Um Superstorm Sandy Lessons

May 3, 2017

Will Programs That Help Vulnerable Teens Survive the Trump Administration?

By Virginia Vitzthum

If you’re in foster care, you’ve probably switched schools multiple times. You’ve gone through trauma that makes it hard to focus in class. Shame pulls you back from making friends. Bullies see your unhappiness and pounce.
At home, the refrigerator might have a lock on it. You wear hand-me-downs, and nobody cares if you do your homework.  
Eight and a half years ago, I started work at Youth Communication, publisher of teen-written materials including Represent, a magazine by and for teens in foster care. At its most basic, Represent is a place where foster kids can go after school. On writers’ first day, I ask, “What do you want to write about?” They allude to abandonment, neglect, fights, rape, abuse, suicide attempts.
They need to tell this stuff. But premature confession can scuttle a new relationship. A foster kid feels too exposed, and retreats back into secrecy and loneliness.
As their editor, though, I can respond with collaborative direction.
We work together on an outline. The writer plots the story he will tell, laying out his own progress. I help him notice his agency and appreciate his good decisions:
“You could have given up, you could have stayed in the gang, you could have become an abuser yourself. Instead, you’re here, mining your life to comfort and guide your readers.”
We go through many drafts over weeks or months: Me, asking questions, giving encouragement and direction; them, creating a deeper, more honest narrative. Most of our communication is in writing. That’s generally where the heartbreaking revelations unfold, and this serves us both. The writer has her privacy; she can tell without saying it out loud. I am a weeper, and I can do my crying in private. My edit in such a case includes some version of, “I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that. This is brave writing. Readers will know they’re not alone.”
When the writers are ready, they talk about their lives with me, too. And, without a big fuss, we’ve backed ourselves into a profound and sustainable intimacy.
Youth Communication has always provided a home for the kids who most need one. The kids know their stories matter, and specifically that their feelings matter. They can sink into their pasts at their own pace, and, often, they dare to touch the most painful episodes for the first time. I’m there to bear witness, and even better, to help them craft an artifact that celebrates their survival and helps others.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being recognized for my work at the Partnership for Afterschool Education’s (PASE) annual PASEsetter awards ceremony. PASE supports 1,600 New York City community-based organizations with afterschool programs that keep about 500,000 low-income teens productively occupied during the crucial hours between 3 and 6 p.m., when they are most likely to tumble into fights, crime, drug abuse, or other trouble. When kids participate in afterschool programs it not only lets their parents work a full day. It has also been linked to reduced crime and welfare costs among participants, as well as to increases in numbers of students advancing to the next grade along with higher ELA and math scores.
The awards ceremony celebrated those who too often receive little recognition and even less pay. One winner talked about helping a family accept and learn how to support their transgender child. Another spoke of how, as a teen, after-school programs had saved him from loneliness and neglect. We all left feeling inspired by how much our work mattered.
How profoundly depressing, then, only a few weeks later to read the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018. In this battle plan for war on the poor, Federal Department of Education is cut by 14%, eliminating support for 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC), which provide before-school, after-school, and summer learning programs. In New York State, CCLC elimination means the loss of programs for 87,480 children. These get wiped out because “the programs lacks [sic] strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.”
Also eliminated from the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development: About $3 billion in Community Development Block Grants, which fund, among other things, parks and after-school programs.
Luckily, last week, these programs escaped the chopping block for Fiscal Year 2017. (In fact, last week’s budget deal, gave the 21st Century Community Learning Centers a small boost of $25 million, bringing it to almost $1.2 billion.)  While it’s a relief these programs are saved for now, it’s important to remember that under the new administration, they remain at risk for the next Fiscal Year.
After-school programs aren’t just for poor kids, but that’s who need them the most. And, if enacted in Fiscal Year 2018, these cuts would be compound by cuts to public housing, employment assistance, legal services for the poor, and others that will impact the city’s most vulnerable kids.
Foster kids, so unsupported in most of their lives, commit to the hard work of reckoning and understanding when they write their stories at Youth Communication. If a tenth of that care had been applied to the 2018 federal budget, surely these crucial programs wouldn’t have been slashed so carelessly, with such a total lack of empathy.
I can’t imagine a more important time in our country’s history for young people to understand their feelings, so that they don’t react blindly from unexcavated shame or see every human interaction as a struggle for dominance. Any good after-school program makes it likelier that a kid will someday become President. At Represent, we nurture the self-awareness and empathy I hope will keep them from becoming THIS President. 
Virginia Vitzthum is the editor of the award-winning magazine Represent. Much of this posting is adapted from her remarks at the 2017 PASEsetter awards ceremony. 

Photo credit: Peter Dressel