"Mental-health problems lead to crime," one student says. "And trauma," another one adds.
"Young people don't have enough to do to keep us out of trouble."
"Adults don't respect us enough."
"We have to sit in straight rows, and we don't discuss things. We just write down what they say to memorize for the tests."
"We can't talk in the cafeteria."
"Or in the halls," another adds.
"They suspend us for anything."
For the third straight summer, I've been surrounded by teenagers from throughout Jackson, the majority of whom are from the Jackson Public School District. The Mississippi Youth Media Project, my side project with its own newsroom next door to the Jackson Free Press, invites young people of various backgrounds, and we don't shy away from accepting young people who have struggled in school or the community. We also accept private-school kids, including three from St. Andrew's this summer.
The idea is to put all the young people into one big, inspiring learning space with great views and the tools of creativity—from big Macs to lots of dry-erase markers and white boards—and see what they can figure out together. Yes, we're teaching them workforce and executive skills, time and project management, communications tools, how to act and not act when you're getting paid (as they are, thanks to funders), and even how to navigate group dynamics and the inevitable conflicts at work.
We also must teach some students to clean up after themselves and not deface other people's property. We take up their phones part of the time and bring in a yoga and meditation trainer to help teach them to focus. We tell them to use their inside voices, not wear ripped jeans and wear their belts. I remind a couple of my male students regularly to "tighten those belts!"
They make me crazy and exhausted, and I love all of them and believe each has immense potential if we work hard to help them tap it and bring it forward. My favorite moment this summer was when one young man, who might not have lasted as long in many programs, thanked me, saying he knew he was still there because I wanted him to be. And I do.
But here's the thing: Young people need more than lessons and modeling from us on how to behave in a workplace. They need to be heard. And to be asked. They have wisdom to share that even well-meaning adults do not bother to seek out.
Allow me to be blunt. I've been in many rooms with a lot of passionate talk about what young people need, and are going through, and how much money is needed to pay adults to fix everything for them—and I look around and don't see a single face under 30, much less 18.
Meantime, our young people are brilliant treasure chests of wisdom and ideas—especially those who grew up in single- or no-parent homes; have gone through bullying and/or abuse; don't always have food to eat or clothes they need; don't have laptops or iPads; are screamed at and talked down to—inside or outside school and home and, repeatedly, in social and regular media.
All we have to do is ask them. Every summer, YMP students have arrived in Capital Towers, gawked at the views, complained about the elevators, wrestled with focusing and distraction—and still come up with powerful, important story ideas on their own. What's funny is how many adults think they show up wanting to write about sports, fashion or hip-hop—and most of them decide among themselves to research and write about poverty, racism, mental illness, crime, bad policing, bullying, abuse, inequitable schools, sexism and much more. They barely need a prompt.
Why? Because they experience these things in their lives, often on a daily basis, in one way or the other. (And not just the Jackson Public School students.)
The only real difference I see between the students at the outset is that some of them have been held to high standards with the tools and support systems to back them up and help ensure success; and too many have not. Many of them really do suffer from a bigotry of low expectations (and not the way George W. Bush meant it) and too much indignity directed toward them. That's really it. OK, along with some ADHD here and there.
This summer, YMP is working with the Better Together Commission to help with youth engagement in the quest for JPS to improve educational outcomes for children. The commission was not proscriptive, thankfully, agreeing to allow our students to interrogate and explore five focus areas for improving the local community and schools—dignity, safety, stability, ability to learn and opportunity—and see what they came up with themselves.
They are now creating multimedia packages on their ideas: mental illness and trauma, the need for community centers, disparities between Jackson and suburban schools, issues teenage girls face and school safety. Wait until you see the work, hopefully posted at jxnpulse.com by Sept. 1.
But here are my takeaways. We must be willing to shut up and listen to young people. We must center them at events and step back, allowing them to lead. We must teach young people well, but we must allow them to teach us right back. We must not give up on young people who have suffered from low expectations and standards, but help them get there, even if belatedly.
Maybe more than anything: Beyond immediate safety concerns, we cannot give up on "troubled" young people and just serve the "good" students or just focus our efforts on younger kids. We are continuing the cycle if we do that, because the teens we neglect become parents themselves and can pass along what they didn't get.
(I have a teenage mother this summer, who chased me for weeks until I let her into YMP. She is great. I've loved our journeys around Jackson to shoot B-roll together.)
Adults who work to serve young people, especially neglected ones, cannot see ourselves as their saviors and above reproach. Young people can save themselves and our community if we stop getting in their way. Put your ego in the closet, and start listening to them. All of them.
Please read more about YMP at youthmediaproject.com and watch for new student work going up daily at jxnpulse.com.