How Can I Better Support Marginalized Youth?
Marshall Rosenberg encountered an unexpected reaction when he led a class on nonviolent communication at an inner city high school. The students had been having an animated conversation, but they stopped as soon as he entered the room, and the more he talked, the less interested they seemed to be in what he had to say.
Several minutes into his presentation, Rosenberg was stunned when one of the students called out, “You just hate being with black people, don’t you?”
Despite the rudeness of that interruption, Rosenberg was actually grateful. He hadn’t understood how he was perceived by his audience, and this gave him the opportunity to start over.
In a moment of skillful self-disclosure, Rosenberg admitted he was feeling nervous and explained that it wasn’t because they were black. It was actually because he didn’t know anyone and felt anxious to be accepted by the group.
“My expression of vulnerability had a pronounced effect on the students. They started to ask questions about me, to tell me things about themselves, and to express curiosity about nonviolent communication.”
(Nonviolent Communication, p. 40-41)
If you work with youth whose backgrounds are different from yours, it’s likely there will be times when there are communication gaps or when they’re reluctant to engage with you.
This is particularly true:
- if they haven’t chosen to be there (e.g., a required class or court-ordered therapy); and/or
- if they’ve had a previous negative encounter with someone who looks like you or who does a similar type of work.
(I suspect Rosenberg’s students were tired of assumptions that inner-city youth are violent, which must have impacted their view of a session on “nonviolent communication.”)
Here are a few suggestions for easing tensions and facilitating communication.
Find a Point of Connection
Dr. Sam Himelstein, the director of the Center for Adolescent Studies, is used to teens expressing reluctance or even hostility when they first meet with him. For example, a young man named Martin greeted him with: “I don’t need this therapy shit.”
Rather than taking offense, Dr. Himelstein understood this was a natural reaction.
“What he was saying loud and clear was that didn’t feel safe with me. He didn’t know me and when we first met I had done nothing to prove my trustworthiness. And because of that he resisted the idea of letting me into his world.”
Given Martin’s reaction, it would be pointless to jump right in with “therapy shit.” Instead, Dr. Himelstein started casually asking about Martin’s interests. It turned out they’re both football fans, although Martin likes the 49ers and Dr. Himelstein is a Raiders fan.
At that point in the conversation,
“The room has become safer for him. He starts to see me as another human being; with at least some interests similar to his (even if we do root for rival football teams).”
No matter how different your backgrounds might be from each other, there’s bound to be something you can find in common. You might not be interested in sports, but perhaps you have similar taste in food or music, or neither of you can understand the appeal of ‘ugly Christmas sweaters.’ It doesn’t have to be anything profound, just a little moment of connection to help you see each other in a new light.
Let Go of Assumptions
Unfortunately, it’s very common for youth workers to make damaging assumptions about young people. In the words of one kid, “When I walked into my therapist’s office with my new nose piercing and saw the look on his face, I knew it wasn’t going to be a good session.” (quoted in Baron and Rathbone, What Works with Teens, p. 160)
Especially for marginalized youth, it can make an enormous difference just to know that someone is making an effort to understand.
One of my friends was furious at a family therapist who tried to ‘fix’ her gender-fluid teen without making any attempt to listen to their perspective. They had a much better experience with a new therapist who admitted in the first session “I’ve never worked with a gender fluid client before,” but was willing to listen nonjudgmentally.
Jennifer McIlwee Myers explains how hard it was for her, as a child on the autism spectrum, to “settle down” and work quietly while surrounded by other kids. She wasn’t trying to do anything bad or disruptive. Her “problem behaviors” were due to “social cluelessness, sensory issues, and huge amounts of anxiety and fear.” Unfortunately, most of her teachers “added to my anxiety, fear, and misery by labeling me and stressing me out with their hostile assumptions.”
One teacher, Mr. Rhine, responded differently. After yet another incident of “problem behavior,” Jennifer felt nervous when Mr. Rhine asked her to step into the hallway. But instead of scolding her, “he did something remarkable.”
“First, he explained that my behavior was distracting and irritating to the other students, and it would be good if I could not bother them while they were working. I did not not this until he told me. […] And then he asked me, what could he do to help me? […] He was the best teacher I ever had.”
(Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm, p. 110-112)
Mr. Rhine didn’t need to pretend he had all the answers. In fact, Jennifer appreciated it that “He admitted that he didn’t understand why I behaved as I did and didn’t know how to help me.” Rather than treating her as a problem, he treated her behavior as a problem they could solve together.
“Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about.”
Pay the Right Kind of Attention
Diversity trainer Tovi Scruggs-Hussein reveals a mistake she made early in her teaching career. Because of stereotypes about the ‘model minority,’ she assumed an Asian boy in her class didn’t need her attention:
“I remember consciously making a choice, a decision, to dismiss him, because due to my upbringing, I felt like he was going to be fine and that he didn’t need my help.” (Educating Mindfully, p.333)
Sometimes, as in Scruggs-Hussein’s example, the problem is not paying enough attention to youth from certain groups. Other times, the problem is focusing on them too much, in unhelpful ways.
For example, when disability rights advocate Emily Ladau was growing up,
“I can’t tell you the number of times teachers called unwanted attention to my disability in unnecessary ways. For instance, teachers would say things like ‘Everyone stand up, but you don’t have to, Emily.’ Everyone knew I use a wheelchair and it was obvious I couldn’t stand up, so why point it out?”
Another type of unwanted attention can occur when marginalized youth are asked about the trauma faced by their communities. In his book on How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race, Kwame Christian gives some useful advice for anyone who’s trying to learn more about a group that’s faced a lot of discrimination:
“It’s not always easy for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] to share their feelings or their perspectives on racial issues. Your desire to understand may inadvertently put pressure on other people to relive racial trauma. So as well-intentioned as you may be in your desire to learn, you must remember that it’s not someone else’s responsibility to educate you on race-related issues in society. Take responsibility for your own education by using books and the internet to learn as much as possible—and pay attention to subtle signs of discomfort to see whether you may be pushing too far.” (p.141)
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about these issues. It means that it’s important to be sensitive and intentional, always keeping in mind how your conversation or group discussion could be impacting youth (or your colleagues) from marginalized groups.
Conclusion: Learn from Your Mistakes
In reading through these examples, you may have realized that you didn’t handle a situation as well as you should have. Don’t panic! It’s extremely rare for anyone to make it through a whole career without doing or saying something they later regret.
If you made a mistake in the past, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you’re incapable of working with youth from different backgrounds. Becoming conscious of a mistake means you have the opportunity to do better in the future.
Tovi Scruggs-Hussein says,
“I underserved the Asian student because of my own belief and my own conditioning, but it’s not something that will happen again because I have done the inner work—setting the intention, meditating, reflecting and acting against the bias again and again.”
(Educating Mindfully, p.338)
If you have a tendency to beat yourself up or ruminate about past missteps, here’s a useful motto: “Let Mistakes Be Your Teachers.”
“Frame the mistake this way: You have learned something. You’ll never do that thing that way ever again. You now know better. […] Forgive yourself. Remember, you are serving others; you have the best intentions, and you are a good person. Now you are smarter.”
(Susanna White, Self-Care for Caregivers, p. 12)