I anxiously waited for my grandmother to pick me up. Humming and dancing to my father’s old-school music in the background. I was looking outside the front-room window. I saw three teenagers of color walking down the street. A black car had approached them. A gun emerged out of the driver-side window. All was still as the bullets flew and met the flesh of one of the male teenagers.
I screamed aloud as tears poured down my cheeks. My dad heard me and ran into the front room. He looked out the window. He screamed, “Go call 911!” He ran out the front door, picked up the male of color, and watched him take his last breath. He was only 16 and died in my father’s arms.
I was 7 years old and a witness to a gang-affiliated murder in a middle-class neighborhood.
Two deaths occurred that day. One young Navajo man departed this world while one young Mexican man would do life in prison. These men of color faced two systems that failed them – the education and criminal justice systems, which often intersect to create the perfect storm resulting in disproportionate rates of educational failure, incarceration and death of youth of color in the United States.
No one is immune, not even gated communities, to violence. Violence is the consequence of unchecked systems of power creating power and powerlessness, and oppressor and the oppressed.
I unexpectedly revisited this site of trauma when I attended the American Educational Research Conference and the session “The Pushouts,” a film that documents the life of Victor Rios, once a gang member and now a professor of sociology, and his collective work with Yo!Watts, a program for people ages 16 to 24 who did not finish high school.
“This is a story about young people who are left behind,” said Rios, who works alongside Rebeca Mireles Rios, an assistant professor of education, former mentees and Martin Flores, director of YO!Watts.
As the film highlights, more than half of Black and Latino children grow up in poverty, one-third will not graduate from high school and two-thirds of these “pushouts” will end up in the criminal justice system. The lingering question: How do we change these outcomes?
After my father and I witnessed such tragedy, my father pursued a master’s degree in social work to help change the criminal justice system from within by providing therapy to youth of color and their families.
I began working at elementary and high schools that were disproportionately under-resourced and that had student bodies that were majority students of color. The students at these schools were labeled “at risk,” a term Rios asked us to reconsider as “at promise” to understand the assets youth of color bring into the environments they enter.
I have learned from my at promise youth of color, and what “The Pushouts” vividly documents, how trauma and love intersect to create a community of healing.
Tupac Shakur, rap artist and son of Black Panthers, left us with the prolific “THUG LIFE,” an acronym for “The Hate U Give Lil Infants F—s Everyone.” It was adopted by author Angie Thomas in The Hate U Give to describe the conditions youth of color are born into, cope with, and use to create new homes of survival and healing. Her book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and “THUG LIFE” is a philosophy understood by those who live it. In the book, protagonist Starr Carter witnesses the murder of her childhood best friend at the hands of police and states: “People say misery loves company, but I think it’s like that with anger, too.”
Anger masks pain, and what I have learned is that everyone endures a form of pain. I have learned five ways to get through the pain that my at promise youth of color and I share when we’re at the verge of losing hope: vulnerability, trust, care, validation and love.
Being vulnerable with yourself and others will set the stage for trust. Trust is not given, it must be earned. Care will be shared once vulnerability and trust meet, and that creates validation or reciprocity to see each other for who you both are.
Do not underestimate the power of allowing someone else to see the vulnerability, trust, care or validation in you for the bad or the good, because that is where we find love. Feminist and professor bell hooks articulated: “The practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control.”
It takes only one person to change the trajectory of youth of color and invest in them when they are at the brink of falling into a system that was designed to keep them in or out. What would it mean for you to be that person who enacts change, even when it is difficult? You could potentially be saving a life from systems of death, and that hate you gave previously from not knowing has just turned into love.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia.