This past week, our global community was riveted with the plight and heart-warming saga of the Thai boy’s soccer team and their coach, as a multi-national rescue effort overcame substantial odds to bring the young men to safety. The rescue effort required traversing through the darkness of flooded cave waters, a danger-filled labyrinthine passage, and overcoming a lack of oxygen in order to succeed.
While the rescued boys were recuperating in a nearby community hospital a couple days ago, I had the opportunity to visit a partner-grantee organization in Richmond, California, called RYSE. I joined the members of my President’s Youth Council there for the day-long visit. The President’s Youth Council, or PYC, consists of 14 young Californians – all of them are young people of color or LGBT youth – who advise me on matters of community wellness, youth engagement and programmatic strategy. While it’s terrific to have access to the best data and research reports available about the health challenges faced by young people from economically distressed communities, there is no better expert to learn from than a 20-year old – one who has witnessed gang violence, or has had a parent deported by immigration officials, or has been stigmatized at school because of his or her sexual orientation.
The PYC recently authored a report to me and our Board of Directors, advising us on how we should strategically consider the next decade of The California Endowment’s work. The link to the PYC report is provided here. In the coming months, our Board of Directors are considering this and other community feedback reports as we delve deeper into the strategic planning effort.
The PYC report on strategies to improve the health and wellness of California’s young people was perfectly timed with our visit to RYSE. RYSE has recently reached their ten-year milestone in operation, and the organization puts the “grass” in “grassroots.” Their facility is quite dated and is no architectural beauty, but it is a beacon of hope to hundreds of young people – mostly young people of color – whose well-being is challenged by community violence, a lack of economic opportunity, decades of structural racism and oppression, hopelessness, and a society who views them as somewhere between disposable and a threat.
Members of the President’s Youth Council and RYSE staff at RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, CA.
The staff at RYSE meet young people where they are, and fully accepts them for who they are – whether the young person shows up at the front door lost, angry, marginalized, ignored, stigmatized, creative, impassioned, or curious. There is a strong emphasis on the use of the arts and artistic expression to engage, build trust, and provide hope. There are few rules, and no judgment imposed on the young person. A safe space leads to trust, trust leads to engagement, engagement leads to expression, and expression becomes leadership and transformation. Their incredible executive director and co-founder, Kimberly Aceves, ascribes RYSE’s success to being utterly driven and guided by the young people they serve. Humility, listening, and cooperation are the dominant themes we heard that day.
The issues raised by my Youth Council in their report were concretely evident in the RYSE program. Provide traumatized young people with “safe spaces” to belong, engage, connect, see hope, and become civic activists for positive community change. The path to community well-being goes through the engaged leadership of our young people.
I was intrigued, in reading through the media reports of the extraordinary cave rescue of the soccer team, about preparation efforts for the young people whose lives were at risk: oxygen tanks positioned along the cave’s path; a “buddy system” devised to help each young person; guide wires and ropes providing navigational support. But one expert rescue diver also cautioned that it gets quite dark and scary when swimming through portions of the cave route – all you can do when it gets that dark is to realize that you are not alone, and muster up the courage to “keep swimming.”
Last week’s rescue effort in Thailand was extraordinary. But while I was attending church service this Sunday, I offered a quiet prayer of thanks and recognition for the less visible, but no less heroic community organizations – like RYSE — who meet young people who are weathering a great deal of hopelessness, injustice, systemic and structural oppression and stigmatization, and engage them where they are. They provide the equivalent of oxygen tanks and guide ropes for their journey towards hope, and positive social action. These young people have so much to offer our society in terms of their energy, creativity, and resolve.
But sometimes, these young people need to be reminded: when it gets dark, keep swimming – we are here with you.
RYSE has embarked on a capital fundraising campaign to enlarge and modernize their facility in Richmond, a project called the RYSE Commons. To donate or learn more, go to firstname.lastname@example.org