Inspiration from the Field by Guest Blogger Jaydra Wolfheart
I took Zapoura’s Enhancing Youth Literacy Capstone a few years ago just as my interest in working with youth was developing. Volunteering in a public school for her class was at once frustrating, empowering, enlightening, motivating, and discouraging. Complicated. But I learned so much- that I didn’t want to work with very young kids. That I felt powerless in the face of the huge institutional barriers keeping teachers and kids locked into crappy situations. That I loved working with youth just the same. That I didn’t have to take on the whole system- I could find my place working in concert with others making small, yet meaningful steps toward education and equity for young people. Knowing public school might not be the place for me, I went searching for another place where I could be an advocate. Further coursework and volunteering led me to Portland YouthBuilders, an organization that does phenomenal work with marginalized youth ages 17-24. I volunteered there as a GED tutor and mentor for an academic year and it was there that I found my place in working with youth.
Last fall I was hired as a case manager for a new program serving youth 17-24 who have been involved in the juvenile justice system. The program is called the Civic Justice Corps and we provide job training, GED and college academics, social and life skills, and personal support to our youth.
This is enormously challenging work. Our youth come with so much trauma. They have endured poverty, abuse, drug addiction, school expulsion, gang life, racism, and of course, the alienating and often violent experiences of being incarcerated. They are withdrawn, defiant, surly, angry. I have been lied to, screamed at, ignored. So what makes it worth doing?
The times when they do open up. When you can see that a relationship of respect and trust is building and you are suddenly let in on their fear and pain. When someone says please or thank you or asks for help. When you can empower a young person to speak up for himself. When you can acknowledge who they are as whole people and celebrate their strengths while so many others in their lives have focused on their weaknesses. The struggles of working with this population make the small, yet meaningful successes that much more powerful.
I absolutely love my job, and I would not be doing it if not for all the valuable time I spent donating my time to youth and organizations in the community. Without that foundation, I wouldn’t be as in tune with what the real needs of our youth are and the barriers they face to employment, housing, education, and wellness. I would have never found out where I fit in. If you are struggling to find your place in education/youth advocacy, keep trying. Public schools absolutely need our help and support, perhaps more than any other institution, but if your inner advocate is leading you elsewhere, there are still plenty of organizations that need help. Don’t forget that while you might not be able to solve the big problems, you can do your part as a tiny subversive force, perhaps gathering momentum with others, and definitely changing the lives of young people in need. Volunteering, attending meetings, joining groups- these are the little things that add up.
If you are interested in working with older youth, our organization is seeking GED tutors Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Friday mornings. Portland YouthBuilders, POIC, the Black Parent Initiative, and countless other organizations fighting for our young people need you too. Consider sharing your unique gifts however you can- it’s truly awesome work.