Talking to Black Teens about Baltimore
By Eve Ewing
It’s 11:20 at night. I have a lot of work to finish and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet, but like so many of my friends, my head is in Baltimore, and I’m caught in the same cycle: TV news, Twitter, Facebook, texting, repeat. Trying to piece together stories as I can, and seeking solace in my friends scattered across the country. And then a new text flashes across the screen—from a former student of mine, a 16-year-old whom I’ll call Tamara. “It’s scary.”
Right away, I went into automatic teacher mode, responding to her fear with reassurance. “I know,” I text back. “It is scary. But you are safe right now. You will be okay.” They’re variations on the words my mother would share with me when I heard of gang violence in our neighborhood or saw frightening things on television.
Tamara’s reply came back just as quickly. “I’m safe but what about the other kids who are stuck and cornered by police?” And here, I froze. Because how do you tell a kid she’s safe when you live every day tolerating the sickening fear that she might not be? That she, and your other black students, and your black family members and black friends in Baltimore, in New York, in Baltimore, might not be safe? When you yourself don’t feel safe in the face of police violence? How do you respond with honesty and candor, respecting her intelligence, while protecting her from trauma?
I’ve known Tamara for a long time, and she has always been mature, confident, smart and capable. She is ambitious and works hard, holds down a job, and has a spreadsheet where she keeps track of her college applications. It’s easy to think of her as a young adult. And of course, that’s the tricky part with adolescents. They are capable of thoughtful, careful analysis and nuanced ideas, which can make it easy to forget that in many ways they are still children. They are learning and growing, and they need nurturing, care, and reassurance in times of crisis. They need adults who care about them to help them process their feelings without condescending to them, and to provide context for complicated world events without traumatizing them or foreclosing their space to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions.
This time, before responding to Tamara, I took a second to refer to tips from my colleague and mentor Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among his advice about how parents and educators should help children understand potentially frightening or traumatic events in the news, I found two ideas helpful:
- Listen first to hear how they are processing the event. “What you’re scared about, as an adult, may not be what they’re scared about.”
- Model the response you want to see—young people will imitate your resilience.
Listen first. That may seem obvious enough. However, I have noticed that in conversations with teens about violence, it’s easy for adults—especially adults who are experienced political organizers and activists, passionate about social justice and knowledgeable about history—to launch into explanations of systemic violence and inequality without first stopping to ask young people what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. While it’s important to educate young people about our history and offer important alternatives to the dominant narratives they receive from a racist society, it’s a mistake to do so at the expense of their right to share and process their own feelings, or worse, at the expense of their well-being.
So, even though part of me wanted to read Tamara some James Baldwin essays, I opted to affirm her statement about young people getting cornered by police, and follow up with a question. “That is really scary to think about. How do you feel about it/what are you thinking?” What I got in response was a long, expressive, uninterrupted series of poignant texts. “I go home and watch the news again, seeing all the damage done as ABC squashes it between tornado warnings and something irrelevant…. State of emergency, national guard. Makes me nervous that the riots could be the fuel that causes more police violence and targeting of black people…. How many times does it have to happen? How many protests?… History is repeating itself! Will I see 2015 Riots in my grandbabies’ history books?”
She kept talking, and I kept listening, and I’m so glad I did. The conversation ended up being so much more helpful for her processing—and my own—than if I had launched into a lecture or tried to dismiss her very real fears.
And after you’ve listened, then what? Encouraging youth to reflect on their fears and opinions through art can be a good next step. Mariame Kaba, the director of Project NIA and a well-known activist and prison abolitionist, has edited and compiled this curriculum guide for talking to youth about police violence. It includes teaching and learning resources as well as a collection of poems that can serve as useful prompts for creating written or visual artistic responses .
Here are some other things to consider if you’re talking to teens about Baltimore, Ferguson, or police violence in general. In addition to the trauma that all young people can experience in the face of frightening world events, there are some particular factors to think about when it comes to black youth.
Black teens might internalize the negative discourse about black people on television and feel bad about themselves or ashamed of black people in general.
The constant talk about “thugs,” “criminals,” and “outside agitators” can be overwhelming and defeating. Talk to youth about the systems that leave people frustrated and ultimately can lead to violence; you might even kick off the conversation with the now-familiar quotation from Dr. King: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Consider doing some research together: what are the unemployment rates and income levels in Baltimore communities where riots are occurring? You might also have a conversation about coded language, perhaps using Richard Sherman’s comments on the use of the word “thug.”
Black teens might feel hopeless, powerless, or like nothing is going to change.
This is where Weissbourd’s point about modeling resilience is crucial. If a young person expresses feeling hopeless, it’s first important to honor, recognize, and validate that feeling. You may say something like, “I feel hopeless sometimes, too. All across the country, many black people are feeling hopeless. But even when we feel hopeless, people are also fighting for change, and it’s important to hold each other up and support each other.” Help them become familiar with everyday heroes, people who are dedicating themselves to fighting injustice. Tell them about how grassroots organizing has led to reparations for victims of police violence in Chicago, how activists are using social media to change the face of protest, and other examples of how average people can work together to fight racist societal structures. Invite them to share their thoughts on what a more just world might look like, and even brainstorm ideas on ways they can contribute—a teach-in at school, a donation to victims’ families or to legal aid funds for protesters who have been arrested.
Black teens might feel afraid that they or someone they love could be a victim of police violence.
Again, it’s important to begin by recognizing this fear. As tempting as it is to brush it off by saying it could never happen, adolescents are old enough to recognize this kind of easy dismissal as disingenuous. After all, how are they supposed to reconcile that promise with the reality they see on television and in their own communities? However, you can move forward from this fear by reminding young people of places where they can feel safe, and reminding them that this is why struggles for justice are so important. Further, remind them that as black people in America, we come from a long, crucial history of struggle and resistance—that although fear is part of our inheritance in this country, so too is the strength to deal with that fear. My friend Jasson Perez, a BYP100 organizer and father of a 12-year-old, shared with me the language he uses when his daughter expresses fear of violence. “I tell her that we should expect to be safe with those who love us, and when she comes home or goes to Grandma’s house she should expect to be safe. If she is with police or security guards, she may not have that expectation, but that we have to struggle against that reality to make something better. And we have to maintain compassion and togetherness when we know that harm is always present. This is what our ancestors teach us.”
Jasson’s comment about teachings from our elders and ancestors reminds me of something my mother used to say when I was afraid of gun violence: “you’re Great Grandma Rosie’s baby!” This invocation of my great-grandmother, who passed before I was born, was meant to remind me that I come from a legacy of strength and courage. Unsurprisingly, this invocation of family can really make a difference: research shows that stories of family resilience can help young people cope in the face of challenges. Talk to young people about struggles in your family and how they have been overcome, or remind them that they, too, can survive under threat. As we work and struggle together for a world without police violence, we also have to work to help black youth understand that world, and to care for them as that world threatens them with trauma and physical violence in equal measure.
Eve Ewing is a Chicago-born educator, writer, artist, and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her on Twitter.