I woke up angry this morning.
Lately, the organization that I help run, the Mikva Challenge, has been criticized by a number of well-meaning folks for “creaming” and working with only the “good” kids and magnet school students in Chicago.
This criticism pisses me off. We work with all kinds of students (our demographics mirror Chicago Public Schools almost identically), and we focus our resources and attention predominantly on neighborhood schools in the south and west sides. If anyone doubts it, I can send the data.
Here are three things I find particularly frustrating about this critique:
- There’s an assumption out there that when young people do impressive things, they must be the “cream” of their school or neighborhood. In my 20-plus years of youth work, almost all Chicago youth I encounter have incredible talent, wisdom and intelligence.
If you challenge them and believe in them, they do great things. Let’s stop calling certain kids “special” and assume the rest are losers. Instead let’s seek ways to challenge and support all young people and let all Chicago young people shine and show their specialness.
- When I am working with a homeless youth, or a gang-involved kid, or a young person who is struggling in school, I don’t trumpet their problems to the world so that everyone can see Mikva works with tough kids. Instead we just help young people with these issues, and we believe kids struggles don’t define their identities or limit their potential for success.
Mikva views all Chicago youth as assets and we focus on how we can help them become personally powerful, how they can analyze societal inequities, and how they can help improve their communities through their leadership.
- I think when people say Mikva works with the “good” kids this is really is a synonym for kids who have stable homes with a caring adult in their life and who do not have PTSD caused by the stresses of deep urban poverty, racism and violence. Mikva does have some of these “good” kids. We also have a lot more kids dealing with PTSD and Chicago’s poverty and systemic dysfunction.
And we have kids tragically murdered like all other youth programs in the city do. The famous This American Life story on Harper High School was inspired by the murder of a Mikva youth leader who served on our peace and leadership council.
Author John Edgar Wideman writes about not getting caught in your “enemies’ dreams.” By assuming that Mikva serves one type of student or should serve one type (good or bad), I think we are getting caught in our enemies’ dreams—feeding into the societal dysfunction, segregation and racism that causes a lot of our youth problems.
Shouldn’t youth programs try to integrate kids in programs with all types of backgrounds, issues, strengths and weaknesses so we can all learn from one another and build a unified city?
Why not put formerly incarcerated youth with a young person in an honors program and have them work together to solve community problems?
We do that every day and the results are magical. I think Mikva has had a lot of success over the years precisely because we don’t reinforce stereotypes about youth and follow like lemmings the segregated and racist habits and structures of this city.
We put youth leaders from everywhere in the city and from every background, in our programs, and we find that all youth are “special,” “good” and the “cream” of the city.
That is my two cents. Feel free to speak out for or against the above argument.