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How To Help Young People For Real, Step One: Listen To Them

July 15, 2014

We are rather schizophrenic in our public policies related to kids in the US. From the sex laws documented by Judith Levine nearly 15 years ago in her classic book Harmful To Minors, to the mess we have made of our current immigration policies, our lawmakers claim to want to help young people, and then go ahead and recklessly put them in danger. The current contest about who can find a way to deport migrant youth fastest is a great example. The very same politicians who shut down adult web sites “in order to protect children from trafficking” want to send the most vulnerable of such young people home to places so violence- or poverty-stricken that there seemed, for these vulnerable youth, no better option than to take the outrageously long and dangerous journeys north, journeys which put them at risk of trafficking in the first place.

Sacrificing these young people is disgraceful enough on its own, but it is all the worse given that they are putting themselves in such jeopardy because of US economic and political policy. The “war on drugs”, so-called free trade agreements, and the expanding need for low-wage work in the US all work together to devastate the communities these young people are escaping. They are running away from gangs, drug violence, and local economies that US foreign policies and economic policies have played a large part in impoverishing, and running toward a broken promise of economic opportunity and reunification with family members who have come north before.

It’s sadly ironic that the law that policymakers are now trying to amend is, itself, an anti trafficking law of the sort I have criticized in the past. That law, for all the harm it does by conflating prostitution with trafficking, by confusing protecting kids with arresting them or forcing them into dysfunctional social service systems, by dismantling civil liberties and undermining human rights, at least contained a provision that undocumented migrating minors had a right to legal counsel before being brought in front of an immigration judge. In other words, there was an added measure of protection before deportation could begin. It is that added protection that lawmakers today are racing to strip away so that they can deport kids more expeditiously.

The upside, if there is one, is that these lawmakers are finally willing to be honest and make it clear that they do not intend to protect minors who are most at risk of being trafficked. Well, that’s something anyway. Now we know. We know what they are trying to protect, and it isn’t kids. They are trying to protect their war on drugs, their war on sex, and their war on the working class, but they are not trying to protect the kids who are casualties in all of those wars.

If they did honestly want to help kids, they wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration. There are great models right here in the US for how to do that. If they want to help reduce the vulnerabilities that young people face, then they could do no better than to look at the practices of organizations that do this work well. I encountered several such organizations at a recent meeting hosted by Detroit Youth Passages. These organizations, through the direct service work that they do, and through the research that guides them, are models for the rest of us to follow. Here are a few examples:

Alternatives for Girls provides after school programs, teen leadership programs and summer camp programs for girls between 4 and 18 to help reduce vulnerability to gang violence, drug abuse, pregnancy and truancy. They provide shelter, counseling and life skills training for homeless young women between 15 and 21, and their children. They offer outreach programs to teens and young women who are actively engaged in commercial sex, drug use, or gang involvement, and those girls and women can access Alternatives for Girls services whether or not they are ready to exit those risky activities.

The Ruth Ellis Center also provides shelter and street outreach. Their focus is on homeless or at-risk lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people between 13 and 21. Their shelter services provide housing, meals, health services, counseling and life skills training. Their drop in center and street outreach services provide basic survival resources like clothing, food, showers, referrals to support groups and counseling, and job and life skills training. The outreach program also serves as a conduit into the shelter programs.

The Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation offers young people leadership training, summer recreation and service projects, stipend-supported work experiences, arts and entrepreneurship training, and assistance with transitions out of gangs and prisons.

These programs understand what young people need in order to be safe. They need shelter. They need food. They need safe places to come in off the street, while retaining control over their lives and the power to make decisions. They need real jobs along with education and training. They need counseling. And they need respect and autonomy. They need to have the trust of the adults who are helping them, and they need to be able to trust those adults back. This can’t be achieved by further victimizing kids. We have to reach out and meet young people where they are, understanding the social and economic contexts that surround them, and then we have to address them as full human beings, with minds and desires and rights. Whether we are talking about migrant kids or kids born in the US, the only way to protect young people is to take them seriously, listen to them, and let them lead.

Those young people who are detained at the border, the ones that lawmakers are racing to deport, they are just as entitled to respect, trust, autonomy and freedom as were the young people I met in Detroit. Meet one of them. This is Alexia Vasquez, a young woman who is the Youth Organizer for Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, a project of Spoken Futures, because she knows that those who make the policies and hold the power need to listen to the voices of the young, the vulnerable, the dispossessed they claim to want to help. Alexia Vasquez helps to amplify those voices. It would be best if we listened.

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