Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Mother's Plea for Play

Guest blogger Kanya Shabazz is the program director for Playworks DC, one of DCAYA's newest members. 

As a mother of two African-American boys, I am deeply affected by events that have led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We have reached a tipping point….finally. For too many years, I have wondered how many lives it will take before we say enough; before we examine the institutions that make our children feel unsafe, not valued, and not heard. This goes beyond our criminal justice system.

I have worked with school districts in California, New York and now Washington, DC. In every city, I have witnessed acts of micro aggression against troubled youth within school systems. In the District, underperforming schools facing increased pressures to improve academic performance are also issuing an increased number of disciplinary referrals. In elementary schools, students are spending longer hours in academic blocks with fewer opportunities for unstructured time. When students have an opportunity for unstructured time, typically recess, students with behavioral challenges create an environment that is unsafe and exclusionary. In our toughest schools, principals may opt to forfeit recess time all together, meanwhile studies show that play is an essential part of a child’s development.

Schools partner with Playworks to transform recess and play into positive experiences that help kids and teachers get the most out of every learning opportunity. A qualified youth development professional facilitates safe, meaningful play where every kid has fun and contributes to creating an inclusive environment.

Take seven year old *Chris* for example.

When Chris came to the West Education Campus as a brand new second grader, he began acclimating himself to his new surrounding by arguing and fighting with his classmates. Chris’ teacher would often take away recess minutes as a consequence for his behavioral challenges in the classroom. Coach Bridge, a Playworks Program Coordinator, who has facilitated structured recess at West Education for two years, took this disciplinary measure as an opportunity. When Chris was restricted from play at recess, Coach Bridge would have Chris think about rules to make games more fun and fair. After recess, Coach Bridge would meet with Chris and discuss his day while also setting goals for better behavior in the classroom and during recess. Last week Chris approached Coach Bridge:
“You know Coach Bridge, I’m not getting into as many fights as usual.”
“Chris, you’re so right? What changed?”
“Recess is way more fun when I don’t fight as much.”
This is the self reflection Playworks Coaches work to cultivate in students every day.
In every Playworks school, there is a percentage of marginalized youth who have a significant history of aggressive behavior. When antisocial, aggressive behavior can become a death sentence for our youth, interventions that focus on developing pro-social skills (independent conflict resolution, positive language, and behavior and inclusion) are more important than ever. Playworks Coaches reach every child, especially those who struggle most with behavioral issues. Our evidence-based curriculum partner’s youth with young adult advocates who believe that play can bring the best out of every child.

Photo courtesy of Playworks DC

Kanya Shabazz's favorite recess games are double dutch and four square. Learn more about Playworks and how you can be involved here:

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Support #DiplomaBound Youth

Big news for alternative education learners and GED recipients! 

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has proposed regulations that would amend current District graduation requirements. The regulations would allow local education agencies (LEAs) to offer competency based credits toward graduation with OSSE approval. OSSE also added new language to create a Superintendent’s Diploma for youth who demonstrate mastery of high school competencies by passing the General Education Development (GED), National External Diploma Program (NEDP), or achieve mastery through homeschooling. Now the State Board of Education must vote to approve these proposed regulations at their monthly meeting on December 17th.

Why is this great news?
Think about some of the barriers disconnected youth face when trying to go back to school to receive a traditional diploma.
  • A young person may be very competent in a subject matter, yet lack traditional, in-seat credits to prove it, preventing them from earning a degree in a timely manner. 
  • Traditional high schools offer less flexibility in scheduling, a particular barrier for young parents or young people who feel a financial pressure to help support their families. 
  • If youth are over 21, they can no longer attend traditional high schools, leaving them with limited educational options. 
Preparing for, and passing the GED is a critical alternative option. 
While the GED became much more rigorous in 2013, as reflected in its alignment to the Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, the test is still seen by some employers as an “easy way out” of mastering high school skills. This perception puts GED recipients at an even greater disadvantage when applying for jobs even though passing the GED and achieving a high school diploma demonstrates comparable mastery of the same core competencies. This perception has led to staggering inequities for GED students in terms of employability and earning power. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, GED certificate holders had significantly lower earnings ($3,100 per month) than those who earned a traditional high school diploma ($4,700 per month) regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or age.

So what will the proposed regulations do for DC youth?
By allowing local education agencies to offer competency based credits, young people can prove mastery in a subject, even if they have failed the course in the past. Competency based credits are particularly important for youth nearing their 21st birthday who need to accrue credits quickly before they age out of traditional education options, as they might not have time to accrue credits based on seat-time. Competency based education is based off of a student’s actual knowledge of a subject matter rather than the number of hours they were sitting in a classroom.

By issuing a Superintendent’s Diploma upon completing the GED, students have an alternative pathway to receiving a state-issued diploma which proves their high school competency. This diploma would open doors for the over 7,500 youth (ages 16 – 24) in DC who are not currently enrolled in school or other educational programs.

And DC is not alone in this practice, 31 states provide either a traditional state diploma or an equivalency diploma upon students passing the GED. This includes our neighbor to the north, Maryland, which offers a state-issued diploma for GED attainment. As a result, District youth are currently at a disadvantage in the regional labor market. Employers considering a candidate from Maryland see a state issued diploma on their resume, while a candidate from the District may only claim GED attainment on their resume. Though both candidates have demonstrated the same mastery of the same concepts, studies show that preference is often given to the diploma holder.

How can we ensure these regulations become District policy?
On December 17th, the State Board of Education (SBOE) will vote to approve these proposed regulations, and we need your help! Here are some things you can do to ensure the SBOE supports these critical steps towards rigorous, yet flexible, educational pathways that acknowledge the unique needs of disconnected youth and adult learners: 
Tweet and/or email this blog to current board members to voice your support of the proposed regulations. 
Remember to use the hashtag #DiplomaBound so the conversation is loud and clear on Twitter.

View SBOE emails, twitter handles, and sample tweets.

Together, we can make sure DC creates educational pathways so all hard working residents can be #DiplomaBound and economically stable. Ask the SBOE to vote “YES” on OSSE’s proposed regulations to amend current District graduation requirements.

Follow our disconnected youth & youth workforce development policy analyst Amy Dudas at @amy_dudas and @DCAYA on twitter to stay updated on the progress of these proposals. 

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Reflecting on the Past Year

Holiday Letter from the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates executive director, Maggie Riden.

The holiday season and start to a new year is a natural time of reflection, a time of pause where we recall the poignant moments of the past twelve months. Where we mourn our losses, but also celebrate our successes. As a family of passionate youth advocates, we have a little of both.

Our losses this year are still, for many, very fresh. Marion Barry was a passionate advocate. He was a powerful presence and in many ways, the original youth champion. His belief in the power of the people, and his work to give every DC resident a voice is unparalleled. The disappearance of Relisha Rudd continues to be a loss that reverberates throughout our community. It’s an echo of sadness that, for those closest to her, will never cease. The tragedy in Ferguson, the death of Michael Brown and subsequent community conflict has become a stark reminder that as a nation we have much work to do in addressing race, equity and equality. It’s important to acknowledge these moments.

It’s equally important to recognize that tragedy and crisis are fertile ground for profound and positive change.

That potential is what I think about when I think about the DCAYA family.

  • Young people like Charmia, Kyrina, Boogie and Jorge: Their willingness to speak truth to power and their belief in not only themselves, but their peers, reminds me of the power inherent in each young person when they’re given room to grow and thrive. 
  • The staff working with youth at our member organizations: The unsung heroes who are helping youth find their passion and their voice as they navigate the path to adulthood. Their commitment is a reminder of just how critical a positive role model or mentor is in nurturing the life of a young person. 
  • Our fellow advocates: Those ardent individuals who never hesitate to discuss the difficult issues, who are the first to bring a solution to the table. Their work to cultivate creative solutions and refusal to accept mediocrity reminds me each day that big picture change is always possible. 

DCAYA is the tent that brings this diverse array of voices together. We work each and every day to support those future leaders in finding their voice, to highlight the impact our member organizations have on the landscape of our city, and to provide policy makers with proven solutions. Through this collective and coordinated approach, our impact is very real. We are addressing youth and child homelessness with vigor; we are creating quality academic and enrichment opportunities for all young people; and we’ve listened to our youth and are now actively mobilizing agencies, providers and funders to address the barriers young people face when trying to reconnect to school and work.

This isn’t to say our work is done. Know that in the year to come DCAYA will continue to nurture the seeds of change our community has planted. We embrace the challenges 2015 will undoubtedly bring because as a community, as a family of passionate youth advocates, we can face them together head on.

As 2014 comes to a close, look out for an upcoming blog post on DCAYA's 2015 advocacy agenda. Together we can advocate for a truly Youth-Friendly DC.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Reduce Family Homelessness, DC Needs to Focus on Young Parents

Photo taken by Tina Dela Rosa of Charmia Carolina and her child.
We end our Youth Homelessness Awareness Month blog series with a guest post from policy analyst Kate Coventry of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

According to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, 661 families applied for shelter during the FY2013 Hypothermia Season and the number is predicted to grow to 820 families during FY2015. Of those families experiencing homelessness, nearly half are headed by a parent 24 years or younger.

An increasing number of DC’s homeless families are young, with a parent 24 years old or younger. These families face unique challenges, because the parents often lack a high school diploma or GED, have limited work experience, and have never had their own home. Addressing the huge increase in family homelessness in DC will require focusing on these families.

No one knows exactly why this is happening, but a clear factor is DC’s uneven economic recovery that has left many residents, including young people, behind. Young workers face a 16 percent unemployment rate, nearly double that of older workers. And wages have fallen since 2008 for residents other than those with a college degree. These worsening job realities and DC’s increasing lack of affordable housing undoubtedly are making it difficult for young families to make ends meet.

Other cities are finding that young parents need tailored services. Like the District, Hennepin County (Minneapolis), helps most families exit shelter with Rapid Re-housing, a program that combines rental assistance and case management for generally up to 12 months. But because they found the program does not work well for youth-headed households, they are piloting a program with more intensive case management, life skills training, and education on how to support their child’s development. Additionally, young families can remain in the program for up to 24 months.

It is likely that young families in the District also need special help. Yet it is not clear what added interventions are needed, because the city has not done much to assess the circumstances of youth-headed homeless families. In April, a coalition of community organizations, including DCAYA and DCFPI, recommended that DC release data on the Rapid Re-housing outcomes for young parents, but this still has not happened.

As the District takes more steps to reduce family homelessness, we recommend the District do more to understand why so many young families are seeking shelter, and then review its assessment tool and case management services to make sure they are sensitive to the special circumstances of young families.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute conducts research and public education on budget and tax issues in the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents. Kate Coventry is a DCFPI policy analyst who focuses particularly on TANF benefits, Interim Disability Assistance (IDA), and homelessness.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oh SNAP! What can you really buy for $4.15?

Photo found on the USDA webpage "Supplementary Food Assistance Program"

On the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) webpage there is a colorful picture of a mom holding a baby and picking up a red apple with bright green veggies in the background. Under the picture there is a description, “SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.” SNAP, formerly known as the federal Food Stamp Program, is supposed to act as a safety net for financially struggling families who cannot afford food.

Our friends at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project took on the “SNAP Challenge" a week long educational exercise where participants can only spend $4.15* a day on food, simulating a SNAP food budget.

The Playtime Project staff shared with us their reflections during their in-office "SNAP Challenge":

Grocery item #1: Oodles of Noodles, $0.67

I am doing the Food Stamp challenge for lunch this week and was not prepared for how impractical it is to eat lunch for $2.50. I went to the grocery store and looked at a cucumber for some veggies...more than $2.00. I went to the canned bean aisle. Again, most of the beans were more than $2.00! I got the beans thinking I would divide it up for a couple meals with rice. The next morning as I was dashing out the door, I realized I needed to season my bland lunch so I sauteed a slice of onion and bell pepper. If I really wanted to save money, I would have to buy dry beans and bulk to soak them. I don't feel like I have the time and patience to do that now, so how practical is it for single parents in homeless shelters to soak beans and saute vegetables on their way out the door?

As I looked around the store feeling more and more deflated about my options, I could "get" in a more visceral way, how much sense it makes to buy "Oodles of Noodles," chips and soda to keep bellies full. It takes energy and time and creative thinking to cook healthy food on a budget and I could feel myself giving up and giving in to what is more practical for a busy live. It is easy to take for granted how many choices money can buy.
- Jamila Larson, Executive Director and Co-founder

Grocery Item #2: Elbow Macaroni, $2.88

As I think over the past couple of days during the Food Stamp Challenge, I have a greater appreciation for the quality and abundance of food I have been privileged to have over the years. Shopping on $22.50 for the week was difficult. While I usually purchase numerous fresh fruit and vegetables, I realized that on a food stamp budget that just wouldn't be possible. Instead I purchased items that I felt would keep me full for the week. That meant a lot of carbs (with rice and pasta), and canned chili/beans. The items I bought did not provide a lot of diversity for meals, I was going to have rice or noodles for the next week.
- Joel Schwarz, Development Manager 

Grocery Item #3: Dried Bag of Black Beans, $1.72

As a employee for a direct service and advocacy organization working with families experiencing homelessness, I consider myself to be relatively well informed about the diverse and broad issues affecting the homeless population. That being said, participating in the SNAP challenge has given me a greater appreciation for the daily challenges that living in poverty brings. The foods which were most affordable and within my budget for the week were those that required a lot of preparation - a bag of dried beans, rice, pasta, and soup. I am fortunate to live in a house with an appropriate kitchen and 9-5 job that afforded me the time and resources to make those decisions. I'm also a single, young professional without children, whose needs I would also need to meet. It is hard to imagine a family that might have the time and energy to make the same food choices that I had made. Week after week, month after month, it is easy to understand that individuals and families would prioritize getting children to and from school, after school programs, searching for an apartment or job, and other necessary tasks over elaborate meal preparations.

It is no surprise that children who experience homelessness go hungry at 2 times the rate of their housed peers. Obesity and nutritional deficiencies are common among the children we serve, but I find that it is the limited choice in food and nutrition over lack of will that contributes to the problem.
- Kelli Beyer, Communications and Outreach Manager

*SNAP benefits are affected by a person’s income, number of family members, additional assistance benefits, and a variety of other factors that require complex calculation. $4.15 represents the average daily benefit.

This piece is part of our month long blog series for "Homeless Youth Awareness Month." Continue reading to learn more about the challenges homeless youth face in the District. A special thank you to Homeless Children's Playtime Project for sharing their experiences with us during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.  Read the Playtime Project's blog to learn more about their ongoing work to bring healthy play experiences to children experiencing homelessness. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sex for Shelter

Photo Courtesy of Fair Girls 
The following blog is part of the DCAYA Youth Homelessness Awareness Month blog series

People often place homelessness and sex trafficking into two different buckets of vulnerability. In reality, these issues are often one in the same, as homeless children are sexually exploited at an alarmingly high rate. When they do not have a safe place to sleep or trusting adults to turn to, young people are forced to find a way to survive. Many times, the only currency they have to offer are their own bodies. Sometimes adults force or coerce a young person into the sex trade – sometimes their situations do – either way, this form of sexual exploitation is mentally and physically damaging to a minor’s well-being. To add insult to injury, in DC, these minors are arrested and prosecuted for engaging in unlawful sexual behavior; going from one system of control established by a pimp, to another system of control brought on by a police officer.

On November 18, DC Council will vote on a bill to change this practice. The 'Safe Harbor' bill will ensure minors get care, not punishment, when trying to survive on the streets. Below is an excerpt from our one-pager with a FAQs section that addresses common misperceptions about minors and the sex trade.

It is fitting that this bill is being voted on during Youth Homelessness Awareness Month. It is time we stop arresting and prosecuting vulnerable children who need basic necessitates: food, shelter, and a caring adult.

“When I was a kid being sex trafficked, I was threatened with arrest, not refered to services. DC law has to change. Kids shouldn’t be arrested for being sex trafficked or survival sex.”

- Kiana
 College Student, Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls DC 

“Our Safe Harbor law has been a tremendous tool as we combat this horrific crime. With the help of service providers, we focus on the rescue and recovery of young victims caught up in the sex trade.”
 - Anita Alvarez
   State’s Attorney, Cook County, IL

“As a Law Enforcement Officer, it is our sworn duty to    protect the public, and that includes our children who are the most vulnerable.  Safe Harbor laws acknowledge that children, who are not adults, do not have the maturity to give consent to be trafficked.  Safe Harbor laws help us put the real perpetrators in jail.”
- Retired Officer Dan Goldsmith, California State Investigator


Q: What is child sex trafficking and survival sex?

A: The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines a sex trafficking victim as any child under 18 who is engaging in commercial sex acts.  Survival sex occurs when a child engages in sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter, or other basic needs, whether or not they have a pimp. Under the TVPA, minors engaging in survival sex should be treated as trafficking victims.

Q: Isn’t arrest & prosecution a good way for victims to get services?

A: No, instead victims need to be able to voluntarily access services through police referrals — police training on how to do this is included in the bill. A jail cell or a courtroom are not the most effective ways to present services to victims of child sex trafficking. Victims need to have the time and space to commit to accepting services in order for the services to be effective.  As Andrea Powell, Executive Director of Fair Girls says, “we’ve never had any victim tell us no to services … if they are asked correctly.”

Q: But don’t we need to arrest these kids and threaten them with prosecution so they give information about their pimps?

A: No, arresting victims of child sex trafficking will only lead them to distrust, be hostile toward, and withhold information from authorities. When a victim has the opportunity to voluntarily choose services, the young person is more cooperative in a police investigation.


Photo Courtesy of Fair Girls 

Before the vote on Tuesday, November 19th 2014, reach out to DC Councilmembers through their social media channels. View sample tweets and councilmember twitter handles for guidance as we work together to pass this significant and groundbreaking legislation to protect victims of child sex trafficking. 

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Homeless Youth Awareness Month Blog Series

What comes to mind when you think of November?

Sweater season, warm apple cider, the crackling of a bonfire in a backyard, the smell of Thanksgiving dinner wafting through a home with the sound of family in the background …

For me, many warm memories come to mind when I think about the season.

However, November is also National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a potent reminder of the stark realities our DC youth face.

This time last year, DCAYA released a Bold Strategy to End Youth Homelessness. The Bold Strategy was created in collaboration with Covenant House DC, Latin American Youth Center, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, StandUp for Kids DC, Wanda Alston Foundation, and the Washington Interfaith Network. The strategy offered a holistic solution to solving the varied problems which lead youth to becoming trapped in the cycle of homelessness.

Thanks to the ongoing dedication of DCAYA’s community of advocates, the Bold Strategy was adopted by the DC Council, written into legislation, and passed as the Homeless Youth Amendment Act. Unfortunately, the legislation did not receive adequate funding to meet all of the intended initiatives.

Where does this leave DC’s homeless young people?

For Homeless Youth Awareness Month, DCAYA is launching a blog series to address the impact of the DC government underfunding critical resources for homeless youth. Follow the month-long series to understand how a family reunification program, additional street outreach, and other youth-focused services would help stabilize a young person’s life.

While the funding was cut short, what advocates are able to do with the resulting funds is astounding.
  • There are 15 new emergency beds to be available specifically for homeless youth. 
  • Advocates and providers will conduct annual Point-In-Time Studies to gather updated data on youth experiencing homelessness.

So enjoy November. Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner and warm apple cider, but remember your 4,000+ young neighbors who are struggling to find a safe place to sleep or a warm dinner to fill their bellies. Together, as a community, we need DC to fully fund life-saving resources for homeless youth.


Maggie Riden
Executive Director of DCAYA

Click to donate to DCAYA’s advocacy efforts to end youth homelessness.

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As Hypothermia Season is upon us, we want to remind everyone that if you see anyone outside when it’s 32 degrees or below don’t keep walking, take action and call the Hypothermia Hotline 1 (800) 535-7252. You may end up saving a life.