Young People Know What They Need–Adults in Power Must Provide the Opportunities
DC Action’s January 25 community conversation “Shifting the Narrative: the Role of Youth Development in Crime Prevention” featured a panel of youth and youth development professionals from the DC Girls’ Coalition and the Latin American Youth Center, along with DC Attorney General Karl Racine. Participants made these recommendations about what Black and brown youth in the District need:
- Accessible, engaging, and meaningful out-of-school time (OST) opportunities
- Accountability from adults in power
- Community centers and OST programs in their neighborhoods
- Mental health support
- Removing police from schools
- Opportunities to find and build confidence in their voices and their strengths
- Opportunities to work and earn money
- Pride in and respect for their identities
- Representation in government policymaking
These opportunities require resources, which is why the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition is pushing policy makers to fully fund the programs that offer them, to ensure we are investing in young people’s futures. AG Racine strongly supported the coalition’s efforts to significantly increase funding for OST programs including dedicating local, recurring dollars to replace one-time federal funds and securing opportunities for growth of the sector.
The message that over-policing and criminalization of Black and brown youth sends to young people: you are only as good as your worst actions, you are dangerous, you are bad. The message that Black and brown youth have for adults in power: give us meaningful opportunities to learn and work, mental health support, and restorative justice, and we will lead and strengthen our communities and become powerful and successful adults.
District youth and youth development leaders engaged in a powerful discussion with DC Attorney General Karl Racine on the root causes and potential solutions of the recent increase in crime committed by teenagers, and how genuinely listening to youth articulate their needs and desires can yield positive results for everyone. The January 25 online event, presented by DC Action’s Out-of-School Time Coalition and moderated by Executive Director Kimberly Perry, featured youth and adult panelists from the DC Girls’ Coalition and the Latin American Youth Center. Director Kristi Matthews, McKinley Tech 9th grader Jami Ford, and EL Haynes 10th grader Tonajea’ Mixon represented the DC Girls’ Coalition, a program of Black Swan Academy. Ericka Njeumi, who teaches the WLAYC radio program, and WLAYC members Bell Multicultural 11th grader Calvin Armstrong and Roosevelt High School 11th grader Kendrick Richardson shared their perspectives and experiences at LAYC.
Throughout the conversation, youth panelists made it clear that they know the kinds of experiences, opportunities, and supports they need, but that adults in power–including out-of-school-time (OST) providers, educators, policymakers, law enforcement, and others–must listen to young people, find creative ways to meet their needs, and be held accountable for their commitments. Teenagers have heard enough talk. They want action.
“I ask myself, ‘What is my purpose?’” explained Kendrick Richardson. “I feel like we should ask our youth, ‘What is your purpose? Who do you want to be? How do you want to change your community?’ I’ll be the one to step up.” Kendrick knows his peers are ready to talk and work together for the community if adults are ready to listen and take them seriously.
For the four panelists, participating in exemplary OST programs like LAYC, the DC Girls’ Coalition, and Black Swan Academy have helped them gain confidence and public speaking skills and exposed them to new ideas and perspectives.
“Working in radio allows me to voice my opinions and be more confident in my own voice,” explained Calvin Armstrong. “It’s expanded my overall mindset on certain topics.”
“These programs have opened me up mentally and socially,” said Tonajea’ Mixon. “They give you more of an open mind and a space to learn.”
WLAYC radio program instructor Ericka Njeumi said participants recently devoted their program to 15-minute discussions of philosophical concepts, instead of a typical radio show format. “In these conversations, there’s no right answer. The young people were so willing to communicate their ideas and listen to each other. They were willing to have their minds changed or sometimes hold their stances with all their might. We create a space where they’re seen as equals. Not somebody’s child, not somebody’s student, just equals.”
Fostering a safe, welcoming environment where youth can express their needs and discover their gifts is essential to an effective out-of-school-time program, according to DC Girls’ Coalition Director Kristi Matthews. “Young people need to have pride in themselves and in their community. They need to have purpose and power. A lot of Black and brown young people are taught that being Black and brown is bad, whether it’s from the media, families, friends, policies. They’re taught it’s not ok to be you. We spend a lot of time letting people know it’s ok to be exactly who you are.”
DC Girls’ Coalition, like all of Black Swan Academy’s programs, centers participant voices and interests in its activities and activist agendas. “We organize around what comes directly from youth,” Matthews explained. “Last summer we held a series of healing circles where young people learned coping skills for depression, anxiety, anger, loss, and grief. This was an idea that came from young people. They said, ‘we are struggling.’ We showed them it’s ok to be struggling and need support, and that you can learn to control your emotions. It’s not ok for us to expect them to be whole when, as a society, we are not whole.”
“Sometimes all a student really needs is to talk, or for someone to recognize when they’re down or when they’re not ok,” said Mixon.
Attorney General Racine affirmed the needs and desires of the panelists. “I’m overwhelmed with the truth, power, and brilliance of our youth. I’m hearing powerful words that matter about what’s being lived by young people,” he said. “Curiosity. Learning. Knowledge. Safety. Support. Acceptance. Recognition. Empathy. Love. They know the answers. It’s actually all right in front of us. All we have to do as adults is listen.” AG Racine noted the youth-focused programs of the Office of the Attorney General and praised programs that center youth voices.
AG Racine pledged to “end the cycle of violence and hopelessness” and continue his office’s work to “narrow the door to the criminal justice system.” The DC Office of the Attorney General is the only state prosecutor in the US that uses restorative justice practices, in addition to the youth criminal justice system. Youth and youth leaders on the panel demanded significantly more restorative justice and much less policing.
“DC’s reaction to youth crime is punitive,” said Jami Ford. “What we need is restorative justice, where we make youth answer to the people who were harmed in the crime but also restore the people involved in the crime back into the community so they can do better.”
Matthews reinforced the importance of stopping the flow of young people from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system by giving young people resources to bring them back into the community. “We need to understand the deep root cause that led to the crime. We need to get in front of young people who are struggling.”
Richardson agreed, saying the District needs to “give young people the opportunity to work and make money. A lot of time they do crime because they have to take care of their family and that’s the only way they know how.”
While great OST programs exist throughout the District, and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation operates community centers, there needs to be more consistency, accessibility, and options for youth that appeal to their interests, give them the chance to find their passions and gifts, and make a difference. “We want opportunities that give us a goal or purpose,” explained Ford. More than a decade ago, the District invested more than $20 million in OST. In recent years, that funding has been gutted. The DC OST Coalition has been advocating to restore funding to provide more of the opportunities that young people want and need. Thanks to investments from the Biden administration through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, DC’s local OST budget got a boost that will last through Fiscal Year 2024. But it’s up to the District to commit local, recurring dollars to sustain OST when these funds expire.
AG Racine said the current community safety crisis among youth calls for greater investments in positive opportunities for youth. “Negative influences are ruling because positive influences are starving.” The Attorney General called for youth voices to be included in decision making about how to fund youth programming. “You need to be able to hold the people in office accountable,” he said.
“The Office of the Attorney General is sufficiently funded,” AG Racine said. “Give the money to the organizations who are doing this work with youth with no resources, the 100+ groups who are stretching the dollar. They need more support.”
DC Action and the DC OST Coalition are committed to continuing to advocate with and for youth to ensure the adults in power provide the opportunities and accountability that young people need and deserve.
Resources and opportunities mentioned in last night’s conversation include:
Join more than 60 youth-focused organizations in the DC OST Coalition in advocating for accessible, affordable, high-quality out-of-school-time programs for District youth.
Testify at the DC Council Committee on Labor Public Oversight Hearings to share your perspectives on the workforce needs of District youth, or at the Committee of the Whole Public Oversight Hearing on DC’s education agencies to share your perspectives on OST needs.
Join Mikva Challenge in inspiring young people to be informed and active participants in our democracy.
Join RestorativeDC in educating the community and expanding the use of restorative justice practices.