Building Resilience When Dealing With Racism

BGCA’s Stacy Ruff, Director of College & Career Programs, is back on the ClubX Blog, with a free excerpt from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg’s recent book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens.

Childhood innocence is a beautiful and precious thing.  Pillow forts, Fortnight, play wrestling, knock-knock jokes, and snuggle time – these are EVERYTHING for my two sons.  I look at them, 8 and 2 years old, and I want to shield them from anything that might tear away that innocence.  I try hard to shelter them from the racial trauma that exists in this world so they can just be, and enjoy childhood to the fullest for as long as possible before we have to have “the talk” with them about being Black boys in America.  FULL TRANSPARENCY MOMENT  – my husband and I have used code words in our house when describing people so the kids wouldn’t feel defined by their own color, and we intentionally thought about their future resumes and applications when we named them so their race couldn’t be assumed and used against them.

But now more than ever, recent events across the country remind me that I can’t adequately prepare them for the realities and injustices they will inevitably face, even if I continue to shield them from it all.   Eventually they will grow from cute and innocent kids to threatening and dangerous teens in the eyes of some.  How do I raise them to be proud, confident, and resilient, to thrive in a world that will fill them with negative messages of how they are perceived and terrifying images of how they might be treated simply because they are Black males?  As it turns out, the trauma of racism affects the development of resiliency in youth of color, which makes it critical to intentionally build and strengthen their resiliency before they have to navigate through racism.

I write this blog not only as a colleague in the Boys & Girls Club Movement, but also as a parent, a Black parent, a parent of a Black Club kid. We live in a complex world – one where differences in politics, religion, race, gender, and socio-economic status are clashing, increasingly violently.  No amount of shielding can keep our kids from seeing everything that is going on right now with a front row view.  And as witnessed in August in Kenosha, Wisconsin, youth are not only seeing it, but in many cases they are actively involved in it.  What this means for us in youth development is that we have a powerful opportunity to partner with parents and caregivers to help counter the negative effects of what youth are witnessing.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics and Boys & Girls Club friend Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg recently released the 4th edition of Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings. They are graciously letting us share one of the most timely and relevant chapters with you, Raising Youth of Color in a Complex World. While it is primarily written for parents, all of us who work with youth can benefit from reading it and better understanding the strategies to build resilience when dealing with racism.  Within the chapter, you will find ways to examine your own biases, discuss stereotypes and dispel myths, and introduce youth to the beauty of diversity within our society.  A few key takeaways from reading it:

  • We can’t avoid the topic of race with children and teens (NOTE TO SELF – Guilty!) It might feel uncomfortable, but they’re already thinking about it, so we need to create safe opportunities to talk about race – especially for those young people who have personally experienced discrimination or live in fear that they could easily become victims. They need reassurance that adults in their lives are committed to their safety and well-being.
  • We have to acknowledge the trauma of what we have just seen – all of it, without trying to minimize it or justify it.  What youth are witnessing today is not new, there has been a long history of violence and discrimination against African-Americans.  In order for youth to make it different in the future, they need to have an understanding of the structural inequalities and racism that exists so they can be advocates for justice and more equal opportunities.
  • We need to tell children the truth about systemic racism.  By honestly sharing this with youth, we provide them with messages that decrease the potential of self-rejection and enable them to better navigate systems that often perpetuate inequity.

To build resilience in children of color, we all need to be willing to discuss and counter racism and injustice whenever we see it.  Youth of color need to see us do this and hear reaffirming messages that celebrate their strengths and cultures.

Here are a few things you can do to support parents and caregivers in this effort:

  • Share this chapter with them so they can better understand how to navigate these current times with their children.
  • Let parents and caregivers with children of color know that you stand with them on this journey, and provide opportunities to learn more and act as advocates for youth.
  • Encourage white parents to read the chapter as well, so they can become more aware of the realities of racism.  All parents should speak to their children about the realities of the world we live in, even if they don’t personally experience it.

Here are a few things you can do with youth in your program:

  • Read the chapter to better understand how you can develop resiliency in your youth of color.  Even at an early age many types of conversations and activities that could happen with Club youth can help to counter internalized racism. Consider leading a discussion with your staff.
  • Dig deeper and learn and teach about race and anti-racism with these books shared by the National Afterschool Association.
  • Visit EmbraceRace or Teaching Tolerance for a variety of resources and webinars to address race issues with children.
  • Engage your white youth in the conversation to increase their awareness and position them to become a part of the solution:
    • Create experiences that will expose your members to different cultures – books and movies and visiting museums (virtually for now 🙂 ) that represent other cultures and diverse individuals.
    • Discuss stereotypes with your members and dispel myths when you see or hear these negative forces. Help them understand that all people are beautiful, intelligent and worthy of love and respect.
  • Tap in to the numerous resources BGCA has made available for Club staff to address racial trauma and healing.

All children have hopes and dreams for their future but for many, particularly for youth of color, the path to get there will involve inequities and injustices.  As youth development professionals our goal should be to do all we can to help them fulfill those dreams and become their best selves, resilient and thriving despite the barriers and obstacles society will bring their way, as well as advocating for change so that future youth won’t have to deal with those same barriers.  In my mind, Whitney Houston was singing to youth development professionals and parents about youth resiliency decades ago: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride, to make it easier… Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.” Now we have some tools and resources to put her words into action.

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How have you addressed racism and prejudice with your youth? What other tips and ideas do you want to share with Boys & Girls Clubs across the country? We want to hear! Contact us by commenting below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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