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What Can We Learn From Kids in Urban Communities?

Ed Faruolo serves on the board of directors for both Milford Education Foundation and Elevate New England. Elevate will be opening an affiliate in Bridgeport soon. Perhaps there will be some potential partnership opportunities with the Milford Education Foundation.

Authors Note: This was written pre “stay at home” orders. I still wanted to get this message out and will be doing a follow up soon to reveal how these kids are faring post Covid-19.

When you see the words urban youth, what visual comes to mind? If we’re honest with ourselves, for many of us, it would be what we see in the news media, and for the most part, it’s not good.

So, on a positive note, what can we the folks in Milford learn from urban youth? Too often we think that they need to learn from us vs. the other way around, but… not so fast.

My lifelong friend, and native Milford son Jim Pocock is President of Elevate New England (ENE). Elevate is highly successful in establishing lifelong relationships with urban youth that helps build character and life skills. This is accomplished through a unique program which combines in-school classroom instruction with out of school mentoring that fills voids in their kids’ lives that kids in other communities might take for granted.

ENE operates out of the Boston area but focuses mainly on the “overlooked communities” in surrounding towns. The type of towns that don’t get the kind of attention that major cities receive. I asked Jim what could Milford learn from a place like Elevate and he said, “You have to speak to our Executive Director, Rhea Gordon.” So, I did.

Rhea has spent much of her professional life working with urban youth. There is no one better qualified to speak passionately about the subject. Below is a recap of some of the key insights and universal truths Rhea shared:

What Are Some Of the Keys To Elevate’s Success With Urban Youth?

Rhea: My husband always said, whoever spends the most time wins. So you have to think about who is spending the most time with these kids. What are they seeing every day? What and who are they experiencing every day? What is the “normal” they are developing through those daily experiences? If what they are seeing are the gangs on the corner, or the dealer with the nice car, or abusive relationships in the home, what kind of “normal” do you think they will have?

So, if you want to really reach them, you need to get beyond “equal time” which is so hard to do. Mentoring isn’t about getting them through a class, or just to pass them through and then pass them off. It is about a loving, caring example they will have in their life, for their whole life. It’s about kinship. If you spend the most time with them, you will win.

There Are Lots of Mentoring Programs Out There, What Is The “Magic Sauce” Behind Your Programs?

Rhea: Well, we certainly have a rigorous program that focuses on academics and character building. But it really is building a long term, loving relationship. There is nothing new here. If a child doesn’t experience such a relationship in their developing years how do you expect them to reflect that as an adult? So, our teacher/mentors have to not only be great with the technical skills required, but must excel at those relationship building skills. They need to be passionate about building those relationships, about being the light that bonds. It should come as no surprise that our teacher/mentors come from the same or similar communities as our kids. They are living examples of what you can do, what you can achieve. To be successful, our mentors need to be “what they see” every day. They need to be the ones who spend the most time. They need to be the ones who can credibly say to our kids, “follow me.”

Is There A Time. or Times Where You Sat Back and Said, “Yes! That’s Why I Do This!”

Rhea: There have been plenty of times. You focus on each individual kid not big statistical numbers. For each kid that is successful, they will impact several others within their community. Just look at our teacher/mentors. Recently there was one young man that finally walked across that graduation stage. He faced so many obstacles and we thought we might not see that day. In his case, he was out of school a lot, failing many subjects, hanging out with a lot of bad influences (the people that were most visible to him), and smoking a lot of weed. It took over 2 and 1/2 years but he made it. He graduated. But it is not over yet. We will continue with him to make sure he stays on track and we help get him either to a community college or into an entry job. The relationship doesn’t end. The battle for time never ends.

As I Stated Earlier, Most of What People In Our Community Read About Urban Kids Is Not Good - What Do We Need To Know About Them, Or Be Reminded Of?

Rhea: The kids didn’t choose their home-life or style — it starts in the home, and that’s true of every home. Good choices start in the home, as well as bad choices. If you don’t have the right role model, how can you become a role model yourself? Many of our kids view what they see as normal. If they have an abusive parent, that is normal. If their corner is dominated by gangs, or drug dealers, that is normal. We had one kid whose father would smoke weed with him when the child was 8 years old! That child would consider that normal until he experiences something different. To most of these kids, their vacation is staying up all night and doing nothing… Until you see something different you don’t know…

To Many People Reading This, They Could Think, Well My Community Isn’t Like That, My Kids Aren’t Like That, I’m Not Like That, How Is This Relevant To Me?

Rhea: Kids are kids wherever you go. They need love, attention, and time. Lots of it. The problems perceived with urban youth might seem insurmountable to some because it seems so distant and foreboding. It is not! We witness turnaround every day. Our kids are really asking something very simple of us. And that is, “Be With Us, Stay With Us!” - they can smell insincerity before you even open your mouth. Doesn’t that apply to kids from all backgrounds?

But Is There A Universal Truth or Learning For Kids In Communities Like Milford?

Rhea: Perseverance. It is amazing what you can achieve if you believe and don’t give up. Don’t let anyone say what you can’t do. You will have ups and downs in life, but as someone once said to me, no matter how hard life gets, don’t let anyone ever take your smile from you! Our kids have encountered some of the toughest experiences imaginable. Whether its abusive treatment from friends, family, those folks on the corner, or even their teachers, we say, don’t let them take that smile from you. Now, how disarming is that?

After speaking with Rhea, I thought about our own community. I thought about the importance of whoever spends the most time wins. I thought about the importance of perseverance to combat feelings of hopelessness and victimhood. This applies to posh communities as well as those encumbered by poverty (and everyone in between).

The time stealers in the urban environments are much more visible. But what about the more subtle ones, the invisible time stealers that kids in our community might be facing? Is it pressure to succeed, get into the right college, play the right sport, learn the right musical instrument, succeed at drama, or dance class? All worthy on a certain level but often at the expense of something deeper. Recently I conducted a research panel of high achieving students who were feeling immense pressures to get in the right college, play the right sport and excel on every level. They didn’t even know why they were doing what they were doing or if they wanted to do it. Their message was, if you really believe in us then really care about us as people, not some success statistic. One panelist said, “truly be with us, give us your time and attention, stick with us and we’ll stick with you… care about who we are, not what you want us to be.” Hmmm… sounds a lot like those kids from those other places.

My conversation with Rhea yields two big take-aways: 1. For parents and teachers: The one who spends the most time wins (Stick with us!), and 2. For our youth: Don’t let anyone take your smile from you (Stick with it!). Now there’s the magic sauce for everyone.

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