Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let us Remember Trayvon By the Lives we Lead

This week people all over the world people have been responding to the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin.  Though I too am outraged and disappointed by how the trial unfolded and the verdict, I would like to take this time to make a plea for greater focus on the plight of our youth in urban areas where violence and homicides are commonplace occurrences.

My hope is that this tragedy and travesty of justice will shake leaders, teachers and parents to be more vigilant and fight harder for the safety of our children.  Though there is no possible justification for the shooting of young Trayvon Martin.  But another sad fact is that hundreds of young people have been killed by the hands of other young people in our community since Trayvon’s life was taken.

Most major cities across the nation report high rates of homicides for African American youth, particularly black male youth.  Most of these are at the hands of other black youth.   A few sobering statistics:
  •  According to the 2001 Juvenile Justice Bulletin:  In 1999, about 1,800 juveniles (a rate of 2.6 per 100,000) were victims of homicide in the United States. This rate is substantially higher than that of any other developed country.  Minority children and youth are disproportionately affected. For example, 52 percent of juvenile victims of homicide are nonwhite (Snyder and Finnegan, 1998). Even after a recent decline, the overall rate of victimization for black juveniles (9.1 per 100,000) in 1997 dwarfed the rate for white Juveniles (1.8 per 100,000) (figure 2). The victimization rate for Hispanic juveniles in three States where data are available was also quite high in 1997 (5.0 per 100,000)

  • ·       Among racial and ethnic groups, black youth experienced the highest rates of serious violent crime in 2010. From 2002 to 2010, rates of serious violent crime declined among white (down 26%) and Hispanic (down 65%) youth, but remained the same among black youth

  • ·       According to the Center for Disease Control,  from 2008 to 2010  homicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for young people under the age of 24 and Black males under 24 had the highest death rate due to homicides in New York State,

  • ·       The Children’s Defense Fund reports that in 2009, gun homicide was the leading cause of death among black teens.

Parents, Schools, Churches, Youth Organizations must place high priority on helping to stem the tide of youth on youth crime in our communities.   The conversation and resources need to be directed at dealing with what makes young people in our communities so prone to violence and why they place such little value on the lives of their peers and their own lives.  It is not too late to begin to make a difference; we must harness the will to break the cycles of rage and violence that is destroying a vital part of our hope, our life, and our souls.  It is not enough to say my kids in my home, church, school, neighborhood, and block are doing well when all around them so many young people are losing their lives.  

It is not enough to shake our heads and talk about how bad the kids are today.  Be a mentor, fight for gun control, financially support youth organizations, become active in your local school and do what you can to let an adolescent know that he/she is valued.

 It is a horror that Trayvon’s killer’s fear and criminal/racial profiling of him led to Trayvon’s death.  The fact of fear and race prejudice is a matter that must be dealt with if we are to survive; lest we return to the days of the Wild West, where gun violence rules the day (or maybe we are already there).

  We should use every means available to call for justice for violation of Trayvon’s civil rights—sign petitions, organize boycotts, participate in elections, run for office, and write articles, tweet, and protest as loudly as possible.  But let us remember Trayvon by the lives we lead and being ever mindful that there are hundreds of thousands of young people in our communities who need to know, who must learn from us that they have a reason to live and a contribution to make to society.  Then and only then will we begin to, as my friend  Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt says,” starve the beast” that is destroying our youth.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Are we searching for peace?

Recently I had a conversation with an elder man about the issue of acceptance of Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgendered (LGBT) people in the church. He was upset about all the recent noise about inclusion.  He felt that “those” people are not normal; they are not part of God’s plan for humanity and could never be recognized as normal.  He was concerned about the language of inclusion that was being expressed in an increasing number of circles. He had grown up in a community in which though it was known that “those” people existed, they were unmentionables and were never to be included in proper social gatherings.
It seemed to him that all this talk was an indication that the “gays were wanting to take over” and he was not going to have it.  I shared with him that that his sentiment is similar to that of every dominant culture that was resistant to hearing the cry for justice from a minority or so called subordinated culture.
As I listened and later challenged him on the matter of God’s created order for humanity, it occurred to me that he expresses the opinions of many of his generation. He grew up in a world where LGBT people were demonized and ostracized.  They were relegated to the outskirts, dark corners and forbidden alleys of society. They were objects of abuse, ridicule and violence.  There was no opportunity for a “normal” life unless it was in secret and even then the threat or possibility of exposure was always looming, so there were few opportunities for peace in the life of our LGBT brothers and sisters.  And at the same time, this man was socialized to believe that these people disturbed the peace of his community.
But I would venture that there are generations of people who grew up under all kinds of repression and oppression—racism, sexism, ageism, classicism, elitism, etc. that was/is psychologically, spiritually and emotionally damaging. Even he, as an African-American Elder man, must have experienced the effects of exclusion.  It seems there is always somebody somewhere who wants to belittle, condemn and restrict some so that the restrictions can make way for freedom and comfort of others.
I think the ultimate end of all spiritual/religious pursuit is peace— peace in one’s personal life, in one’s   family, community, world and certainly in the afterlife.  And it seems to me that a considerable part of understanding peace imparts a sense of justice—not vengeance or exclusion.  A sensibility that says I am accepted cared for and encouraged to share my gift of life in the land of the living and so too are others. The more I talk to people like this man, I wonder whether peace living is possible. 
The optimist in me, says that no matter how difficult a task is or appears to be, if the end or completion of it is peace, then we should, I should continue the work without violence or malice but with the strength of hope in the possibility for mutual understanding.  
Are we all searching for peace?  I believe it’s an important question of this millennia; we’ve tried all manner of hostility, sanctions, exclusions threat and force.  It is time to seek peace; first seek it within ourselves, and then encourage peaceful living in our homes, on our jobs, in our neighborhoods, and the world.  Speak out, vote, write, teach and support efforts that encourage peace

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Are we having fun yet?

This is the holiday season and, for many it is a time filled with special memories of childhood.  For parents, it is the time of memory making by living into genuine warmth, forgiveness and acceptance.  Many people decorate, shop for special gifts to express fondness for friends and family.  I believe that it is important to have a festival time to mark the years and to lift spirits beyond the turmoil, heartache and disappointment that can occasion life.

However, we must remember that this holiday is also one of the most emotionally devastating for some among us.  The pressure to conform to the holly jolly program can be so stressful that it leads to illness and depression. Not everyone has warm-fuzzy parents or sugar-plum memories of holidays past. It is also a time when the pressure to buy leads to increased callousness in stores with shoppers and shopkeepers alike harried by the demand of the increased volume of customers and competition to purchase the latest “hot thing.”  It reminds me of a caption under a Snoopy comic strip scene, are we having fun yet?

I am not even sure if we know the answer to this question.  Yes, fun is associated with entertainment, excitement, and pleasure—to be certain much of this is going on in this season.  However, we are very  caught up in the blitz of tinsel and glamour; it makes me wonder how much of this is truly joyous?  I am not trying to be a party pooper, I simply wish to inspire us to search ourselves and be more mindful of the atmosphere we set in our homes.  The gifts ought not all be wrapped in boxes under the tree.  It might be wise to offer experiences for our family and friends to share later in the year, tasks around the home, shared volunteer work at a local agency, a commitment to eat dinner together more regularly, visiting a local exhibit, attend festival or worship service of the season or some other activity not directly associated with Santa and the mall.

As one who works with adolescents, I am concerned about the heightened association of acquisition with self-worth and how this can adversely impact social interaction among teens. For them there is a very fine line between having fun and being ridiculed for having/being less than the “norm.” You can walk into almost any classroom, social hall or school cafeteria and witness the incisive pendulum swing between fun and ridicule with emotional scars and bolstered egos scattered from one corner of the room to the next.   The other side of the fun question is boredom—the countless numbers of youth who have no expressive or intellectual link to this season at home or in their neighborhood and for many they can be in the midst of the brightest display of the season and feel completely unconnected.   These are young people who may always be asking, are we having fun yet?

 Many of our youngsters in New York City are facing decisions about the next phase of their lives beyond high school; some struggle just to get through each day.  My hope is that they hear words of acceptance and feel valued for who they are regardless of their circumstance.  I want to anticipate helping hands, patience and encouragement as part of the gifts they receive in this season and all year.

Let us not be blinded by the usual trappings; let us remember that the heart of this season is compassion and care for humanity.  This holiday is not a trip to the amusement park.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Keeping our children safe

In today’s society it is difficult to tell where there is safe space for children.  In the past, home was always considered the only safe place; however increasing incidents of child abuse from parents and relatives makes all who work with children more observant of physical condition and behaviors that might indicate acute domestic problems. There  is also a greater challenge  today for parents who send their children to camps, schools, and churches ; these have traditionally been considered locations where staff and  faculty could be counted on to provide safe space for children, but not necessarily so today.  It is almost a common occurrence to turn on the television or read news stories about horrible accounts of sexual or physical abuse of a child by a trusted family member ( and most child abuse is by a family member) or a trusted teacher, counselor, neighbor, pastor, priest. 

It is imperative that we work as parents, primary care givers and youth workers, to create safe space for the children and teens.  As they go off to school and take part in after-school activities, children and teens are learning to navigate the world, they tend to be trusting of adults and other children. There is a delicate balance to be strived for here because we don’t want children to be fearful of the world to such an extent that it immobilizes them or inhibits their natural abilities.  Yet wisdom demands that we help our children become better in assessing danger and become more capable of speaking up for themselves.   I make the following suggestions:

·         Building Trust and Communication: The first safe place ought to be within the relationship that parent, guardian, and/or the primary care givers in a child’s life.  Children learn in that first essential relationship how much they can trust and be trusted in talking about what happens to them.  Children need to know at an early age what a good touch and a bad touch is. They need to know that no matter what has happened they can tell the care giver.  Predators (especially those known to the child and family) rely on the fact that they can scare a child into not revealing what they have done to them.  Children and teens also need to know that no matter what anyone may say, the parent or care giver will do all in his/her power to make sure that they are safe.  Child and Teen care givers also must be willing to take necessary steps to prevent and prosecute those who abuse children.

·         Present Proactive Parent and Primary Care Givers: Another way to provide safe space is for Primary Care givers to make themselves known in the places their children frequent.  Meet the teachers, meet the parents of your child’s friends, attend the local meetings, participate on committees, and take a role in policy setting, investigate whether background checks are done.  Be present, let your children know you take part and let them accompany you to some events.  Showing that a Parent/Care Giver has voice communicates a sense of authority and shows children and teens (even if they are embarrassed) that you have the power of your own voice in impacting change.  The most vulnerable young people are those who have no sense of voice to speak out in a crowd or meeting.  Parents/Care Givers should never take for granted that a place is always safe—regardless of who leads it.

·         No one is above suspicion: This next point is very touchy—no one is above question when it comes to the safety of children and teens.  It is important to keep tabs on what happens when you child is away from  you and have conversations with your child about the activities they are involved in, notice the mood swings, the way your child behaves when they come from a visit or activity is vital to your ability to catch signs of abuse.  Too often children and adolescents are abused by relatives, close friends, neighbors whom one would never suspect.  The abuse persists because children are fearful and the abuser makes them believe that they can tell no one or if they tell, someone in their family will get hurt.   Find ways to talk with your child about activities and people at an early age so that it becomes a routine as they get older.

·         Helping our Girls:  Girls are especially vulnerable to abuse because they are often socialized to be nice, to be obedient, and they usually don’t learn how to fight or defend themselves.  I’ll never forget one of the child predators who appeared on a television show who said that girls were really easy because no one has ever taught them about the likes of him.  They can be lured into a dangerous setting fairly quickly.  I think we should have self-defense as part of the physical education learning experience for children in all schools, churches, youth centers and homes. Self Defense communicates to girls that THEY are not to be ill treated and it sharpens the instinct to run, yell, and also to tell what happened.

Creating a safe space for children and adolescents is really about raising and nurturing  individuals whose confidence is developed in a trusting relationship with adults in the home and adults in other institutions.  The sense of self and learning about the importance of speaking out encourage awareness, provides lessons in observation and gives hope to young people that they can work through difficult situations.  Finally, creating a safe space means that young people learn to judge when a person or an area is not safe for them.  Key to preventing and stopping abuse is protection of and vigilance of adults who care enough to teach children,  and to fight for their safety.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Celebrate the small moments too

When I was a teenager, I heard the phrase “praise sweetens labor.”  I often think of this when I am working on a new project with children and teens.  When a task seems daunting, words of encouragement can help to spur new energy for the chore. 

Just a week ago I was with my nephew who had to put together a model of The White House.  He has a great mind for figuring and tinkering.  He was able to look at the package of parts, examine the diagram and picture and put together the basic framework. Then came the detailed smaller parts; his pace slowed and he put his head in his hands in frustration.  I looked at him and said just a few words of reassurance, allowed him to take a break he came back with enthusiasm and practically finished the entire project in one setting.

Often when we are doing team building games in our Rites of Passage program, we reach points of “storming” where the group is falling apart, they are convinced that they can’t accomplish the task, they start to argue and want to give up.  The leader gives them a chance to stop, examine their strategy, offers praise for what they have done thus far, no matter how little, then offers a chance to re-think the process.  When this happens, 95% of the time there is success.

I know there are other schools of thought on this issue— teens have to be toughened for the rough road in life, don’t be too soft or they won’t take you seriously, kids need discipline!  These approaches have validity and when used in combination with praise makes a difference in how an adolescent learns to view the world.  I know teens who don’t trust themselves to accomplish goals, have no faith in others to help them and feel just generally that the world is a pretty crappy place.  In my view, a lot of this stems from a lack of encouragement.  It doesn’t have to be big events, big ideas, but the small things that are celebrated along the way. 

Recently I was with a dear friend who has twin toddler girls who were in the stage of being potty trained.  When one used the potty she clapped hands and praised her; the little one did a happy jig and they celebrated.  I also remembered times when parents of small children hung their drawings on the wall, gave a hug for something done. And just yesterday I saw the Ben Carson story and was touched by a mother who spoke words of hope, confidence to her sons,  she expressed trust in what her children could accomplish even in the midst of dire circumstances and he became a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.

I know teens can sometimes be surly, belligerent, coarse and self-centered and there may be many developmental explanations for their moodiness and disobedience; however, we need to find ways to celebrate the small things along the way.  This is true not only for parents but also for the entire community of adults. We need to find ways to speak a positive word to a young person we don't even know..

I believe that there is genius in every one of some sort or another, especially teens.  They need affirmation of their effort to help them attempt the next step.  This is true for their work at home, school and in the broader community. 

Rev. Dr. Mariah Britton

Monday, June 18, 2012

...with liberty and justice for all

Last week our nation celebrated Flag Day. Stars and stripes  were waving in the breeze everywhere; they were adorned on caps, armbands, bags, T-shirts, lawns, public spaces and tiny flags on restaurant tables. I recalled that on that day, I heard a report from a colleague of many clergy who were enormously upset and disappointed with the views our President Obama expressed on marriage equality.  I know that opposition to same-sex marriage had already been pounded into the wedge between progressive and conservative leaders in our nation and now it has become an explosive ever-widening the gap and I can see how we shall continue to multiply by division. The pundits will carry on their uncompromising posturing and news will make news from every bodacious remark from both ends of the spectrum.

However, as I reflected upon the flag and remembering when I was a child we were required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, standing up, with our right hand over our hearts, shoulders back, talking serious and proud.  It astounds me that it ends with the phrase…with liberty and justice for all.   The pledge declares and the flag symbolizes the willingness of citizens to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that people of this nation are treated justly, fairly,  according to proper law and principle.  This has for so many years not been true for same gender loving Americans of all races, classes and religions who have been ostracized, demonized and denied equal rights.  I am proud of our President for his courage; he has voiced an unpopular position but it is one  that is on the side of justice.  His having the strength of his convictions will echo through the history books that our children will read for generations to come.  The record of his position will inspire songs, stories, lesson plans, debates, reports, theses, volumes that will expound on  what “justice for all” truly means and examine the practice of compassion and fairness under the law.

I am not sure what will happen in the weeks ahead.  I presume there will be much debate among the clergy and other religious leaders.  People will be asked to declare where they stand, what they will or will not do.  But the older I get the more I realize that down the long road of life, of history/herstory, once a door to new consciousness is opened it can never be fully closed again.  Everything must change and transformation begins in the hearts and minds of the people---that’s a fact. As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I am living in the hope that the whispers of love continue to visit us and inform our private and public pursuit to do ministry with a temperament towards liberty and justice for all.

Rev. Dr. Mariah Ann Britton
CEO and Founder, The Moriah Institute

Monday, May 21, 2012

Closing the Gap through Rites of Passage

When I was a teenager, there was so much talk about the generation gap between adolescents and adults. Of course that breach was a vast political an ideological rift that was created with my generation’s call for a black aesthetic and a focus on liberation from accommodating the power structure, and an end to the Vietnam War.  It was a crack in old ways of thinking; it was directed towards unity, purpose, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, creativity and faith.  These goals were from the principles of Kwanzaa and though all aspects of my community did not agree on them, we were at least unified by values about education as an important stepping stone for advancement as well as a respect for faith traditions. 

Over the last 30 years I have seen another gap emerge; it has been created largely by increase of drugs on the street, crime and incarceration that ensues, emulation of the thug-life, devaluation of studiousness and a disregard for faith and God; this gap was exacerbated by a drain of resources for youth development in already underserved communities. 

The inequities heaped upon children of color, supported by decisions made in major institutions in our nation, is an atrocious commentary on the phrase “equal opportunity.”  The rates of incarceration, dropping out of high school, poverty levels, and poor health indicators are directly linked to decisions about privatization of prisons, educational funding cutbacks, absence of a living wage, jobs being moved overseas and a myriad of factors that impact health (environmental racism, closure of hospitals, poor quality groceries in inner-city communities, lack of medical insurance etc.) and the list goes on and on.

Closing the gap today requires a multi-faceted approach to youth development and perhaps it has always been so but the age of information makes the chasm so incredible obvious with each tweet and new friend added to social networks.  The gap is ever before us with a tsunami of news broadcasted daily announcing the crime statistics, across the nation.

Recently, I attended a vibrant conversation that was held at the Brooklyn Museum that featured black men from a variety of perspectives, ages and pursuits.  Much of the discussion focused on what legacy the previous generations have left for today’s youth to refer to as they make their mark in the world.  The responses were just as varied as the panel.    As I listened it occurred to me that there might not be a blueprint but a spirit of resistance to oppression that can be found in every place where people yearn to be able to make a valuable contribution to family, village and world.

On May 12th I witnessed five young people make steps into young adulthood through our Rites of Passage program.  I was most impressed with their level of self-awareness and their desire to work on themselves—their work habits, their trust-worthiness, their confidence and how they learn to ask for help as a key factor to their walk as adults.   It was a profound revelation to me that by their own admission they were concerned about their inner-life and not just the outer show of success: cash, cars, bling and all the things they bring.   In my view, it is the inner life that helps to close the gap.  Consciousness of the inner life awakens one to the humanity of others, and reveals a vast array of possibilities that one never noticed before.  Young people see that there is a community of adults who desires, prays for, acts upon and supports their success. Rites of Passage for youth helps them to gain perspective about life, encourages them to tell the truth about themselves and closes the gap between generations while and building avenues of hope. 

It is our task as adults to work on closing the gap by supporting youth and also by voting for individuals and legislation that militates against criminalization of youth, financially supporting programs that work for youth, joining neighborhood associations that are working for safety for children, making room for internships for youth on our jobs—and so many other ways we can reach out to youth.  We have to be serious about taking an active part in closing the gap of communication, trust and support for our youth.  There are so many forces that are invested in widening it.