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Scores of African-American young people are stressed out from the traumas they encounter at home and in the streets of their communities, making it a challenge to focus on academics.

One teen in a recent study listed the hurdles: “Lack of jobs, housing, gangs, drugs, lack of parental involvement, broken education system, systemic oppression, just being African-American.”

This is a problem that should concern all Americans. Youth of color represent the fastest growing segment of the population, as the nation marks a turning point in which White births no longer represent the majority in the United States.

Researchers refer to these traumas as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which range from neighborhood violence to neglect at home, compounded by gross poverty levels, that together diminish the ability to learn. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ACEs are linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death.

A new study, titled “Barriers to Wellness: Voices and Views from Young People in Five Cities,” explores the traumas young African-American teenagers said they confront, revealing that they are under extreme stress from experiences in their communities and schools.

They are living under siege—over-policed, undervalued, and marginalized,” said researchers from Boston University’s Center for Promise, the applied research institute for America’s Promise Alliance.

Summary of Findings

Young people are under stress. In all five cities, respondents described employment concerns, race relations, violence, lack of community resources and education, and other environmental challenges as meaningful barriers to their well-being. In Boston, 78 percent of respondents said they are living under stress, and 52 percent said the same in St. Paul.

Young people feel unsafe. In their schools and neighborhoods, young people report not feeling safe. In Boston, only 5.7 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Youth feel safe in the community.” When asked why they felt unsafe, Boston youth cited violence, gangs and shootings.

Young people mistrust and fear police. Despite feeling unsafe because of community violence, only 20 percent of those surveyed in Boston agreed with the statement, “Young people in my community go to the police if they need help.” The clear majority of students asked did not.

Young people observe and suffer from a lack of access to community resources. Gentrification, local food options, inadequate education, and unemployment concerned respondents across the five cities. The clear majority of respondents in Chicago say they purchase their food at gas stations and corner stores. In Denver, respondents described gentrification pushing them out of once-familiar public spaces, forcing them indoors during after-school hours.

Young people cite stereotyping and racial bias as reasons they feel unsafe and unwelcome. Stereotypes and racial profiling along with racism were described as stressors and seen as threats to the health and well-being of young people. The Philadelphia team explored factors that influence stereotypes and found that race was the most cited factor, followed by social class and appearance. Blacks were identified by respondents as the group most commonly stereotyped.

Young people are engaging in risky behavior to cope with stress. Seventy percent of Chicago respondents agreed with the statement, “Drug use is an issue among youth in my community.” Respondents said the drugs most commonly used by youth marijuana and pills.

Unique Methodology

The researchers recruited Black teens to help design the study and conduct peer interviews in five cities (Boston, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minnesota) between May and September 2016.

The main idea behind that approach was to give voice to youth of color growing up in low-income communities, who are often the subject of policy studies but seldom—if ever—consulted as stakeholders.

“We’re designing programs without youth at the table,” Boston University Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine Linda Martinez told NewsOne. “So, when they don’t get involved in programs, adults ask why. It’s because they don’t have input.”

Interestingly, the research was designed to identify health priorities and factors in the young people’s environment that impact their health. As conversations with the youths went on, however, the researchers noticed that the teens were commonly traumatized by complex community-level stressors, and that stress diminishes their overall wellness, said Martinez, the lead researcher.

“We knew about some of the barriers of living in an urban environment, like violence,” she said. “But we got a more nuanced understanding.”

Students Feel Besieged 

Zaynah Burch, a Philadelphia high school senior, told NewsOne that she’s aware of pervasive drug use and has experienced peer pressure to use drugs.

Unlike many of those she surveyed as a teen research aide, Zaynah said she has not encountered racism but felt, as others did, a reluctance to report incidents to the police. She said many of her peers choose instead to “take things into their own hands.” 

Zaynah added that many students struggle to figure out how to manage their stress in school. One consequence is that their academics suffer.

“Focus, concentration and learning are problems,” Martinez underscored. “One Denver student said, ‘I go to school to learn. I can’t learn in school if I’m thinking about this.’”

Police – Young People Relationship

The most common source of stress revolved around police interactions and safety in the community. “Kids feel they can’t go to the police, and some said the police antagonize them” Martinez stated.

A reality is that many of the youths live and attend school where violence is common, making encounters with law enforcement practically inevitable.

Dwayne A. Crawford, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), told NewsOne that he can’t argue with the students’ perception that they can’t trust police officers, even though he disagrees.

“Young people are reacting to the society in which they are born,” he said. “All it takes is seeing one officer act abusive, or hear about it, for them to distrust police officers.”

But there is a way forward. Crawford, who has never served as a police officer but routinely conducts community workshops on law enforcement, said he’s encouraged because young people are open-minded and willing to engage.

He said an important step toward building a positive relationship starts with the police “owning” their mistakes. Changing negative perceptions also requires “demystifying” law enforcement through education.

Crawford said NOBLE offers free workshops to schools, churches and community organizations. Participants learn about their rights during police encounters, such as traffic stops and stop-and-frisk situations.

He encourages students and their parents to learn about the goals of former President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing principles, which promotes community policing.

At the same time, Crawford wants them to feel empowered by “engaging in citizenship. Through voting and organizing, they have a say in their local criminal justice system. Youths should attend and participate in city council meetings, where they can raise concerns directly with elected officials who oversee the police. Crawford also said they can file complaints instead of feeling victimized.

Ideas For Teachers and Administrators

In the classroom, teachers can easily misidentify the effects of trauma as misbehavior. Ralph Simpson, a regional superintendent of DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, told NewsOne many teachers are, unfortunately, untrained in trauma informed care and its impact on the brain, which often results in poor academic performance and misbehavior.

However, poverty is a commonly recognized traumatic experience, so a teacher working in low-income communities should be alert to that type of trauma, he added.

“Teachers working with students experiencing trauma should focus on building a relationship based on genuine care and concern,” Simpson emphasized. “It will forever be extremely difficult to teach a child you can’t reach.”

By building relationships, students are more likely to share their experiences with their teacher. “With limited resources, it is critical that teachers speak to the school counselor and begin the process of involving social services with hopes of providing the student with mechanisms on how to cope, as well as strategies that will allow him or her to manage their behavior,” he explained.

With many school districts under-resourced, Simpson said administrators could partner with outside agencies and non-profit groups to provide additional support for families.

“As an administrator, I would ensure that every adult in the school house is trained in the following areas: Trauma Informed Care for Educators, Classroom Management, Cultural Competency, and De-Escalation,” he stated. “With this, teachers will at least have the tools to survive in classroom, as well as focus on teaching and learning.” 

When it comes to policymaking, Martinez emphasized to NewsOne that decision makers should invite youth leaders to the table to voice their experiences and perspective.


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