they find the courage to walk through the pain. The load that is carried by so many of these resilient overcomers is tremendous.
The reason we focus on relationships around here? Research shows it’s the single greatest protective factor for young people overwhelmed by immense trauma. Safe, stable, healthy relationships provide the solid ground these young people need to build resilience and believe that the world can be a safe and stable place: one in which they might imagine a different future than jail or death by guns because others dare to walk them into a more restorative and hopeful reality.
Last night I read an article that talked about the idea of equality (treating everyone equally) and equity (giving everyone what they need to be successful)––in an effort to change the conversation. It was specifically discussing a picture that illustrates these ideas––showing kids of varying heights trying to see over a fence by standing on different sized boxes. It’s not that one person is too short to see over the fence, it’s that one person doesn’t have stable ground under them and as they are trying to see over the fence the ground under them crumbles and falls away. The article did a good job of articulating why the picture is not enough––which is what we’ve been saying all along. This is where our young people continually find themselves. They aren’t less than (as in shorter and actually the problem), they are unfairly under-resourced and disadvantaged in ways that are completely fixable if we can find the will to do the hard work. Are we?
As I sit in court, go to meetings with CPS, teach parenting classes, and advocate for systemic change through my work with the Juvenile Justice Providers Association, I am constantly reminded that if it weren’t for my daily proximity with these yummy gifts to my life I might be sitting on a high horse thinking I had something figured out too. My privilege gave me the opportunity to move to a world-class city and believe I could make a difference. Now I recognize that my privilege must be used to create solid ground under every foot. I must speak truth to power. I must engage in difficult discussions, and I need to stay in relationships with the amazing young people we serve.
Thanks for being some of the best gifts we receive this holiday season. Your support means the world to us and our youth. Hope your holiday season is wonderful, best beloveds!