“Justice is subjective. My justice may be your injustice and your justice may be my injustice. Either way, I’m on the wrong side of justice,” said Aliiyah, one of the youth at the Queens kick-off event for our new Safe Space Youth Justice Corps.
Aliiyah described what she sees as an increasingly polarized city – where people are divided by age, class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability – and where some groups seem to get the short end of the stick. For Aliiyah, “justice” as it is currently served in New York, doesn’t fairly protect or support her and her community. She wants to change that.
Aliiyah’s was just one perspective shared by youth at the Sheltering Arms youth justice kick-off events in the Bronx and Queens, which represent the beginning of our new initiative that gives young people the space and the skills to be effective civic leaders and social innovators.
There’s no shortage of programs or solutions put forth to correct the injustices Aliiyah described. But how many of them were designed by the people these programs intend to help? The Safe Space Youth Justice Corps is a rare opportunity for young people in disenfranchised groups to be the authors of change in their communities, not just the passive objects of help from on high.
Though they are experts on the social inequality they experience in their daily lives, youth in the urban communities we serve are rarely empowered to propose or enact solutions. Worse still, many are ignored, feared, disparaged or punished for being who they are.
“I’ve been treated poorly and not expected to succeed because of negative assumptions about my community by authority figures, educators, and people in positions of power. It’s the labels that make them treat us the way that they do. Those assumptions are the biggest threat to social justice,” said Jeremiah, an attendee at the Queens kick-off.
In defiance of the stereotypes, youth proved that they were well qualified to take on some of the biggest social challenges of our time. Though they may not yet have college degrees, powerful allies, or the public platform to introduce social solutions, they’re all too familiar with causes, consequences, and opportunities for change based on their first-hand experiences growing up with inequality.
When surveyed about their experiences of injustice, 60% of almost 100 youths across 4 boroughs said they had experienced unequal treatment under the law. The majority reported being racially profiled, stopped and searched by police when they hadn’t been doing anything wrong. More than half reported being followed like criminals in stores, or even barred from entering because of their race, describing how their white peers don’t experience the same surveillance or sanctioning. “People judge me by my skin color and exclude me,
so it’s hard for me to do a lot of things that white people do,” said Brandon, a Bronx youth.
Youth at the events described feeling terrorized instead of protected during interactions with law enforcement, fearing violence even when they know they haven’t committed any crimes or disrespected the police.
They cited unequal access to a great education. Schools in their neighborhoods have graduation rates as low as 9% in some cases. For others, the opportunity to compete academically evaporated before they even started school. Their parents may not have spoken English, or had the literacy to read to them or enroll them in early childhood education programs. For children in foster care or homeless shelters, an absence of any parent to advocate for them or direct their early development set them back before they had a chance to try. Or in almost all cases, trauma from abuse, neglect, homelessness, hunger, or growing up in a violent neighborhood forced them to focus on survival instead of school. Even with the passion to succeed, Naima, a Far Rockaway youth, said, “Poverty hinders me from being able to afford a college education which will prevent me from achieving my educational goals so I can become a productive member of society.”
They shared stories about unequal access to resources – from clean air and water, to hospitals and mental health clinics. And when they tried to petition for change, they were confronted with unequal representation or consideration from their city council members and congressmen relative to affluent neighbors.
Others described unequal rights because of their gender or sexual identities. One girl described how she doesn’t have access to basic women’s health resources like birth control and tampons, while men don’t have to worry about it. For homeless youth, these concerns take on greater significance and prevent girls from getting jobs or pursuing independent living. LGBT youth described being kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality, but not finding homeless shelters, health clinics, jobs, or other resources where they would be safe and accepted.
Aptly named, the Safe Space Youth Justice group provides a “Safe Space” for uninhibited collaboration and ideation with their peers who have shared experiences of marginalization. During “Social Justice Jeopardy,” the youth shared sophisticated insights into structural inequality and the ways it has reproduced generational poverty in their communities. They described their personal experiences with discrimination and even violence based on their sexuality, race, and gender identities. They reflected on their underperforming school districts, and poor community relations with those assigned to protect and advocate for their well-being, but who have too often been the sources of fear, violence, and neglect. Confronted by a system that underestimates and excludes them, youth showed they were ready to come up with new systems, with all the hope, creativity, and daring that defines great entrepreneurs.
“The system is our problem. As young people we must change the system. If we change the system, we change the outcome. It’s as simple as that,” confirmed Tamia, another youth at the Bronx kick-off event.
Unlike other youth organizing programs, the Safe Space Youth Justice Corps at Sheltering Arms brings youth together around the common social injustices they all face, despite being from different boroughs and programs, including foster care, after school, juvenile justice, homeless youth, and youth centers.
The Safe Space youth are already participating in the agency-wide strategic planning process, contributing ideas that will be shared with the Board of Directors and will influence the company’s priorities, mission, and values for the next 5 years.
The challenges our communities face are mammoth, but so is the power and enthusiasm of our youth to reinvent our society and the ways we relate and care for one another. Or as Nathan, a Bronx youth, put it, “Society can kill dreams, potential, and all that could be, but with more love, we can see each other for who we really are and what we can become.”
We see you Nathan, and we can’t wait to see more of what our youth accomplish as leaders of the future.