Race Matters.

This blog post was written by Stacy Ruff, BGCA’s Director of College & Career Programs and includes a free excerpt on the traumatic impact of racism on young people from the American Academy of Pediatrics upcoming publication, Reaching Teens, 2nd Edition.

I certainly can’t speak for everyone but for me last week, and particularly this past weekend, was difficult and emotionally draining.  Every channel was filled with images I couldn’t bring myself to watch, my social media accounts subjected me to hundreds of differing opinions that, in some cases, made me question how well I really know some people, I felt a combination of hope (as I watched peaceful protesters stand up for justice for George Floyd) and despair (as some of those protests grew violent when people with ulterior motives showed up), I listened to frustrated loved ones pointlessly try to help others understand that racism and discrimination are, in fact, real, I saw protesters march in front of my house and battled between wanting to join them, and staying safe inside my home as I watched police helicopters fly overhead, I felt angry, sad, hopeless, frustrated, and scared all at the same time. 

But what really got me emotional was the concern I felt for all of the kids who are a part of my life – I mean, if I am struggling to process all of these emotions in my “seasoned” age, I can’t even begin to imagine how tough it is for them.  How are our kids and teens interpreting and processing all that they are witnessing right now?  How scared might they be feeling? What is this doing to them as it relates to their understanding of the world? Their place and value in the world? Their image of themselves? Their hopes and dreams for the future? Their desire to even be a part of this world?

Despite the mix of emotions, today I decided to be hopeful and I proudly wore my Keystone shirt that declares “I am an ADVOCATE for Teens”. I opened my BGCA email to find a pre-released excerpt from The American Academy of Pediatrics’ book, Reaching Teens, 2nd Edition – Strength-Based, Trauma-Sensitive, Resilience-Building Communication Strategies Rooted in Positive Youth Development.  The book hasn’t even been published yet, but here I was with advanced access to a chapter that spoke directly to the concerning questions I had been asking myself about our kids. This chapter, “The Traumatic Impact of Racism and Discrimination on Young People and How to Talk About It”, is a hard hitting, honest, and aspirational chapter written by the leading voices in pediatric and adolescent medicine on racism – all scholars and clinicians of color. 

The authors pointed out that discrimination is a deep trauma itself, one that is now recognized as an “expanded adverse childhood experience” that has negative effects on physical, emotional, and social health throughout life.  Racism affects all our youth and addressing it, especially during our current time, is a critically urgent need for those of us who work with youth and want to see a better future for them.  Not only will this reading shed some light on key concepts regarding teen development and racism, but it also touches on identity development during adolescence, provides enlightening definitions of racism and other terms used when talking about bias and oppression, and gives an in-depth understanding of the effects racism has on youth’s identity development, lived experiences, and lifelong health.

I recently heard a public speaker equate racism to the COVID-19 disease by pointing out that it might present itself differently in each person, but you can’t heal from the disease if you keep denying that it exists.  While the topic of racism might make people uncomfortable, we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone to talk about it, recognize it and acknowledge it if we ever want to heal from it.  As youth development professionals, we must understand that the racial events and conversations we are experiencing are influencing our kids, specifically their self-esteem, internalizing behavior, deviant behavior, classroom behavior regulation, and perceived discrimination.  We owe it to our youth to acknowledge the inequalities in our society, help them process it, and overcome the negative effects.

Quote by Dr. Cornel West, illustration by Lauren Hom

So where do I start or what can I do?

Here’s where we take a deep breath, go into problem-solving mode, and get ready to take action.  Here are two sets of recommendations for what to do from here: one for increasing our own awareness, and one for supporting youth in these moments:

Recommendations for Increasing Our Awareness

Recommendations for Supporting Youth

  • Open a dialogue with youth by providing safe spaces and opportunities to explore the influence of their racial-ethnic group identity and any experiences of discrimination and bias they have encountered.  Having these conversations will begin to raise the importance of identity development, model conversations, and promote reflection. Learn how to do this here.
  • Embrace evidence-informed strategies that can help you respond to youth as they process racial experiences.  I’m telling you, read the full Reaching Teens 2 chapter!  On page 17, the authors go into detail and list out specific things you can say to kids for each of the following strategies:
    • Validation (normalizing and validating racism experiences)
    • Psychoeducation (teaching culturally responsive coping strategies)
    • Self-awareness and critical consciousness
    • Culturally responsive social support
    • Developing positive identity
    • Externalizing and minimalizing self-blame
    • Critical examination of privilege and power and of racial attitudes
    • Advocacy and agency
  • Perform a mental scan of your Club programs to identify areas in which you can further diversify your spaces – what kind of posters, images, or books are around to help kids see a range of ethnicities and normalize diversity?  
  • Tap into the available BGCA resources that address diversity and inclusion:
    • This selection from the new Summer Brain Gain READ module features a character experiencing and overcoming discrimination or fighting racism. Each week-long module invites youth to read a developmentally appropriate book and engage with the themes in the book by creating and sharing projects.
    • Request to participate in the Cultural Responsiveness and Inclusion training through Spillett Leadership University.
    • Invite your teens to join you in completing a Positive Club Climate project to create positive change in your Club and establish an emotionally safe and supportive environment that embraces diversity and inclusion.
    • If youth begin expressing their fears or grief over the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor or others they have seen, the Be There Initiative provides tools to help youth process grief.
  • Check out this resource roundup and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History’s brand new online portal to fill up on additional tools for talking to youth about race.

As events continue to evolve over the coming weeks, I choose to remain optimistic and believe that the positive social changes and racial healing we hope for can start right here, within our Movement.  It starts with us each understanding the depth of how racism and discrimination affect our kids, then doing everything in our power to commit to the hard work of counteracting it.  Echoing the words of one of the authors of the shared chapter: “May we continue to gain our strength from the young people deserving of our focused attention.”

Maybe tomorrow I’ll wear my other Keystone shirt that simply says: “I believe in the next generation.”

Our deepest gratitude to the American Academy of Pediatrics and Editor Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg for providing the excerpted chapter of Reaching Teens, 2nd Edition – Strength-Based, Trauma-Sensitive, Resilience-Building Communication Strategies Rooted in Positive Youth Development for our readers. The full publication is scheduled to be published June 15, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America contributed to several chapters.

Stacy Ruff is a member of the Youth Development team and has been with the Movement for 4 ½ years creating workforce development and college & career programs.  She got her start in youth development as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching high school classes in Nicaragua and has been an advocate for youth ever since.

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