Making Meaning Out of It All: The Work of Re-connecting the Disconnected with Love (#newarkontherise)

Several weeks ago, the week before break, I had the pleasure of attending GradNation with a group of youth leaders from Newark Leadership Academy and I learned about or at least was reminded of a great educational truth.

GradNation is a national project sponsored by Washington D.C. based, America’s Promise Alliance. They are convening 100 conferences and ongoing work streams across the nation to focus system-level attention on young people who are often called disconnected or “opportunity” youth. In Newark, NJ, we have nearly 4,000 young people that are high-school-age but have not attained a diploma and are not actively engaged in high school. Nationally, there are roughly 6.7 million of these same young people (this number, drawn from Belfield, Levin, and Rosen (2012), includes young people up to age 24, a slightly larger population than the 5.6 million estimate I heard at GradNation). Belfield et al estimate the cost to our national economy at 1.56 trillion dollars in taxpayer burden alone: 

The economic potential of an opportunity youth cohort is very large. Considered over the full lifetime of
a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the aggregate taxpayer burden amounts to
$1.56 trillion in present value terms. The aggregate social burden is $4.75 trillion. These costs ‘roll over’ each
year because each year brings a new cohort of opportunity youth.

GradNation Newark was a one day conference that brought together dozens of service providers from across the city along with groups of young people from YouthBuild Newark, FastTrack Academy, and our school, Newark Leadership Academy, as well as young people representing the Newark Trust’s youth leadership program, and Project RISE. These organizations, schools, and providers are working ferociously, although largely without coordination, to reverse a steadily growing dropout crisis.

The youth panel, particularly, was deeply compelling. What was amazing about the youth panel at GradNation, though, was that you didn’t have to listen particularly hard to get the point. Up and down the row, each of them told us how they had not had the love and unconditional support they needed to succeed in school. When the moderator asked what brought them back and made it possible to re-engage, they were equally unanimous. Every single young person said that in their current program there was at least one and sometimes even just one adult who cared about them, believed in their potential, and worked through all of their challenges to get to know the real young person inside. Someone who believed in them. Someone who cared about their future. Someone who loves them still.

That’s it. That’s the BIG SECRET. LOVE. LOVE!!!!! 

I’m not afraid of love.

A former principal who worked for me in Philly told me that I shouldn’t tell my students that I love them because they have been abandoned so many times before and I am just going to break their hearts again. I disagree more than I could possibly capture here.

One of the easiest and most important things I can give is love.

Dennis, one of two NLA students on the panel, didn’t make it sound that hard. He talked about how much it matters to him that every morning, when he comes through the door, I am happy to see him. This is the secret, the hidden educational need, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to deliver: show I’m happy when I really am happy. I am fired up when Dennis comes through the door. I’m interested in him, his successes, his challenges, and all the fun, hard, sad, triumphant craziness that comes in between.

And it’s not just Dennis. It’s not just the currently talkative, or just the currently hardworking students I’m excited to see. The ones who make me crazy today–my angry, traumatized, and escalated young people–are going to be healthy some day if we, the adults who are serving them and caring about them, just stick with them. Their experiences will add depth and wisdom to our own and, as I tell the young people all the time, we will ALL be stronger for our commitment to each other.

I believe that we are truly blessed to make our living in a human, social organization that both connects us to those around us and encourages us to learn from each other. We are lucky to have an extended family as complex, intricate, and beautiful as ours.

Here’s the ask

Briana Buie, an NLA student attending the event with me, stood up during the Q&A with my colleague and friend Chekemma Thomas (@chekemma), our keynote speaker and the CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN). Briana told the assemblage that is was our “responsibility to break down the walls” our young people have built to protect themselves. “Brick-by-brick, if necessary,” she said.

It’s our responsibility to break through to our young people and help them transform. Not to provide some learning experiences should a young person happen to be interested, but to break down the wall they themselves have created and connect to the real young people inside.

Even at NLA I frequently hear that everything would be easier if only “all our young people really wanted to be here. IF they really chose this.”

It is certainly true that one of the keys to success in a school like ours is free choice, but Briana suggests to us that we maybe shouldn’t make it such an easy choice for our young people to be disengaged. She is putting the responsibility on the broad universe of adults who fill up her world. Briana knows that we have already failed her and her peers many times before our young people really begin to inhabit the labels we have given them.

We may call them disconnected and we may want to believe that this is a choice that they make, but the honest truth of the matter is that at every step of the way, we adults have profoundly failed. More than five and a half million young people, nearly 4,000 in Newark, didn’t wake up one day and say “I hope I end up disconnected from school and from meaningful connection to whole, healthy adults.” They also didn’t wake up hoping to spend time in institutions that demeaned them, categorized them, judged them, and actively pushed them out.

We are obviously hoping to be different. Kaila, our second NLA youth panel member, said that our community building work (which we call Mental Toughness in the YouthBuild way): “taught me that there should be no failure, we should let no one fall.” If we taught her that, we better believe it ourselves.

Youth panelist after youth panelist at GradNation was incredibly clear, it only took one caring adult–one adult who saw past all of their “stuff”, one adult who refused to be pushed away, one adult who worked away at that wall, brick by brick, until that adult was face to face with a beautiful, courageous, gifted, traumatized, young person. Having named this enormous responsibility, I want to go back to what Dennis said, it’s not that hard to be happy to see them when they come through the door. It’s not that much of an ask for me to be my best self for my young people. It’s not that much of an ask for any of us–Let’s be a community of love.


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