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Labeling kids 'at risk' discounts their potential

When The Baltimore Sun recently acknowledged that the Greenmount West Community Center (GWCC) is the best community center in Baltimore, yet described our young people as “at risk,” I paused to really consider “risk” and how adults and those with power see –– well, really refuse to see –– young people.

At Greenmount West Community Center, we love our young people. We value who they are today and work to support them in achieving their dreams as they develop. Our work, however, is not without the same challenges endemic to anyone who works with black youth in a city in crisis — the kind that will impact families and communities for generations to come.

One recent example of what we’re up against: One of our brilliant young people was recently forced from their home because of rising rent. Gentrification and economic stagnation exiled an engaged family from the community they called home for at least two generations.

Does this transition make this young person “at risk”? Do the conditions of the city make their existence risky?

“At risk” is a tricky term when talking about young people. Many educators and youth workers know that youth in precarious or unstable environments are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors that have harmful life outcomes. But this does not take into account the full breadth and depth of how risk develops.

When youth are born and reared in communities that lack basic resources like clean water, quality schools, accessible and nutritious food, safety, quality jobs and environmental justice, communities as a whole are the risk.

In Baltimore City in 2015, almost 40 percent of children had at least 5 micrograms –– or near-lethal levels –– of lead in their system. This is the kind of the systemic barrier that we as a community center are up against as we support young people in Baltimore.

It’s also an example of why the term “at risk” doesn’t do our young people — or young people, period — justice.

I co-founded GWCC in 2017 because the community that I call home mandated that there be a space where families could feel safe and children could be nurtured in the midst of pandemic gentrification, push out and city-facilitated blight. Through partnerships with institutions like Noisy Tenants, Open Works and the Baltimore Museum of Art, we built a space where young people, their families and our community could flourish and thrive.

As a longtime educator and former principal, my belief that children –– especially black children –– deserve care, dignity and to have their gifts recognized and developed in ways that truly affirm them is at the core of how Greenmount West Community Center operates. However, while my staff and I may be intentional and innovative about how we approach youth development, none of our efforts negate the conditions that shape the lives of our young people.

When young people are labeled “at risk” for no more reason than they exist in a certain space and time with a particular skin color, it reinforces so many negative stereotypes about who they are and what they are capable of achieving. “At risk” isn’t a benign moniker, it’s a statement that facilitates our inhumane treatment of young, often black and brown, people.

When I see young people in Greenmount West, and on the east and west sides of the city, I see young people trying to make their best effort in a system and city that is failing them.

What if our city was fully committed to investing in keeping families housed and fed? What if our city prioritized counseling for young people impacted by harm and violence in their communities? What if youth had clean water and living conditions free from lead and other environmental toxins? Those visions are well within our reach, but a single community center cannot combat those systemic injustices.

Our city must equitably invest in the infinite potential of our brilliant, powerful and deserving young people. But until then, we will continue to offer a space where youth can be affirmed and develop into their best selves.

And we all must retire the phrase “at risk” for a generation of young people whose promise glows and grows despite their environmental challenges.

Kisha L. Webster co-founded the Greenmount West Community Center; her email is iamkishalwebster@gmail.com.

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