So, in North America, we have this ubiquitously quoted term that helps well-intentioned individuals and organizations raise money and awareness for the needs of youth of color. This term is ‘at-risk youth” or “at-risk children” and usually refers to youth of color living in what is so often, undesirable people of color communities. It usually refers to the circumstances youth of color dwell in: perhaps they are children being raised by single parents, children living in poverty, children of substance abuse parents, children of uneducated parents, children of poor parents, and other such societal ills. This term is also used to describe what is otherwise accepted as normal behavior in White youth, e.g., teenage rebellion, but which in youth of color, automatically qualifies them as ‘at-risk youth.’
I must be honest in saying that I never encountered this term in my almost thirty years before coming to America, yet in the developing country where I lived, youth still lived and grew up in these circumstances by which youth of color in America are categorized as ‘at-risk youth’ who later become the negative statistics that stigmatize youth of color in America. Yet, in those developing worlds in which I was formed, nurtured and matured, the youth did not automatically become destined for jail, substance abuse or teenage pregnancy. On the contrary, the more difficult one’s childhood circumstances or the social circumstances of one’s family, the harder the drive of both family and youth to succeed and many did. The success stories in Africa hardly ever come from rich, well-endowed or privileged families, but rather from struggling families who determined to push past their barriers and challenges in life to attain a crown for themselves, their families and their communities.
As a single mom of a beloved child of color, I struggled with accepting this American-coined label for many youth of color in America. I struggled even more when I realized that many people of color in America also accept the reasonings behind the label “at-risk youth.” I struggled because having lived to full maturity in another culture where hardship is more the norm than the exception yet without the youth of color crisis found in North America, I wanted to know the justification for so labeling children of color from humble and or challenging circumstances in North America. I struggled because despite personally eliminating almost all the conditions North American psychologists claim predispose our youth to ‘risk,’ I realize my own child is an “at-risk youth of color!” My resistance to accepting this label as valid, caused me to take a closer look and this is what I found:
*Youth of Color in North America qualify as “at-risk” youth because their entire communities exist under threat of extinction, domination, oppression, and opposition. A child cannot be safe except his or her parents are also safe and many youth of color families are not safe. Why? Because of the color of their skin!
*Youth of Color in North America qualify as “at-risk” youth because their entire communities are “at risk.” Risk of unemployment; risk of homelessness, risk of police violence; risk of judicial inequity; risk of economic powerlessness; risk of racial discrimination; risk of gender discrimination…all of which cause families and therefore communities of people of color to live on the margins. When you grow up with a sense of threat hanging over your head, you live like a live wire. I know, because even as an adult person of color living under all these conditions, I have changed psychologically and somewhat become a person who lives on the edge.
Our well-meaning North American psychological bent towards the communities of color tends to address the effects of risks our communities face without ever really addressing the injustices that creates those effects. There is an assumption that the parents of these ‘at-risk youth’ can’t do a good job…Therefore, all our programs come in trying to ‘fix’ the effects but not the causes, i.e., the injustices towards people of color as a whole, and we wonder why the programs don’t have a hundred percent success rate and automatically change life for youth of color. Hint: regardless of how good our programs are, youth of color have to go back to live in the at-risk communities with their at-risk families. So the solution is not simply to apply the band-aid programs to youth of color, but to also address eliminating the risk people of color communities suffer.
We can eliminate these risks by electing and supporting more people of color leadership, businesses, churches, in their own communities rather than letting their communities be clients of a system that diminishes their worthiness because of the color of their skin.
We can eliminate these risks by moving our thriving businesses and organizations into these at-risk communities rather than locating them out of easy access to people of color communities, yet targeting them as our market demographic. Locating your thriving business in a people of color community builds a healthy tax base for these communities that will allow their administration provide some of those services that our charitable organizations throw at them. They don’t need charity. They need ownership or as they say in the ‘hood, “a skin in the game.” [Kudos to the mayor of my city for negotiating some businesses into our community. The result has been a large workforce of teenagers flocking to and being hired by these businesses and enjoying economic empowerment, some level of independence and a reduction of the so famous ‘at risk’ behaviors for which youth of color are known.]
We can eliminate these risks by not asking for low taxes for for-profit businesses that move into our people of color neighborhoods and communities. This is like stealing from the poor…thriving businesses don’t get a tax break to exist in wealthy neighborhoods, but they typically want to be offered almost zero tax deals in order to come to poor neighborhoods! Our taxes are revenue for our communities and asking for a tax break in your for-profit entities deprives our already struggling communities of economic power. That same lack of economic power which becomes one of the markers for ‘at-risk youth.” For-profit businesses: communities of people of color need your taxes to help develop and build their infrastructures, maintain their roads and provide amenities whose absence devalue and puts our communities ‘at risk.’
We can eliminate these risks by eliminating the biases, discriminations, inequality and violence directed at people of color, period. Because when we are not a community of people who are at risk, our children will cease to be at-risk.
On the flip side, people of color in and from these communities equally have a responsibility. When you have been liberated and no longer qualify as an ‘at-risk youth,’ please go back and help build up your community. Not with intermittent hand-outs, but by committing to continuous long-term work with the administrative bodies to ‘repair’ the broken walls of our communities. Invest in those communities: open businesses, build homes, schools, stores, malls, movie theaters, restaurants, recreational facilities for youth, etc.. All too often, our people of color ‘make it’ then go away and buy or build their houses somewhere else, live, shop and invest their monies into other communities but the ones that raised them… This is one component that (used to) strengthen communities of color in indigenous countries – their commitment to develop their communities of origin – but even that is ‘at risk’ now as the American approach of separating children’s existence from their communities has stretched across borders. Even children of color in indigenous countries are now isolated to be ‘helped’ and rescued by the Western benefactors that focus on the children to the exclusion of the injustices that cause the circumstances of the families and communities of the children who are rescued….
When we have the proper understanding that at-risk communities create at-risk youth, we will extend our efforts beyond quick fixes that pass us off as rescuers of youth of color and become more invested in efforts to hand power back to people of color over their own bodies, communities, and destinies.
-Rev. Oghene’tega Swann
Rev. Oghene’tega Swann is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Beaver-Butler Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church(USA). She is the founding pastor of Refreshing Springs Ministry, Aliquippa & Ambridge. She has the honor and privilege to be mother to one wonderful, biological child and many, many more non-biological children.