“I would be scared half to death to walk around Cherry Hill (an affluent suburb near Camden). No way. I would be looking all around me thinking a rapist was following me or something. No, I am comfortable in my neighborhood.”
I heard this in a circle of 6 teens during a debriefing period. I had just given the 10 standard Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs – see www.acestudy.org) questions, plus another 3 pages of questions, to the first cohort of youth at UrbanPromise – the StreetLeaders. These are our adolescent employees who attend public and charter high schools throughout Camden, as well as a few from UrbanPromise Academy, our private high school. The additional questions came from research I’ve been reading about ‘urban ACEs’. The original study involved a majority suburban, middle class population and were missing significant sources of urban childhood trauma like racism, homelessness and community violence as well as the more ubiquitous bullying. Just typing out these questions exhausted me.
“Have you ever witnessed someone being beaten up, had your house robbed, or have someone close to you murdered?”
“Has there ever been a time when your family had to live on the street or in a shelter because there was no other place to stay?”
“Have you ever been exposed to a violent act with a gun?”
Even now typing them again my stomach clenches at the thought of youth being exposed to these questions, let alone being in a position to answer them.
This past year as I have heard experts speak on ACEs, and in reading blogs, websites and articles, over and over the same concern has been voiced. Dare we ask the hard questions when we don’t have the resources to address them? Are we opening Pandora’s box? And that gut response – will we hurt them more by using this language? When I gave the ACEs questions to our staff earlier this fall, one staff member, a father of 2 daughters in elementary school, felt fiercely defensive at the thought of his daughters being exposed to them. And yet a teacher broke into tears, saying she wished she had been asked this questions in 4th grade. So it was not without a fair amount of trepidation that I met with 30 StreetLeaders (SLs) yesterday. I was ‘armed’ with my awesome MSW student, Karie, and the equally amazing staff that work with the SLs. And I was reassured from the previous meeting Karie and I had with the SLs, when they were able to name 8 of the 10 standard ACEs without prompting. We had sent a letter home to parents stating we were going to discuss stressors and give the students an anonymous survey; in that I had invited questions and parent participation (I never heard from anyone). After a brief intro we handed out questions and pencils.
And this is where the title of the blog comes in. My expectation was that the mood would be somber. That a few youth might cry, or look injured, or feel too uncomfortable to take it. I envisioned spending an hour or 2 cleaning up the ‘mess’ that we made afterward. Boy, was I wrong. After setting the ground rules – this was anonymous, they had to sit far enough apart that there was no chance of anyone looking over their shoulders, and that this was an optional activity – indeed each question was optional if it was too uncomfortable – they took it with ease. And chattered away as they finished, one by one. It was too good to be true. Dare I say it was almost anti-climatic?
So afterward debrief we did. I asked the whole group – was it painful or uncomfortable to answer these? A resounding no. Did they feel like they could really answer these questions truthfully? A resounding yes. Did they feel safe enough to share now in smaller groups? Absolutely yes. We broke out into 5 groups, one staff at each, and asked whether some types of questions stood out from others. And whether this was bringing up painful memories. And did they have any questions. My group said they were surprised at a number of the questions (like parents swearing at them) because as far as they knew, that happened in every home. And the gun questions – they snickered! One student described reaching under the sofa for something dropped and pulling out a gun. Another made fun of her grandmother’s little pistol. There was curiosity about why smoking weed (it’s weed, Ms. Becky, not pot!) and drinking alcohol were of concern. Because both are standard at a ‘house’ party – apparently parties that go on in neighborhoods and you pay to go to – and both take all concerns away. “Where are your parents????” the mom in me just can’t hold in. One young woman says, “My mother is there too! She hangs out in the kitchen and doesn’t get too concerned about what I am doing.”
The first quote of the blog was in response to the question, “Do you feel like your neighborhood is unsafe?” After telling me that hearing gun shots is the norm – “my grandmother just goes to the window and looks out”; “people don’t even care when someone is shot in our neighborhood” – they admitted feeling defensive about their homes. Because they feel very comfortable walking around where they’ve grown up. Where they know everyone and know how to act, know what to expect.
We ended out time together with Karie leading a Sources of Strength game (see previous posts) – which was fun and energetic. They had a blast – the room was filled with laughter. As we closed I sincerely thanked them for their participation and openness. And what came back to me was thankfulness and appreciation. I will no longer fear asking the hard questions. And I plan on spreading the word that others shouldn’t either.