In March of 2020, in an effort to ensure the safety of youth and communities in the face of the burgeoning global pandemic brought about by COVID19, schools across the state of Connecticut abruptly shut down. Youth and their caregivers were notified that school buildings would reopen when it was deemed safe, and that plans for “remote learning” would be forthcoming. While many immediately understood the pandemic as a global public health crisis of an unprecedented scope, the ensuing weeks, months and years have laid bare our country’s other long-harbored, oft-disregarded crisis - the deeply entrenched racial, economic and social inequities operating within and perpetuated by housing, healthcare, education, workforce, immigration, housing and criminal justice systems.
Over the course of 2020, we heard from more than 500 young people who, through submitted essays, art, poems, spoken word, and videos, spoke not only of the impact of the pandemic, but of the murder of George Floyd, of new-found awareness of history, legacy, and presence of white supremacy, of rising up for racial justice, and of the precariousness of our democracy in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. From the outset, this project sought not only to elevate young people’s voices, but to help advance critical conversations about the confluence of structural inequities on young people’s lives. While many young people shared their challenges and struggles, they also spoke about moments of joy, pride, determination, resistance, how they were taking care of themselves, and the hopes they have for more just communities. Their perspectives and insights often starkly illustrated this fundamental truth: youth of color are disproportionately affected by the structural inequity that is ubiquitous in our society.
This paper lifts up and amplifies salient and recurring themes that emerged from young people’s submissions. It is important to note that this project was initially undertaken to build a platform for young people’s voices, not to conduct formal research on young people’s experiences. The sheer volume of the responses received, and the patterns that emerged from the youth, motivated the creation and distribution of this paper for a broader audience. The demographic information contained in this paper was compiled from the identifying information youth provided in their submissions, and the themes highlighted in this paper are the result of a qualitative analysis undertaken by the staff team at the Perrin Family Foundation who read every submission.
Philanthropy, policy-makers and other decision-makers often reduce the complex dynamics at play in young people’s lives to one-dimensional facts and statistics, and the “solutions” to young people’s perceived needs or challenges are left in the hands of those who have not walked in their shoes. This paper is premised upon the belief that young people’s lived experiences make them experts in their own right. This paper compiles and shares young people’s candid reflections in this paper with the intention of creating a springboard for introspection, accountability, and action from the philanthropic community. It also aims to urge others who exercise power and influence in institutions that shape the lives and experiences of young people to seek out and listen - to hear and heed - what young people are saying. This report is a call to action to urge our sector to recognize young people’s inherent power, better understand their multifaceted realities, commit to actionable steps that will target structural inequities, and prioritize young people’s direct engagement and leadership in advancing systemic change.
During each submission round, youth were invited to submit responses to one reflection prompt. While the prompts varied slightly across the two submission rounds, they fall into three broad categories:
Submissions were accepted as long as funds were available, and over the two rounds of the project we distributed more than $100,000 to more than 550 youth participants.
Make understanding what young people think, see, and experience a critical component of the design and development of any program or strategy, and compensate them for their engagement in the process. Take what they say as seriously facts, statistics, and other data.
Refrain from taking a one-dimensional view of young people. They are more than just students, clients, or participants in an afterschool program. They are brothers, sisters, children, caretakers, income earners, and adolescents in significant moments of growth and transition in their own lives.
Often, programs directly supporting young people end at age 18, once youth graduate from high school. Young people over the age of 18, whether in college or navigating the workforce, are in a pivotal period of life transition, and often lack access to the supports focused on their ongoing growth and development as young adults not just as students or workers
Young people’s submissions undoubtedly revealed glaring gaps in services for youth. But submissions also made clear that we can’t “service” or “program” our way out of the structural inequities young people are facing.
Young people spoke with resounding clarity about the need for more comprehensive mental health supports. This also requires thinking about health and wellness in an innovative way that extends beyond traditional service delivery models and accounts for the particular impact of systemic inequity and oppression on young people’s well-being.
Short-term interventions thatrespond to the symptoms or indicators of need are often vitally important, but lasting change demands attention to the structural root causes. This also requires funders to think about connections across generations and across the issue-area silos that drive funding priorities.
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