Youth Transformation in Urban America

by Jina Jibrin I am currently working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, managing a youth leadership program for black and Latino youth from housing developments in the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan communities. The Fuerza Leadership Program is a prevention-based, leadership development, and community-organizing program which allows young adults a space to voice their opinions, experiences, and concerns about pressing issues in their communities. The goal of the program is to promote healthy behaviors, and to prevent substance abuse and HIV in communities of color, by engaging youth to think critically about the roots of social, racial, and health inequities.

If you ask any of the youth how they view themselves, they will say, “I’m a thug,” or “I’m from the ghetto.” They come from extremely challenging personal backgrounds—single parent families, often accompanied by a lack of any familial support. Most of their family members are in jail, have been in jail, or are on the run from the police, and are actively using crack; and, all of them unfortunately attend lowperforming public schools where violence is much more rampant than academic performance.

When I started the group sessions with five young adults, I introduced passages from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step. I was unsure of how they would respond to the teachings. I asked them to read a passage a day and to come ready to discuss it. Many of them wanted to discuss the sections on anger, so we read these passages aloud in the group. One of the sixteen-year-old girls started crying as she was reading aloud—telling how her mother is using drugs and verbally abuses her, how her mother doesn’t work but makes her work to pay the bills. She said that she had a lot of anger towards her mother, and that she always screamed at her mother, calling her the same names that her mother called her. I was amazed by the visual transformation in her –– from urban hardness to openness and honestly displaying her emotions.

Another member who has been in the Department of Social Services (DSS) began talking about how angry she is all the time, and how she always gets in trouble in her group home because she lets anger control her. As she continued to speak about her anger, other group members began giving her suggestions on how to care for her anger, based on what we had just read. I asked them if they felt that what they had read was realistic and applicable to their lives, or whether they just saw it as something nice to read about. One of the guys spoke up saying that he definitely thought the words were relevant to urban people in America. He talked about how cold and unfriendly our daily interactions are in urban America and about the need to recognize our connections to each other. He told me that he’s started doing little things, like saying hi to a bus driver when he takes the bus to community college every day.

The words from that book have really touched these kids. I have noticed visible improvements in all five of the members in the past few months. Not only have they been reflecting on their own actions, they are also caring for one another––they are building community.

Our community college student almost made the dean’s list last semester with the assistance of some tutoring and support of Fuerza volunteers. Two other members will be applying to college next September. Another recently joined her school’s basketball team with more confidence in herself and her abilities, and our youngest member, who has been in the DSS system, recently brought me a copy of her report card—four As and three Bs, a marked improvement over her past efforts. Because of the empowering change they have experienced by being a part of Fuerza, they have begun to motivate and empower themselves outside the group. I am expanding the group to about twenty young adolescents and I intend on bringing more of Thay’s teachings to our overall work. I know that it will impact their sense of community and will allow them to begin exploring new levels of personal change and social activism. These young adults are hungry for mental spaces of peace, which they can use to strengthen themselves to better face the daily wars with which they continually battle.

Jina Jibrin runs the Fuerza Youth Leadership Program, working with urban youth in Boston addressing issues such as HIV, poverty, homelessness, violence, and substance abuse.

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