While I was walking out the door of 2017, I ran into Hope. I bumped into Hope at the Walgreens in Bakersfield. It wasn’t the place that one usually expects to find Hope. Yet there he was, in the battery aisle, walking over to greet me with a big smile and warm embrace.
I met “Hope” while serving as a therapist at a juvenile correctional facility in Kern County. Hope was then a teenage, minority boy found guilty by a judge of several felonies and sentenced to the center. Hope was like many of the other boys at the center — old souls born into a culture of broken homes, poverty, domestic/gang violence and drug or alcohol addiction that spanned up to four generations.
The boys attempted to make the best out of the cards they were dealt, yet the almost daily life-and-death stressors they experienced pushed them on the other side of the law.
The boys could hardly wait to be released from the center so they could prove to others that they could “make it on the outs.” They had fierce “I-will-show-them” attitudes. But the high rate of recidivism left them with a creditability problem. Some of the staff and counselors held out little promise for the boys.
This meant that the boys were virtually on their own upon release. They alone had to carry the torch (of self discipline) to find their way out of the darkness. So when I ran into Hope at Walgreens, he was still carrying his torch. He beamed with pride, telling me he was enrolled at a 4-year university.
I remembered working with Hope, who had been incarcerated multiple times and considered a “lost cause” by many at the center. A counselor advised him that it would be more appropriate for him to attend a community college, rather than set his sights on a university. Hope ignored this microaggression and followed his own path.
Michelle Obama, the former first lady, experienced a similar situation, as reported by the Washington Post. Obama told a group of low-income students that while in high school she was considering attending Princeton University as her college of choice. Her counselors warned her that she was too ambitious. She was told ‘you will never get into a school like Princeton.’ The sting never left her: “I still hear that doubt ringing in my head,” Obama said.
These life scenarios indicate that we still have a long way to go in reforming the cultures of our schools and juvenile justice system. When adults can’t see past their own faulty assumptions and preconceived notions about a youth’s innate abilities, then we risk crushing their dreams. How can youth be inspired to grow — let alone reform themselves — when cynical adults don’t believe that change is possible?
Hope was an extraordinary teen. He showed a lot of resiliency and strength to pursue his dreams in the face of overwhelming adult pessimism. Yet not all kids at the center were like Hope. Most of the teens at the center were influenced by the counselors’ outlook. The boys’ sense of despair was only deepened by the counselors’ cynical outlook and lack of hope in the youth, contributing to the cycle of recidivism. Burn-out by mental health counselors is prevalent in community health organizations and continues to be a real barrier in youth getting services that are safe, effective and non-discriminatory.
And this is the very ugly truth about the system. It can harm the very children it is trying to save.
Youth need not carry the torch alone. We can brighten our own beacon of hope in 2018 if we promote meaningful reform that truly gives troubled youth a fighting chance.
Share your thoughts below with me on ideas you have to reform the system. What has your experience been in working with adults in the system who have lost their ability to be effective in helping youth. How can we better help youth?