I have practiced civil rights law for twelve years and have had the pleasure of traveling to cities across this country to work with youth, particularly African-American and Latino youth, who wanted to improve services provided by public schools and juvenile justice systems. When I think about some of the youth I have met, I recall one young person who dreamed of being a record producer, another youth wanted to be a model, and yet another wanted to be a lawyer (yes, yet another lawyer – God forbid). I smiled as I spoke with these young people, believing that they could do all they desired with a little faith and a lot of support from the adults in their lives. At the same time, I wondered if they would be able to fulfill their dreams because I knew that these youth were not your average Jane and Joe. I met some of them while they were locked up in adult and juvenile prisons. Others were either kicked out or dropped out of school because of misconduct or poor grades. But, interestingly, when I asked my young clients and friends what they wanted to do in the future and what they needed to accomplish their goals, after some probing, they all were able to answer one or both of these questions.
The past few months have been difficult for anyone in Baltimore City who cares about young people. First, we read about the murder of Jeffrey Butler, a 15-year old who was gunned down by an unknown “perp” months after Jeffrey ran away from a Pennsylvania juvenile facility. Weeks later, the local and national media aired a videotape of a young girl assaulting her teacher at a Baltimore City school causing many of us to once again shake our heads with sadness.
The response to these incidents has been typical. Public agency officials are conducting investigations and meeting with their staff, community leaders and others to assure them that steps will be taken to prevent similar things from happening in the future. I hope that these steps will include a conversation with Baltimore City youth. We need to know their opinion about the recent incidents and what needs to be done to keep them safe. We need to know from them what works and what hurts. If we really want to change the lives of youth, we should begin by including them in discussions about what is needed to help them to succeed.
Here is a thought. Public agencies that serve children and youth should follow the lead of the private sector and distribute customer service surveys. Then, they should use the results of these surveys to improve the services they provide to youth. In fact, all adults who are interested in the lives of children and youth should “get in their business” by asking them questions. At first, they will resist, but then they will realize that you are asking because you care and want to help.
Many Baltimore City children and youth know the type of person they want to become, and some have a few ideas about what they need to accomplish their dreams. Let’s ask them.