As September began, thousands of children in our community returned to school after the summer break. Some students come back to school after summer vacation and swap stories about family trips, barbecues and summer jobs. They find out who has which teacher, talk about what’s going on with their friends and start looking forward to the first holiday on the calendar. Many of the young people VPP and our colleagues work with have more serious concerns on their minds – they may be worried about succeeding in school and graduating, dealing with challenges in their home lives or feeling unsure about their futures.
This year, however, many young people have even heavier stressors added to the concerns already on their minds. Just last month, the nation witnessed a display of bigotry and violence during the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville that left us reeling – angry and scared about the hatred we saw and heard that day and the impacts we are still feeling. These are feelings that many students in the Greater Washington region, one of the most diverse in the U.S., share and must grapple with as they mature and learn about the social complexities of our country.
While the recent hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria are in an entirely different category of disaster, they too have inflicted trauma and stress on young people – many of whom are dealing with lost or significantly damaged homes, are struggling to access basic care and aren’t able to attend schools that are still shut down.
On another front, the current uncertainty around the state of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is directly affecting thousands of students in our very own community. Right now, there are more than 22,000 DACA recipients in our region. These students are starting their school year not only stressing about their grades, but also unsure if they will be able to complete the school year at all. As we have been seeing stories in national headlines and on the evening news, we have been in deep thought and adult discussions about what is happening in our society and what it means for our country’s future.
As I consider how unsettling things may seem to young people in our community right now, I reflect on my own youth. I remember vividly the fear and insecurity I felt when the riots of 1968 broke out in cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Trying to get home from Theodore Roosevelt High School that day was a harrowing experience. I had to cross Georgia Avenue where looting started almost immediately. Once the announcement was made and school was closed, everyone was confused, angry and concerned about their safety.
Until April 4, 1968, I was focused on getting a summer job, graduating from high school the next year and going to the college of my choice. But on that day, the world looked very different and was never the same. I asked myself and every adult I encountered for days – why would someone kill Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement? A man who used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to “make justice a reality for all of God’s children” and had “a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of the creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men will be created equal.” And for the days and weeks afterward I was afraid for myself, family, friends and neighbors as the looting continued, our city was under curfew, police patrolled our streets and the National Guard occupied my high school gym and football field.
At that time in my life, I had to face the social complexities of our country. I had to understand and learn how to live my life in this context. In the past year, I have thought daily about how much we must work to protect the civil rights and positive gains made in America over my lifetime.
The stressors on our young people today are much heavier and the uncertainties of life are much greater than those I encountered growing up in Petworth.
At VPP, we cannot stop thinking about how the young people in our community are absorbing the information and feeling the stress, whether they are directly affected or experiencing the broader anxiety of our current climate. We know that the students VPP and our partners work with are already vulnerable and all of these events and issues may be inflicting added trauma to their lives.
As a new school year begins and VPP and our partners continue our everyday efforts to ensure that young people in our region succeed in school and graduate college and career ready, we are keeping this broader context at the forefront of our work. Right now, it’s more important than ever to make sure that young people have more than just academic support, but also the socio-emotional support they need to feel safe, secure and ready to succeed.
As we look ahead, VPP will continue to support our partners to do the hard work that helps young people across the region. VPP understands the value of working together. This commitment has always been a priority for VPP – it’s been in our DNA right from the start. But now, as the organization is engaging in the community in a deeper and more direct way than we ever have – working directly in schools ourselves – we see how things play out first-hand and understand students’ needs even more clearly. Our investments in collaborative efforts like Ready for Work stem from a belief that any complex challenge cannot and should not be tackled alone. When we work together, we don’t just combine our resources and abilities – we multiply them. Information is shared more widely, ideas are strengthened and resources are leveraged – all to help our youth feel more self-assured about each day and confident about their bright futures. When I hear about the accomplishments of our nonprofit partners and collaborative initiatives, I am so proud to see that they remain steadfast and more committed than ever to providing students the academic and emotional resources they need more than ever right now.
Today, we are facing many new and distressing challenges as a nation and it’s critical that we remember how they are affecting the most vulnerable young people in our communities. Together, we will have the resources, strength and commitment we need to be a tower of strength for our young people during unsettling times. We must continue to work hard every day to ensure that every young person believes they can realize their dreams and that their community will protect and support them in becoming thriving adults.
Carol Thompson Cole
President and CEO
Venture Philanthropy Partners