December 12, 2018

From Carmen Flores, Youth Program Manager

When the opportunity arose to share a part of my life experiences on this platform I hesitantly said yes. As I began thinking about what I would write, I was annoyed with myself for agreeing because what could I say that would be of interest to an intellectual audience? What could I share of value as a non-profit Spanish speaking immigrant employee, associate degree holder, and thirtysomething brown mother of three? What? In my moments of frustration and deep thought, I came to a realization; as a Mexican born, Portland raised, Latinx women I had never been given this type of platform and freedom to share MY experience. Much less to be told that my experience was of value and interest to someone else. I realized that my voice was only allowed to be heard in spaces that were coordinated and controlled by others and consciously or unconsciously, I knew that my true voice should not always be heard in these spaces. I also realized that this invisible barrier was one I had been carrying around since I could remember.

Finding My Voice

In my moments of self-reflection and thoughts of my work with youth today, the voice for this blog post came to me.With my own students in mind, I asked, how many of them may feel the same. At what point do we as students experience loss of worth and validation of our voice? Though we can’t fully answer these questions, I hope that in sharing thoughts and stories we can identify our place in this social narrative and push for change in action.

For over 15 years, I have had the pleasure of working within the same community in an educational setting. It is a very diverse community with about 75% students of color and more than eight languages spoken. During my time here, I have shared many moments of joy and sorrow. From graduation, college, and fear of deportation to problems with the law, domestic violence, and loss of student peers. At some point, for many of our students, the school became their safe place. The place to go to when dealing with the prior mentioned situations. I saw our students returning for comfort or to share their grief. At times, these situations could be overwhelming. The most difficult being the loss of their friends. To see so many of “my kids” grieving and heartbroken at such a young age and me not being able to fix it, left me feeling hopeless. All I could do is sit with them, listen, and sometimes even cry with them.

Validating Their Voice

As I prepared this essay, I reached out to former students, now in high school, and asked them what made them want to come back to visit or to volunteer? They said it was a place to reminisce and think of good times. Another said, “I started visiting before I became a student, I just can’t leave where I grew up and all the memories I’ve had there.”  Lastly one said, “It reminds me where I come from, how much I have grown as a person, and how I can help and give back to the school and the community.” In reading their responses, the first thought is that they cared for their former school and community. During their time here, they felt heard and were able to make connections with adults in the building. This is not the case for all former students. Some students never return because of the negative experiences lived between these walls. The idea of unfairness, not being heard, and constant ramifications left some students feeling unloved and unwelcome.

Push for Action

As adults working with youth, it is necessary that we validate all voices and experiences of our students. I truly believe that the socio-emotional impact that our k-12 experience has in our lives is not acknowledged enough. Even more, not addressed as a priority in order to achieve student success. For example, as an adult in any job, could you preform optimally if you were worried about your sick mother, stressing over how you were paying your bills for the month, or feeling sick and knowing you couldn’t afford a doctor? I am sure that your performance would not be your best. This is the same with our students; we cannot expect our students to be 100% focused and ready for learning when many students carry these stressors. We must not forget that they are children and our responsibility as a constant presence in their life is to help them manage and express these experiences. Our most vulnerable students are facing additional challenges that then can make learning more challenging. As adults working with youth we CANNOT underestimate the impact our words and interactions have with our students. These are words and moments they will carry into adulthood. This isn’t always about solving because that is not always possible, but what it is about is validating these experiences. This means that we recognize and accept their thoughts and feelings. That they know we understand them.

As Dr. Chris Emdin said, “When teachers see students like they see themselves, they see the best in students.” Let us all be pillars of change and meet our students where they are because acknowledging our place in the narrative allows room for change.