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Speakers at children & youth conference call for systems change based in love, liberation

 

The Rev. William Barber, co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, set the tone for a half-day conference on children and youth in California during the pandemic when he invoked the words of the late Martin Luther King Jr.: “Normalcy, never again!”

Many pundits have called for a “return to normal” after the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, but Barber traced what the pre-pandemic normal looked like for children and people of color with a litany of sobering statistics:

  • 62% of the state’s children lived in poverty. That breaks down to 61% of Black children, 71% of Latinx children, and 30% of White children.
  • Between 2003 and 2018, 827,000 people from California were deported. Some 13% of K-12 students [in the state] have undocumented parents.
  • The state has 131,000 people in prison, 79% of whom are people of color.

“Black residents of California are incarcerated at nine times the rate of white residents — surely we cannot be fighting for normalcy ever again!” said Barber.

The urgent need to replace existing systems was a recurring theme of the ChildWatch 2021 conference where Barber spoke. The State of California’s Children and Youth in the COVID Era was organized by the California chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The conference featured three panels:

  • Child Well-Being: A Call for Transformation; Back to School
  • Healing, Anti-Racism and Equity after COVID-19; Transformative Justice
  • Dismantling Destructive Models of Economic Stability and Public Safety.


The conference’s overarching theme was the need for California to support children and youth by tackling the state’s — and the country’s — legacy of White supremacy and replacing it with a trauma-informed approach of love, empathy, and support. Speakers talked about the enduring impact of White supremacy — how it has made its mark in schools by pouring a steady stream of youth into the school-to-prison pipeline, informed policies and practices that undermine the quality of life for people of color and called into question what it means to have a truly functioning democracy.

The speakers offered solutions that included system changes rather than simply systemreform, and the need to recognize the humanity and dignity of every individual. They shared examples of what that looks like in practice, such as guaranteed income for poor families. In addition, they talked about how healing for young people starts with showing them love and compassion, building trust and providing mental health support for the trauma that youth have experienced prior to and during the pandemic.

Bettina Love, a professor of education at the University of Georgia and the author of “We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,” discussed how the day-to-day experiences of white supremacy harm Black and brown children by enabling law enforcement officers in schools to handcuff and arrest students for alleged misbehavior. This creates a battlefield atmosphere in the name of public safety, Love said, and undermines children’s sense of safety and value. She calls this “spirit murder.”

“What happens to a child’s spirit?” she asked. “What happens to their soul? What happens to their ideas of self when they walk into a classroom or a school when there’s police and guns? I’m supposed to believe that you see the best in me, that I’m important, when you can put a gun to my face, when I have to walk through metal detectors?”

Recent data suggests that such public safety measures are widespread. Some 67% of middle schools and 57%of high schools in the United States have sworn law enforcement officers who routinely carry firearms on campus, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

To undo the harm that the country’s educational system has wrought, Love said, “The one thing we have to do is restore humanity, and for Black and brown children to be able to see themselves as beautiful.”

Healing starts with trust

Another theme that emerged at the conference was the need for adults to deal with their own trauma so they could develop trusting, nurturing relationships with children. Shawn Ginwright, professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University, said it’s not hard to figure out what matters to students. “If you ask any young person about what matters with a mentor or a teacher, it’s that I trust them, that I have a transformative relationship.”

Ginwright agreed with Love that in order to counter the suffering that white supremacy perpetuates, schools and youth development organizations have to engage with young people “based on love, based on courage, and based on belonging.”

The skills of empathy, vulnerability and being able to tackle racial bias are not taught in education classes, he said. But for teachers and youth development leaders to assume those roles, they have to deal with their own suffering.

“We adults have trauma, we have stuff we’re dealing with, and the extent to which we can build systems that saturate all of us and communities with love, and belonging, that is the only way we can transform schools.”

The dignity of guaranteed income

Another key theme was that outside of school, supporting children includes providing economic support for their parents. That’s exactly what Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, did in his city.

Tubbs spoke about the results of a pilot project he launched in Stockton in 2018. Some 125 randomly selected poor families were provided $500 monthly for two years. Tubbs was betting that the extra money would improve the quality of life for the families, laying the foundation for more opportunities for the children. The recently released analysis of the project showed that Tubbs was right.

“People were twice as likely to shift from part-time to full-time work because of the guaranteed income,” said Tubbs. “People were healthier. We saw levels of [the stress hormone] cortisol and of reported anxiety go down even more significantly in the study than in clinical trials of [the anti-depressant medication] Prozac. We saw people saying they're able to show up and be parents.”

He ticked off a number of responses from project participants:

  • “I can read to my kids.”
  • “I could help [my kids] with their homework.”
  • “I had time to get them on Zoom.”
  • “I could say ‘yes,’ instead of ‘no’ [to my kids].”
  • “I was able to be fully human.”



For Tubbs, the argument for providing a guaranteed income to poor people is rooted in human dignity.

“We know that government at its best allows parents to be parents. And that looks like a whole slew of policies that are focused at the home, that are focused on affordable childcare, and that are focused on an income floor,” he said. “And we also know that we have work to do to get there. So, we have to continue to be bold and courageous and challenge racist tropes.”

Speakers talked about how important it is to transform every sector of society, especially those where Black and brown people are disproportionately represented. Building communities that support everyone, said Shimica Gaskins, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, means changing definitions of what it means for a society to thrive.

Gaskins had an unexpected realization about schools in California while visiting a prison in Norway where the inmates had classes and access to the latest technology. They also had electives, such as art, sculpture, music, culinary arts, and were given fresh food to cook in their dormitories.

She recalled her excitement upon seeing an inmate whom she described as a Black immigrant; she pressed him for information about his experiences. “The education here in this prison is better than in your American schools,” he told her.

Gaskins was stopped in her tracks. “I thought, it’s not all American schools, it’s schools that tend to our Black, brown and poor youth.” And even though equity policy in California through the Local Control Funding Formula was supposed to drive resources to those schools, it wasn’t happening in practice, she said. And that made her consider that Norway had a better approach. It had changed its prison system, making a choice to invest in the inmates, “…because they knew that it would be better for their whole society.”

Adversaries are human

To truly get to the heart of White supremacy and be able to move past it, Ginwright said, we need to face the very people we want to avoid and recognize them as human beings. He described how he recently had to put himself to that very test.

After an article he wrote was published, an avowed White nationalist who went to the same high school as he did wrote to him. Because that person had written something offensive, Ginwright explained, he blocked the man on social media and from his emails. But while working on a chapter for a book, Ginwright realized that he needed to meet him and talk. During the meeting, they vehemently disagreed about everything, Ginwright said. But then the man mentioned something personal.

“It turns out that he was dealing with a loss of a child, a baby. He was going through a lot. And my point is that at some point in the interview, he became human. And it was that conversation that allowed us, at least for a moment, to have some sense of human connection.”

Without seeing the humanity in an adversary, Ginwright said, “…we will continue to reproduce these systems that dehumanize and create suffering.”

Looking to young people for solutions

Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, co-founder and co-executive director of the RYSE Center in Richmond, California, said that she looks to the young people who lead her organization for solutions to the wounds they feel. Like Ginwright, she said that healing is political as much as it is relational and clinical.

“The distress they experience is atmospheric, it is structural, it is historical, it is political, it is in their schools, it is in their housing systems, and that no matter what system they're a part of, they are policed and surveilled and treated as criminal,” she said.

Dhaliwal hears regularly from young people that the systems that are intended to serve them actually dehumanize them. Echoing earlier speakers, she agreed that simply pushing for changes in existing systems is not the solution.

“Change still implies we're okay with the normalcy of White supremacy and anti-Blackness. And so, we call on every organization, every system to create a theory of liberation.” At the center of that theory, she explained, is love.

“One of our key measures of success is whether young people in RYSE feel loved. We asked that directly: Do you feel that RYSE loves you, do you feel that the RYSE staff love each other?” (See the attached document illustrating RYSEs theory of systems change around liberation.)

She and other panelists stressed the need for a trauma-informed and healing approach toward distressed youth. When considering their behavior, one panelist said, start with the question: “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”

Love, compassion, humanity

Twenty-three year-old Ronnie Villeda, an advocacy and community organizer with the Antirecidivism Coalition in Costa Mesa, California, has experienced first-hand the distress described by Dhaliwal.

He talked about how in first grade his world fell apart. His older brother was arrested, tried as an adult for attempted murder, and carted away.

“I didn’t have any healthy role models in my life. I didn’t have anybody,” he said. Other kids knew about his brother’s arrest and made fun of him.

“That only made me angrier, and I would lash out at people because of it,” he said. “I had behavior problems. I was suspended from school like 20 times,” he said in a call after the conference. At home there was another set of tensions. “There was a lot of arguing between my mother and father, verbal abuse, emotional abuse.”

Despite his inner turmoil, Villeda said he did well in school, and made the honor roll when he was a freshman in high school. But at age 17, he said, someone tried to rob him outside a neighborhood grocery store, which led to a fight, and, like his older brother, he was sent to the Orange County Juvenile Hall.

Any options for support seemed out of reach, he told conference participants. “The [Juvenile Hall staff] said. ‘We're not going to waste our time and resources on you, because you're headed to prison.’ It’s as if they were saying, you're nobody, you’re disposable.”

With the passage of California’s Proposition 57 in 2016, which gave teenagers like Villeda the opportunity to be tried in juvenile court, Villeda was able to have his case heard after serving four years in detention. He was released — in part, he says, because several probation officers supported him “after seeing how I worked hard to get an education and advocated on behalf of the younger kids.”

He also had been helped by a therapist who advocated for him and made him feel cared for. “Therapy was a big one; it allowed me to address my trauma,” Villeda said. “[The therapist] was very compassionate and loving.”

His subsequent advocacy work was inspired by Victoria Carty, a sociology professor from Chapman University, who was at juvenile hall as part of a pilot program. “She educated us, treated us as human beings, gave us our dignity,” he recalled. “It made me trust her and allowed us to be vulnerable in that setting. She showed us that we had worth.” She also taught them about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, he said, which further seeded his interest in system change.

Villeda pointed out the need for more community-based healing centers staffed by youth empowerment support teams “who we could call instead of calling the police to help mitigate situations within the community.” He agreed with other conference panelists about what was needed to make a real difference.

“The overarching themes of youth justice reimagined are the things that are lacking in the current system – love, compassion, humanity,” he said.

Takeaways from conference panelists on policy and legislation include:

  • The state bill AB 117 will enable students and families hardest hit by COVID-19 to access trauma-informed mental health services in the community.
  • The Department of Education will be sponsoring legislation to fund in-school mental health counselors, according to California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who spoke at the conference.
  • The state has passed a $4.5 billion bill for “accelerated learning” in public schools: tutoring, coaching, summer enrichment, professional development.
  • The Department of Education will receive additional funds from AB 1014, which reallocates criminal justice dollars into preventive programs in schools.
  • The department is creating a task force to tackle the digital divide between affluent and poor students.
  • The department will provide resources to school districts to train staff around implicit bias.
  • The department also is developing a statewide data system to help ensure that students who move from one school to another and are hard to locate don’t go missing. The database will help ensure that students don’t have interruptions in learning.

Here’s a recording of the entire ChildWatch conference.

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