At our program “Fostering Our Future: Mentoring Young Women” there were more than 25 speakers and twice as many listeners. Teens from every city high school and several suburban schools spoke, as well as young women from Onondaga Community College and the State University of New York at Cortland. Teens who were new to this country were also represented; they came from the Congo, the Gambia and Thailand. There seemed to be almost instant rapport among this diverse group of young women as many of them chatted together prior to the start of the meeting.
Janet Donoghue and Daryl Files welcomed our young guests, and asked them to introduce themselves by name, school, and grade. Janet then reminisced about her life and how it changed from the 1950s and 1960s through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The young women listened politely as the older WTB members smiled and nodded in shared remembrance of the cultural transformations over the decades. Janet’s point is that life is very different for young people today, and as adults, we need to hear firsthand from teenagers what it is like to be young today. She asked them to tell us how they cope, and what they need from us.
Janet then introduced Tanya Atwood-Adams, Sabra Reichardt, Hetty Gingold, Danya Wellmon, and Judy Antoine as group facilitators, and asked each of the women and girls to join the facilitator who shared the same colored tab, handed out as we all arrived. The groups then found separate spaces around the building where they could listen as teenagers shared their insights and perspectives on a variety of issues while adults focused on listening to our young women. Topics included home and family, schools, drugs, sex, gangs, teen pregnancy, new technology, and life goals.
Because the important action at this meeting happened in five different groups, there was a wide range of experiences, and it is impossible for these minutes to reflect it all. In later reports from groups, the following points were made: Parents should make a concerted effort to have dinner with their children. At first, race wasn’t seen as an issue but further talking brought out the fact that free time is usually spent in segregated groups, for example in the lunch room. Our teens felt safe in school. But other students expressed feelings of being trapped in their buildings because of the cameras that are everywhere and the need to have pre-signed passes to go anywhere. Important dialog occurred between the girls from different schools, comparing notes about their school differences.
Dances were difficult for those girls who didn’t want to ‘grind’ with the boys. They end up dancing with girlfriends. The girls felt that they had support in their lives, not always through parents but often through their school or church. The girls spoke about personal topics to mothers, loved their fathers but had no talking-about-important topics with them. The pressure from boys in school to have sex was annoying.
A most touching moment came when a senior stood up to say that this experience was wonderful because grownups usually don’t listen to young people without judging, and don’t ask their opinions. The girls were delighted that mature women wanted to know about them. “We were just really getting going when it was time to stop.” “I didn’t ever think adults would really be interested in listening to us.” The adults were pleased at the teens’ openness and willingness to share their opinions, goals, and challenges.
After the groups returned to the main meeting room, Daryl introduced Stephanie Breed, a junior at F-M High School. Stephanie is the founder and primary organizer of Books Are Food For Thought, which gives books to children who receive free meals from local agencies. While volunteering at a local food kitchen, Stephanie realized that families that can’t afford to buy food for their children certainly can’t afford to spend money on books. She began collecting books donated by family, friends, church parishioners, Honor Society members. Two Fayetteville-Manlius middle schools have held book drives. She has now given away more than 2000 books to more than 200 children at ten different locations throughout Syracuse. See her website at www.booksarefoodforthought.org.
Then Daryl introduced Jessie Keating, the youth minister at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church. Jessie told us about the arts and enrichment resource for after school programming on the near West Side, with plans to expand to the South Side. The program recruits high school youth to help provide low-income, inner city Syracuse children with opportunity to learn arts, languages, music, dance, culinary arts, theater, and more. For more information, go to www.ImagineSyracuse.com.
After all of the speaking and listening, we gathered in a circle, singing along to the Miley Cyrus recording, “The Climb.”
As many of us mingled and munched on snacks, many of the teens settled down to plan a follow-up meeting.