All youth deserve to be heard. They provide valuable information about their thoughts, their needs, their struggles, and their dreams. If we listen carefully enough, we can incorporate their ideas into improving our schools, programs, and communities. But what happens when that voice is hidden or comes in another language? Do we stop listening? Do we ignore it altogether?Recent census numbers show that the Latino population in Washington DC is growing consistently and significantly, currently representing 9.1% of the population. This reflects an increase of nearly 22% from 2000, and is expected to continue growing at a rapid pace. While some of this is due to immigration trends, many of these new Latinos are US born-youth and children, who are growing up to face the same economic and social challenges that other urban communities of color face. Yet, when it comes to Latino youth, there is often a huge information gap, and as a result, their voice is stifled.
Despite this growth, Latino youth are often seen as an elusive population, prone to under-counting and not widely represented in studies and reports. Over the last 9 years as I have worked as a social worker serving these youth and families in DC, I have stopped to ask myself "why?" Why are Latino youth living in the community not being counted? Why are their voices not heard? What can we do to seek out and listen to the Latino youth voice?
Released in October, the DCAYA report Connecting Youth to Opportunity: Better Understanding Disconnected Young People in Washington, DC, made an interesting breakthrough. Approximately 26% of the youth participants in the DCAYA study identified as being Hispanic or Latino. Why is this significant? It demonstrates that this is not an issue that only impacts the communities “east of the river” but that neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Petworth also contain high numbers of disconnected youth. But quite simply, it reveals how Latino youth have been consistently underrepresented in previous studies leaving them without the advocacy needed to support them. Young people in Washington DC continue to battle poverty, homelessness, violence, unplanned pregnancy, trauma, and lack of educational and employment opportunities. Latino youth are not immune to these problems, yet we often don’t hear about their experiences, their stories of struggle and triumph.
There are numerous possible factors that contribute to this missing voice and under-counting, including fear of interaction with government or those perceived to be linked to government. Although they are US-born, Latino youth may have family members who are undocumented, and that is enough to silence them. Community based organizations like the Latin AmericanYouth Center, Mary’s Center, La Clinica del Pueblo, and Carecen have worked hard to establish trust with Latino families and youth. At the Latin American Youth Center, we make every effort to amplify that youth voice, and have tasked ourselves with the challenge to better serve their needs, but this issue is so much bigger than us. By reaching out the community as DCAYA did, valuable information from Latino youth was included in their results and recommendations. All across the 8 wards of the District, organizations are working with Latino youth, and we need them all to listen carefully and contribute to the conversation. It is incumbent upon us as service providers, youth advocates, and government entities, to seek out the Latino youth voice, partner with community organizations, and make sure that all residents of the District are counted and heard. We need to listen carefully, because Latino youth have a lot to say.
Susana Martinez is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who has worked with Latino communities in Texas and Washington, DC, and has expertise in providing clinical and case management services to immigrant families, victims of domestic violence, and youth and families within the child abuse and neglect system.