I am a Youth Leader for the Youth Table that has come together to ensure the voices of young people are heard in My Brother’s Keeper and the new national initiatives for boys and men of color.
We, the Youth Table, are brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, neighbors, friends, members of our society. We have a variety of dynamic identities that shape our perspectives and experiences. We are African American, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, and a variety of different peoples of color. We are men, women, transgender, heterosexual, gay, lesbian and everything in between and outside. We are young and old. We have dreams and passions. However, we experience pains, hardships, and traumas because of the inequalities that permeate our societies. We are targeted by media that spouts disparaging and inaccurate images and stories about us. We are funneled out of schools and into prison or deportation. We are faced with hateful ideologies — such as racism, sexism, ableism — that are perpetuated in the very systems in which we are told to put our trust.
Growing up in New Orleans as a young black male I faced — and still do — many odds that keep me and my peers from actualizing and achieving our true potential. Not only am I a person of color growing up in the South, a place with a deep history of marginalization and resistance, but I live in a place where murder and incarceration rates are among the highest not only in the nation but in the world. I have experienced discrimination based not only on my skin color or racial identity but also my age, my economic standing, my level of educational access, and where I live.
My family was poor. I grew up in a household of seven where our income was never above poverty level. My father struggled with a criminal record from his childhood that still follows and haunts him to this day. Finding stable work was always one of the biggest endeavors for him. My mother spent most of her time not only taking care of me and my four other siblings, but also her own sisters. Like me, she’s one of the eldest of sisters and serves as the backbone of their family. Finding work for my mother was no easy task either. And things weren’t much different for many of my childhood friends and classmates. There have been times where I’ve felt powerless and unable to affect the world around me because of society’s messages and images of me and my city.
Despite all of that, I’ve always been surrounded by people, like my parents and friends, who were motivated with integrity and compassion for moving themselves and their communities forward and creating a better life for the generations of people of color to come. They have created spaces and relationships to allow the communities they are a part of to grow, learn, and heal some of the effects of the inequalities that permeate our society. Things would have been healthier for my parents, my friends, and other people like me if we had access to not only education and work, but structural support from all sectors of society.
Myself and other youth all over New Orleans and the US are finding different ways to express the leadership that we’ve gained from our families, our peers and the community organizations that we are apart of. Back in middle school, in 2005, the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas were struck by one of the most devastating storms and floods to hit the US, Hurricane Katrina. The vast majority of people were displaced, homes were destroyed, and schools were forgotten. However, that didn’t stop us from keeping our feet firmly planted in a place we always called home. I joined Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (“Rethink” for short) an organization myself, elders, and other young people started to ensure young people, born and raised in this beautiful city had a part in making their city the place it needs to be. As students, organizers, activists, educators, young adults, and elders, we work to promote leadership, and uplift and amplify the voices of young people in and from New Orleans as we fight various issues in creative ways that affect our schools.
Our work covers everything from ensuring that schools have access to healthy, local, and culturally relevant foods to having a part in rebuilding schools in ways that are youth and community friendly. To name a few of our successes, our designs for the 21st Century Green Bathroom and Cafeteria were incorporated into our city’s Facilities Master Plan to rebuild infrastructure. We’ve gotten school officials to incorporate gardens to plots to our schools, as well as signing agreements with school food service providers to incorporate locally grown produce twice a week. I’ve worked with Rethink for almost a decade as a student and organizer, an activist and educator.
Rethink has been a space for me to heal from the traumas our city is faced with and a way for me to develop my perspective as a young man of color as a part of a dynamic whole. I’ve worked closely with coalitions like the Alliance for Educational Justice and Power of a Million Minds, as well as organizations like VAYLA (Vietnamese American Young Leaders of New Orleans) and other young people across the country who know that true changes in our society starts with and comes from young people.
Working in these spaces has given me the skills I needed to communicate my stories and those of my peers to a broader community. I’ve been able to find where I fit in the world when it comes to my experiences and hopes for the future. My love for science and arts has been connected in such a way that I feel as though the things I’m trying to do have meaning and promise in my communities. Coming together with different youth groups and coalitions from across the country has given me a broader perspective about the world, a sense of my own power, and a space to actually act on that power. Being involved in youth organizing not only helped me as an individual to heal from traumas and grow as a leader, but it also allowed me to take a step back from the situations that I am in and find ways to dismantle the systems that create the inequalities that I face. This is why youth organizing is so important for young men of color.
The recommendations of the Youth Table must be acted upon. These recommendations were developed through distribution of surveys, conference calls, and online and offline brainstorming. Based on this research and outreach, we’ve created a set of recommendations that encapsulate what we know works. Here are two of the most important recommendations:
1 Seek out the engagement and perspectives of young men of color. The inclusion of youth voices is important because no one knows the problems in our communities and the solutions that will work like we do.
2 Address structural inequality. The problems that young people and men of color face (access to employment and quality education, exposure to the criminal justice system, etc.) stem from a long history of exclusion and discrimination that is embedded in our society that we haven’t dealt with. Mentoring isn’t the only thing we need. We need to address the systems that marginalize us in all levels of society — our schools, communities, businesses, and governments — and work toward dismantling and replacing them with ones that work equitably. This is exactly why it is critical to include youth in the dismantling and creating of these systems.
Youth organizing puts us in a position where we can deal with these inequalities for now and for generations to come. The Youth Table representing young people from all over the country has taken action to make these recommendations a reality. We call on policy makers, business owners, foundations, and community organizations and youth groups to join us.
Feature photo: Emmanuel J. Washington