Drawing on my experience in youth development, particularly within the non-profit sector, I have tried to understand the experience of black youth within development. I don’t care for the experiences they describe on the evaluation forms we coerce them to complete, but insight into what they really think about the work being done. So I started listening in on the informal peer chats after workshops, graduation events and outings. What I heard was a longing and need to identify with and be inspired by people like them, people of their colour and social and economic upbringing.
In our work with young people, particularly girls, we take so many things for granted. We build on what we understand to be assumed knowledge. As development workers, we seldom take context into consideration. We sell a lie to black children that if they work hard enough, they too can achieve great success without acknowledging the barriers they will face. We make success seem effortless. What we don’t ask is how many graduates are sitting unemployed drinking in shebeens (informal drinking places), how many girls are trading their bodies as commodities in exchange for drinks on a Friday night. We often don’t realise that the role models we present to youth are out of sync with the reality and reference points that our youth experience. We take youth from outside of the community, often from rich middle class suburbs, to act as role models for our youth. We forget that youth from middle class backgrounds have access to the information and resources necessary to facilitate exposure to opportunities.
The best way to describe this is to give an example. I am a motivational speaker and volunteer my time to inspire and mentor youth, particularly black girls. At the beginning of each session, I start with my name, profession and what I studied to get to where I work. Second to how old I am; the most common question is: where did you grow up? On telling them that I grew up in the same township they live in, came from a single parent household, commuted two hours each way to school and worked extra hard to make up for the limited resources I had to support my educational aspirations; the initial reaction is usually disbelief.
Then their eyes change; suddenly they realise that I am one of their own. Then it hits them: Oh! I too can be her, I can be SOMEBODY. I AM SOMEBODY. I too can break the cycle of poverty; I too can dream a dream that will surpass the multiple poverties of my surrounding. Suddenly these young people relate and identify with me in ways that I know to be different from how they relate with volunteers that come from outside of their community. That realisation is the fundamental difference we need to inspire in our children if we want them to succeed. Black children need more role models they can relate to on multiple levels. More of us black professionals, particularly black women, need to go back to our communities and share our stories with young people. We need to tell our young the stories of our success – stories that aren’t often given mainstream attention. We need to tell our young so they too can dream bigger dreams that are beyond their circumstances.