“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
In past articles, I have stressed the need for comprehensive support for youth development. Our young people are our greatest most valuable resource. And without a strong, well prepared generation to fill our shoes, we have no way of ensuring that the future will be a bright one. Decades from now, we will rely on them to run the world and to care for our wellbeing; and we must prepare and support them so that they can bear this responsibility. When we talk about how we can do this, the conversation usually pivots to the importance of education or home stability as a way to help them get started on the right path. While the right path is always our hope for our children, it is unfortunately not always the route some choose. When young people choose a different route—one that involves legal ramifications and state mandated supervision—it is also important to ask ourselves an important question: how do we guide our children back to the right path?
As a young man who grew up in the 53206 zip code, I understand firsthand the unique needs of African American boys. I was fortunate as a young man to have access to mentors, programs and activities that focused on breaking the cycle of African American boys growing up in poverty. I was an engaged high school student, who participated in many extracurricular activities, however I also had moments of disconnect. Thankfully, there were supports in place to effectively and positively redirect me. These programs and relationships built on mutuality, trust and empathy empowered me to have transformative experiences while also inspiring and celebrating my development. It is my goal, and has always been my goal, to seek and secure the same for young men and women whose lives mirror my own. By creating interpersonal experiences that nurture the intellect of youth, we expose them to opportunities that will impact their future positively.
In my career, I have been fortunate to lead and support work to achieve this end. Through Be the Change (BTC) and the Milwaukee Promise Zones (MPZ) Summer Employment Initiative, we have been able to change the lives of many youth in our City. Be the Change focuses on mentoring and provides a holistic and healing approach to building up the young men in our community who may struggling. Be the Change, a year-round program which has been running for nine years, works toward bridging the achievement gap by offering both reading and math support. When you plant seeds of empowerment in our youth, the community reaps the benefits of their successes. This is also true with the MPZ Summer Employment Initiative. This program provides an opportunity for our young people to have a paid job experience, complete with a social and behavioral enrichment component, provided by a collaborative effort of community organizations and volunteers. Participants not only earn a paycheck, they are effectively engaged in their community through the creation of opportunities to expand their experiences. The knowledge they gain can help transform their self-perception, expose them to new opportunities, and teach skills that can build a renewed sense of purpose for their future. Within the programs, we have witnessed new and positive results for the youth who participate. Preventative programs, such as these, are essential because they reduce the need for corrective measures later.
Across the country, the corrective model is being modified and this change has proven to have a positive outcome. When youth participate in a program that feels less punitive and more reformative in nature, they fare significantly better. In programs that offer access to recreation areas, mental health services, and spaces dedicated to learning and completing their school work, while maintaining family and community relationships, youth experience a more successful transition. Individualized educational services that are made available to youth- helping them catch up in school and strengthen foundational skills-propels their learning forward and makes them active participants in their education. Offering wraparound resources and counseling to support them as they learn to manage their emotions, form positive relationships and deal with stressful situations, also acts as an essential piece of providing transformative care. There are numerous ways a program can support the redemption and rehabilitation of their lives; the holistic approach that has recently been adopted by many programs has proven to be a winning method for both the youth and the communities from which they come. Programs throughout the country have shown decreases in recidivism, improved school performance and safer neighborhoods.
As a community, we unfortunately know all too well the disproportionate rates of suspension, expulsion and drop outs that Black children face in school; we also understand that this cannot be remedied using the methods that we have traditionally used. Employing preventative measures is key, as well as revisiting the manner in which we used corrective models. We must be innovative and deliberate in our approach, realizing what is at stake. We must contribute to the social-emotional, cognitive and identity development of youth and center them in the conversation. We must equip them with the tools to effectively communicate and transition to adulthood. When we are honest about the cyclical nature of trauma and poverty and remain intentional in our efforts to curb it, we will begin to change the trajectory of the futures of the youth we serve. This can only be done through culturally competent programming that advocates for youth and effectively works to build educational success, career development, civic engagement, character and leadership.