A neighborhood on the West Side of Cincinnati recently suffered an attack of an African immigrant by 14 and 15 year-olds. One of these teens allegedly had a gun and threatened to kill the victim. Cincinnati Police’s District 3 representatives said almost half of all robberies on Cincinnati’s West Side were committed by children under 18. This is a staggering statistic by any definition. In my community of Northside, a neighborhood recently besieged by property crime, young people as young as 13 are caught breaking into and stealing from people’s homes. Why is this happening with such frequency, and why would children so young participate in such behavior?
Let My Love Open the Door
Questions such as these were addressed by a panel of community leaders in a session this past Thursday, November 21st, at Temple Sholom in Amberley Village, where the focus was on creating welcoming communities for our young people. The main conclusions all related to a musical question asked over 35 years ago by the Bee Gees: How Deep is Your Love? But this notion, borrowing from another song, the Beatles’ “Love Is All You Need,” is to over-simplify: it is much more involved than that.
Usama Canon, Founding Director of Ta’leef Collective in Fremont, CA, talked about how it’s about people, not necessarily programs that matter most. Young people may attend one program or another, but they stay because of the people. He articulated this notion in an old West African proverb: “If the youth are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just for warmth.” A program does not initiate people into the village, people do. And they do it with love.
He explained love in this context — not as the stereotypical “hippy-trippy” love — but genuine, meaningful love for our young people. What does that look like? Well, he gave a perfect example in what’s usually a very mundane encounter: interacting with a young person at a gas station convenience store. The young man was carded by the cashier, and subsequently refused cigarettes without proof he was old enough to buy them. When Mr. Canon exited the store, the young man asked him to buy cigarettes for him, and Mr. Canon refused. When asked “why not?” Mr. Canon replied, “because I love you.” And this gets at the heart of the issue, as Brother Abdullah Powell — Artistic Director of the Over the Rhine nonprofit Elementz — noted: it’s imperative that we welcome people with authenticity, and that our job is to simply (but not only) to care about these young people.
Belonging, Then Becoming
Tom Lottman, Deputy Executive Director of Children, Inc., in Covington, expanded this into the four B’s: Belonging, Becoming, Believing, and Beloving.
Getting folks in the door with love brings about feelings of Belonging, feelings of “I’m part of this.” The mistake a lot of efforts make — unintentionally, mind you — is they skip Belonging and start out with the idea of Becoming. This is rooted in the idea that our young people are defective, broken, lacking, and that it is our job to fix them, instead of just loving them. The act of making a young person feel as they belong must be rooted in love, and is antecedent to everything else. As Mr. Lottman said, “Belonging begets Becoming.”
Belonging, then, is connectedness and feelings of comfort with those around you. As time goes on, it becomes our responsibility to make sure comfort does not become the goal. If comfort takes complete root, we start to confuse belonging to something with belonging for something. It’s this latter concept that drives us for something more. Personally, my kids are obsessed with comparing things … ranking, ordering, which is better than the other. It’s what kids do. I recently took to redirecting my kids when they do this, citing the aphorism often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Because, let’s face it, there’s always someone with a bigger house, a nicer car, and cooler sneakers than you, right? Where’s the joy in that?
True Becoming lies, then, in redirecting our young people’s thought process, encouraging a new way to way they talk about themselves. Instead of our young people comparing themselves to other kids, or to media portrayals of success, we have to help them make more meaningful comparisons. Encourage young people to measure themselves against their former self: where are you now, compared to where you used to be? It might be the case that a young person used to skip school and get into trouble, but now is performing much better because of one thing or another. Getting them to think in those terms — to make more valuable comparisons (and to show that your past does not define your future) — is vital. And, what about the future? Well, that’s the other comparison you should encourage your kids to make: where are you now, compared to where you want to be? This shift — to focus on Becoming — is the gift of goal-setting, of looking forward in life, of hopefulness for our young people. This delivers our young people to resilience. And when you have resilience, you have hope. When you have hope, you’re future oriented. When you’re future oriented, you’re living a more actualized, authentic life.
Peter Block talked about his personal philosophy, which lies at the core of Elementz, on whose board we both serve. As Brother Abdullah readily points when talking about our youth at Elementz: “We’re not interested in your story, or in what you’re not.” We’re interested in our young people’s gifts, their voice, and we give them space to find them and develop them.
As Mr. Block points out, there are lots of questions we can ask kids — kids deemed “at-risk” — a label widely rejected by people in the room that night: “Whatever we name people they become, so I don’t believe in ‘at-risk.’” It’s our job to help our young people reconstruct the story with love.
The most loving question there is, said Mr. Block, is “What don’t I understand about you?” It’s not a loving act to ask “so what are you going to do about that?” It’s demeaning. Instead, Mr. Block recommends, ask “why does that matter to you?” If we’re interested in treating our young people in a truly loving fashion, it’s our charge, then, to come up with an alternative to advice, and an alternative to “when I was your age ….” That’s only us claiming victory over young people.
Ask, “What don’t I understand about you?” Then listen. That is the Love we’re talking about.