As you read this I want you to do an exercise first. Sit quietly, without any distractions. Now think of a time where you were terribly embarrassed. Remember all of the people around you and their reactions. Did you feel something as you thought about it? Were you quick to end the thought? Did the feeling pass or did it linger as the memory did? Chances are you sorted through millions of experiences and memories before you probably landed on this particular one. It took seconds to sort through them all.
Now think about the time you had milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you were 8. Tougher; isn’t it? Try remembering the time you broke a bone or had a terrible fall. Chances are you bypass the actual feeling of the pain, but you can still remember it. More importantly, I bet you can also remember the person who gave you comfort following that hurt as it brings forth a unique connection due to the dichotomous nature.
With the holidays soon approaching here at YWS, it can heightened feelings of isolation and be challenging for many of our youth. Here is where we need to consider the impact of caring and the comfort it brings during this difficult time for many of our youth. Now consider the impact of your caring towards someone who might be hurting and the comfort this may bring. You can show how much you care in many ways. Whether it be through donations and volunteering at YWS, or simply noticing a homeless youth and acknowledging that they are there. It’s time we break the silence and make youth homelessness a topic amongst our discussions with loved ones, colleagues and those around us.
To everyone who advocates for our youth and invest time, energy and resources in support of YWS, we say thank you. For you will be remembered as someone who gave comfort, stability and warmth this coming holiday season.
Kids or youth?
In our field there has been an on-going discussion around how we refer to those people who use our services. In the late eighties and early nineties there was a move toward using the word client to describe all persons who utilized services in children and family mental health settings. The same can be said for much of the healthcare industry. There was a clinical connotation to this word and it accurately described someone who utilized a service. While the word client permeated clinical reports and formal settings, it did not necessarily become accepted by many child and youth workers in their day to day interactions and discussions.
There were a few different camps when it came to the language we used. Some workers felt that clients aged 6-12 years old should be referred to as children. Adolescent clients were youth or young persons. Youth was defined as someone in the 18-24 year old bracket. I always said kids. Of course this was only in casual settings but I have found myself using the word kids more often than not in formal meetings and discussions. More than once I have been reminded that we serve youth, not kids; but do we?
Here is why I say kids. For me personally, I have kids. Yes, I may have called them children at some point, but they are my kids. Kids has a humanizing effect for me. The word kids evokes a higher level of empathy. There is vulnerability inherent in the word kids. The people who use our services are not a statistic or a cold file defined by a case or ID number. They are a person who is vulnerable and who is deserving of our empathy. Often times they mask their insecurity and vulnerability with bravado and a quick wit or confident swagger. Look beyond that outward shell and I see a kid who is in need. In need of someone who cares, for a warm and dry place to stay, in need of a good meal, in need of being safe. If you hear me refer to someone as a kid, please know that I have done so in a thoughtful way. Of course you are always welcome to correct me.
When most of us think of performing a heroic act our minds conjure up images of someone saving someone else from a burning building, or some other dramatic action we believe to be more in line with what and who a hero is. In social definition, heroism is the action of someone in response to a crisis or situation that is a threat to someone’s life or well-being. Eliminating that threat is considered heroic. But what if that threat never existed because of the actions of one person? Would that be heroic?
In his 2007 best-selling book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts forward the argument that we can only judge heroism if we apply it to events of the past. An example Taleb imagined is what if there had been a United States Congresswoman who managed to have a Bill passed that required all airplane cockpit doors to have three locks and that this law took effect on September 10, 2001. In this imagined scenario the attacks of September 11th might not have happened. Looking back we can say this would have been heroic by savings thousands of lives. But without 9/11 to judge it by..
You are probably wondering what this has to do with YWS and our supporters and staff. I consider the work of our dedicated staff teams and countless volunteers to be heroic. Perhaps your kindness to another person today may be the one thing that stops them from doing something drastic. Perhaps your smile and cheerful greeting revives hope when hope was fading. Perhaps your donation funds a warm bed and hot meal when despair has become too hard to handle, but this meal and bed brings comfort when it is needed the most. You may have saved a life or saved a youth from making irreversible choices. Your actions are heroic.
Through your support of YWS in the fight to end youth homelessness, you are a hero. Our staff teams perform heroic acts dozens of times a shift. Connect with a youth, show them someone cares, ask them how they are doing today, see them as the strong people they truly are and let them know it. Without the support from you, we can only fight half the battle. Just remember, you may be someone’s hero today without knowing it.
Us and Them
Although many of us would like to believe otherwise, how we think of someone else impacts how we not only respond to them but also how we judge someone after the fact, and apply a narrative for the future. When we misjudge or prejudge other people, the risk is that we soon put those persons into the ‘Them’ category, while the people who judges put themselves into the ‘Us’ category. Thus we enter into the danger of Us and Them.
Us and Them is dangerous as it encourages blanket statements which are usually quite negative to the Them and positive to the Us. There is a dehumanizing aspect to Them. This makes people feel better since they aren’t burdened by empathy, which could likely implore someone to act. Not acting can evoke guilty feelings that are uncomfortable. Instead, too often we strive for comfort and this can lead to being dismissive to the plight of others. The other strategy often employed is to attach a value statement to the Them. To see Them as being the author of their own misfortune allows us to once again distance ourselves from empathy. We group the Them into convenient packages – and socially constructed spaces.
My challenge to everyone is to change how you view others in a way which humanizes and individualizes Them. Putting homeless youth in the same space as Us is the most basic change that can do so much good. In this space you are thinking of homeless youth as good people having a hard time. The stereotypes and social construct around youth homelessness are simply untrue. Challenge those stereotypes when you hear them. Even more importantly, challenge yourself should they enter in your head.