Freechild, Race, Economics, and Identity

Did I mention I’m from a ‘hood? Growing up as a poor white kid in a poor and working class neighborhood was a powerful experience, and I am committed to spending the rest of my life learning from the experiences I had as a young person, and as an adult who had that experience as a young person.

That much said, I get called out every then and again for my advocacy for low-income youth and youth of color’s participation throughout our communities. I believe this is often weighed at me because I am a white guy who talks with white people a lot. As I continue to learn about anti-oppression from a variety of people, I continue to believe that its the responsibility of every white person who considers themselves to be an ally to people of color to advocate to other white people. Today that is one of the assumptions that informs my personal and professional behavior.

There are many assumptions behind The Freechild Project, informed by my experiences and those of the people who I worked with to create the Project. One of our shared assumption is this: All young people are denied the right to participate throughout society. Young people of color and low-income children and youth are particularly disenfranchised, throughout US history as well as in the present.

The Freechild website does not aim to single out those particular identities, although we do call out the advocacy that many disenfrachised youth are engaged in. Generally I believe that identifying “Black Youth Advocacy” or “Poor Youth Advocacy” would be tokenistic. So many so-called social justice orgs conduct advocacy for young people of color and low-income youth, and stand upon those mantles as if the young people they worked with had no self-concept of who they are beyond their race or economic status. That is problematic because the youth in those organizations generally do not have an opportunity to self-identify, as many youth in many low-income communities and communities of color have limited or no exposure to the possibilities of identity beyond mass media, and unfortunately, the limited perspective of the orgs that aim to serve them. The challenge of those images is so well defined by Black Star, Mike Males, and Dave Chapelle (in a humorous way) that I don’t need to expand on it.

However, I do want to point out a major dilemma: The lack of exposure many youth of color and low-income youth have to the possibilities of self-identity is actually exacerbated by youth programs, in each of the realms of intervention, youth development, and youth empowerment. So many youth workers in these positions do not identify themselves as being from those communities in the first place, either because they are not, or because they feel they have rose above their communities. Consequently, and usually inadvertantly, these folks actually perpetuate the negative perceptions of the young people they believe they are doing justice to.

Through Freechild I have sought to devise an integrative approach to community-building that focuses on developing partnerships and equity among young people and adults, with particular regard for the communities they live in and the issues they face. That takes the form of our lists of issues and activities that address the broadest range of interests of the communities we seek to serve – “individuals who have been historically denied the right to participate.” Those lists do focus on young people of color and low-income youth, without specifically calling those identities out.

Consequently, I hope that white youth and youth from middle and upper income communities attach to the website as well. That allows me to promote Dr. King’s message of community-building through interdependence, which I have learned so much about from young people, Dr. King, and other folks reflecting on those lessons.

This is a reflection based on a question from Latoya Barnes, at Northeastern Illinois University. Thanks for writing Latoya – I hope this answers the question a little better.

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