Marching On

Before Parkland, these Brooklyn teens were already battling gun violence — and now they’re headed to D.C.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Aaliyha Johnson, a sophomore, works to prevent gun violence in her neighborhood through the organization YO S.O.S.

Hours after more than 100,000 New York City students walked out of their schools to protest gun violence, Hernan Davis stepped into the basement of a Crown Heights storefront.

There, he joined a group of about a dozen other teens as they dug back into work that they’ve been tackling since long before last month’s Parkland, Florida, school shooting launched a national student-led movement for stricter gun laws.

“We don’t fear school shootings here,” said Davis, a senior at STAR Early College School. “We’re worried about walking down the street.”

Davis belongs to Youth Organizing to Save our Streets, a program run by the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center since 2011. The organization trains teens who have been touched by gun violence to become community organizers — in the hopes of preventing more loss and hurt. Based in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, other groups do similar work across Brooklyn and the Bronx with adults.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Hernan Davis, a member of YO S.O.S. said students “need to know people listen” if schools want to help prevent gun violence.

As part of its after-school programming, high school students meet twice a week to work with professional artists on original rap songs and performance pieces. They train to become peer mediators, plan community events, and recognize trauma in their own lives that, over time, may grow to seem normal.

Whenever there is a shooting, the teens also join the adult-led branch of S.O.S in a neighborhood response, rallying to allow people to share their concerns about gun violence and call for change.

“If you do grow up around violence, it can be easy to get used to it. You go numb,” said Heather Day, who leads youth programs for the organization. “But when people come to YO S.O.S., we do try to create a space where we can actually talk about what you’ve been seeing, maybe start feeling some of that hurt again, but also feel empowered to do something about it.”

The YO S.O.S teens hope to harness the national attention currently heaped on young people fighting gun violence to grow support for their own recommendations for change. They say reform is needed within schools to help keep students safe there — and on the streets.

Among their proposals: training for school staff to recognize how exposure to violence can affect learning and behavior in school, lessons on how to de-escalate potential conflicts, and mediation instead of harsh punishment when problems do arise. The changes they’d like to see fall in line with broader advocacy efforts to change the way students are disciplined and the use of metal detectors in schools — both issues that students raised in a recent town hall organized by Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to the Parkland shooting.

“Schools should make children feel like they always have a place to go, to talk to someone,” said Aaliyha Johnson, a sophomore at John Jay School for Law. “They should build bonds with the kids.”

As they continue their work close to home, YO S.O.S. also wants to join the country’s youth in their push to reduce gun violence. The group is trying to raise $10,000 to travel to Washington, D.C. for the March for Our Lives on March 24. The money would go towards food and travel expenses for about 30 teens, and also help fund paid internships to give teens more of a leading role in the organization.

“This is like the golden age for our generation,” said Cassandra Simpson, a sophomore at Brooklyn High School of the Arts and a member of YO S.O.S. “We’re expressing how we feel and we have a voice.”

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.