Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Surviving and Thriving in Hard Times

As a couple of friends and I cruised down an alley to find a spot to kick back and smoke a joint, we saw a head with long blond hair pop up from a dumpster. In front of the dumpster was an old 10-speed that had been put together piece by piece. Every piece on the bike was a different color. Someone said, “Oh! It’s only one of those dumpster divers.” Then I realized that it was my mother. I told my friends, “Hey! That’s my mom. Turn around!”

My friends knew my mom was homeless, so they said, “Cool. Maybe she’ll smoke a joint with us!” So we turned around. Now, it had been about two and a half months since I last saw or heard from her. I went through the whole, “Hey! Long time, no see” bit. After the small talk, I realized there was not much else to say. We sparked up a joint and offered it to her. She said, “Geez! That’s a big joint!” Then she told me how she didn’t feel like it because she was too amped.

My mom is a speed addict. Whenever she has money it almost always goes for drugs. Once in a while, she gets a motel room but that never lasts long because the drugs run out and so does the money. My mother is also a dumpster diver. She digs in dumpsters for food, clothes, things to recycle and anything else she can find. On Christmas I got a bag filled with a fluorescent pink Frisbee, silver rings, a plastic watch and other fun things. All of this stuff came from dumpsters. But I don’t care because I love her and it’s the thought that counts. To prove it, I wear all the rings and sometimes even the watch.

The writer was 16-year-old Julie Smit, whose moving story of her mother’s 15-year addiction to drugs and homelessness appeared in L.A. Youth in 1994.

This wasn’t the kind of story found in a traditional high school newspaper.

High school journalism has been losing ground since the 1970s due to education budget cuts. The student press was dealt another blow in 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that administrators had the right to censor articles intended for publication in school newspapers.

On January 11, 1988 I decided to start a teen newspaper. With no money, no office space or even a computer, I gathered a dozen high school youngsters and told them we are going to put out a newspaper they could call their own. I appointed myself publisher, editor, head fundraiser and chief delivery person.

In our first year, we published two issues, circulation 2,500. Twenty-two years later we are publishing six issues annually and circulating 70,000 copies. We distribute the paper, free, to 1,300 teachers in middle and senior high schools throughout greater Los Angeles.

L.A. Youth’s mission is to fill at least some of the gap created by the demise of the student press. We offer teens a haven, a place where they’re encouraged to express their opinions. But I also want the paper to continually remind policy makers of the plight of kids who are marginalized in foster care and elsewhere. And I want to make mainstream media aware of kids who live with trauma and violence on a daily basis.

In their private lives teens write lively, expressive thoughts every day. They scribble in diaries or share their innermost secrets with friends and strangers by posting them on blogs, MySpace and Facebook. Some of the pieces we publish, like Jessica Bernstein’s account of her nose job, require an amazing degree of self-confidence. Jessica interviewed her plastic surgeon and posed for before-and-after photographs. Sherry Lee, in a piece entitled “My So-Called Boobs,” wrote good-naturedly about the advantages of small breasts: she could hug people close to her, run around without a bra and sleep face down! They’re definitely L.A. Youth originals.

Marvin Novelo decided that he wanted to write about being gay:

When seventh grade began and I was 12 years old, I was very much aware that I was gay. It was the little things, such as how I felt when I saw guys in the locker room. I resented being gay and I wanted to think it was a phase I would grow out of. In church, my pastor would explain how homosexuality is an “abomination of nature, the sin that is the worst next to murder.”

At Byrd Middle School the motto should have been, “No fags allowed.” People were yelling, “Look! That guy’s a queer!”

Toward the end of ninth grade, I was jumped on the way home by a group of boys who kicked me in the stomach and head. No one helped me.

The role of adult editors is to coach and nurture the young talents at L.A. Youth, to recognize the value of their ideas and guide each through weeks or months of writing and re-writing until a compelling story emerges. It can be a slow, arduous journey, the teen writer sitting side-by-side with an editor, carefully scrolling through paragraphs on a computer screen and then trying to make them better. A few stories have taken up to a year before they’re ready for publication. But I tell myself it is worth the wait; after all, it takes courage to write something that you know thousands of readers will be judging.

L.A. Youth tilts strongly toward personal journalism. But we don’t avoid controversy and we are proud of the investigative articles that our young writers have produced over the years.

Some of our investigations result from a concern that when awful things happen to teens, almost no one seems to pay attention. Teen staffers Jennifer Clark and Katrina Gibson began one such project by prowling through records at the Los Angeles County Coroner's office. Their assignment was to reconstruct the lives of young people killed by violence during a one-month period in the county.

We knew that most would be homicide victims, their lives ended early by guns and knives in gang initiations, scuffles with police, drive-by shootings and so on. L.A. Youth would try to put faces on some of the victims, whose deaths generally went unnoticed by the outside community.

Morgue records yielded home addresses and next of kin information for the victims. Jennifer and Katrina sent off letters to parents or other survivors, asking for photos of the teens and anecdotes about their lives. We would publish their obituaries.

As our readership expanded and our journalism got better, we made a concerted effort to reach the neediest teens. We had to build relationships with three overlooked groups:

--Young people living on the streets. They lived with trauma and violence on a daily basis, often selling themselves into prostitution and becoming addicted to drugs. They were so marginalized that no one gave them a second thought.

--The hundreds of foster care children moving in and out of group homes or other shelters. Most were refugees from abusive or broken families. Some were so emotionally scarred that they retreated into silence.

--Teens afflicted with various mental disorders. The lucky ones had parents able to afford therapy, medications and special schooling. Others, including those who found themselves on the streets or funneled into foster care, might or might not receive appropriate treatment.

We set out to find writers in the three groups whose first-person stories would convey the reality of their lives. Our intent was to influence policy makers with the power to improve services for these teens, and to remind the mainstream media that they existed.

Our teen writers walk in the door questioning adult assumptions and stay long enough to challenge our values with their honest and sometimes brutal writing. Here is what resulted when they decided to create “The Teen Commandments: 10 Things We Hate About Mom and Dad (and how to change them)”:

--Have meals with us at least once a week. Talk instead of watching TV or reading during the meal.
--Don’t compare us with other people. Don’t say, “Why can’t you get A’s like your sister?”
--Don’t pretend to be a teenager. It’s weird when parents use teen slang or try to dress like us. You don’t have to act like us to communicate with us.
--Tell us the reasons for the rules you set.
--Don’t tell us how our lives will turn out. We have to figure some things out by ourselves.
--Respect us as we are. ‘Don’t insult our likes and dislikes. Show some interest in the things we like.
--Listen to us instead of lecturing.
--Suggest activities we can do together, but don’t force anyone.
--Encourage us in our activities, but don’t put too much pressure on us if we don’t win.
--Look at us and tell us that you love us.

These kids don’t pull punches no matter what the Supreme Court decided.


1 comment:

  1. Congratulations Donna! It's amazing how time flies!

    -Howard Chang