Thursday, September 25, 2014

Interview with Charmia Carolina - Even In My Bad Days, There's Hope

Photo Courtesy of Tina dela Rosa 
This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate or young person who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today. PURCHASE TICKETS

We met Charmia Carolina when she offered to share her story for the DCAYA short video series “Youth Voices”. Charmia’s powerful presence on camera and honesty in the film brought audience members to tears when her story premiered at the DCAYA report release on disconnected young people.

Now, nearly a year later, we followed up with Charmia to see how her life has evolved after graduating from the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program.

Join Charmia and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration where she will be honored  as an "Emerging Leader," for sharing her story to better the local community. 

It’s been almost a year since you’ve graduated from Sasha Bruce Youthwork. How has your life changed since finishing the program? 

Going from nothing to graduating within a year and a half, graduating with a GED, getting a full-time job and keeping a full-time job, and then getting an apartment today - it’s showing me lines of maturity that I had never seen within myself, that I didn’t see happening.

I work now on the Sasha Bruce maintenance crew. This is my first job and a lot of people started to work when they were 15/16, so this means a lot because I have a lot of responsibilities. It’s also a comfortable environment. I like going to work, and it provides for me and my daughters.

What does it mean to you to be able to provide for you and your daughters?

It means everything because I went from not even being able to buy [my children] something to drink at times when they were thirsty, or when they were hungry and trying to get through those days when there wasn’t much to eat. Now, just to have a job that provides just that, it is a piece of mind. 

What is it like to now work at the program and interact with other young people who are fighting similar battles that you fought over a year ago?

Ok, prime example. I seen a boy talking about how he wanted to drop out of school the other day and I told him, “You’re here at the Sasha Bruce house and you’re thinking about dropping out of school when you’ve got nothing but good mentors here that help you study with your homework.” The boy said that he was having problems with math and cursive and didn’t want to tell anybody because he was embarrassed. I told a staff member who sat down with him and helped him, and when he was done the boy was like, “I want to go to college to play football!” I was glad that I spoke up and said something because the conversation went from he’s not going to school to thinking about going to college. I feel like my voice counts.

Also, I feel like they can relate to me. So anytime I can talk to a young person to keep them on the right track, I will, because I want them to feel the joy that I feel of accomplishing something.

Do you feel like you just needed a person to give you an opportunity?

Yes. I went through school and kept giving up, kept giving up. Within six years I tried to go back three or four times, even to GED programs and nothing really clicked. For some reason, I got into Sasha Bruce out of 300-and-something-people when they only had slots for 30. I got accepted. I was like, this is something I need to do, and if I didn’t change at that point, I felt like I would have never changed. I would have just let time go passed.

What could you say to other youth people who are struggling to get a job or to go back to school?

Don’t stop. There were a lot of obstacles. I could have woken up and said, man, I don’t feel like going in because the baby’s been crying all night. There’s a lot of things out there that are going to stop you. Just don’t stop because if you don’t stop, all you can get is success in the end.

You’ve attended a few Council hearings, testifying about year-round jobs for youth and then recently, on passing the Homeless Youth Amendment Act. What is it like to speak publicly at Council hearings and share your story?
I actually get to speak my opinion to people that can make a change within my community and express to them from a youth’s point of view how we feel, how everyday livin’ is, and what they can do to help us change it. That is a great thing to me because it means my voice means something.

What does your voice mean?

I feel like I count now. At first, I didn’t feel like my opinion mattered. Now, when I go talk to the DC Council and the Mayor, they might remember my name or at least part of my story. I feel like, if I can get them to remember me and I can get them to remember what I’m saying, it’ll stick in their minds and they’ll make a change.

What’s your vision for DC?

I want a lot of stuff to happen. I want the homelessness to stop because that’s a big thing. If you have nowhere to sleep at night, you can’t really focus on the next day or the next meal or anything of that nature. So I want the District to start with that and then help out with more jobs for people like myself who want to take the next step and are willing to work hard.

A special thank you to Charmia Carolina for being a part of the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your strength and perseverance is an inspiration for youth and advocates alike. Join Charmia and DCAYA on September 26th and support youth fulfill their bright futures.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Interview with Jamila Larson - Fight for Our District's Children

This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate or young person who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today. PURCHASE TICKETS

Jamila Larson has worked side-by-side with the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates to gather support and draft local legislation that will prevent and protect vulnerable youth from sexual exploitation.

Join Jamila and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary and meet the inspiring executive director who is changing the law to better the lives of DC youth.  More about the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary.

The following interview has been edited for length.

Why did you start Homeless Children’s Playtime Project?

When I was working for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in the mid 90’s, the CCNV shelter was only a block away from my office. I heard in the newspaper that a child discovered a woman’s dead body in the bathroom, where she had died of whooping cough. So I figured the least I can do is walk over on my lunch break and check things out and see what we can do at CDF. I took a walk there thinking I’d head up a toy drive for the holidays. So I visited and really wasn’t prepared for what I saw: Rows of metal bunk beds, sheets for doors, children languishing in the hallways half dressed, not a single toy, just a smoky TV lounge for adults. I asked the woman giving me the tour if anyone ever donated any toys; she said, “Yeah, from time to time, but we keep them locked in a closet so the kids don’t make a mess.” That’s when I realized that it really wasn’t going to do enough just to donate toys, that we actually needed to donate ourselves and advocate for child-friendly spaces in family shelters.

At that point, the demographics of homelessness were shifting more towards families and away from single men. Since then it’s just been growing, and now for the first time in history, families with children make up the majority of homeless people in DC. It’s really been shocking as housing prices have skyrocketed over the past decade and families have really been squeezed out of the housing market.

So, we started setting up playrooms in shelters and staffing them with dedicated volunteers that we trained, trying to accommodate requests from other shelters the best we could. Now we serve about 600 children a year at five different shelters through thirteen weekly programs. The social justice component is very important to our mission and we try to educate our volunteers and empower our parents to speak out every year about the city’s budget to try to make a difference in expanding affordable housing opportunities for families. (We want to work ourselves out of business.)

What do you see in the kids you work with?

I was at DC General last night and it always impacts me to go there because it’s kind of like ground zero for family homelessness in DC. I see so many precious children with boundless energy and boundless potential stuck in a situation beyond their control. One of the young people that I saw last night was the brother of the sex trafficking victim (see story below) and he has been in the shelter for about two years now. He’s 17, he’s a senior in high school this year and he just looks beaten down. He’s just been there for a really long time, he’s been through a lot in his life, and especially these last two years. He was helping his mom look for his sister when the police wouldn’t. I remember him when he was in elementary school, when virtually every young child has so much joy and so much hope for the future. When you ask any kid in elementary school what they want to be when they grow up, they are in touch with their boundless potential. To see their worlds become more defined as they become older, confined by the poor quality of their schools, by expectations of society, lack of opportunity, by the compounding years of trauma that they’ve had to go through; it really wears all but the most hearty souls down and you can really see it in their faces.

How did you begin working closely with DCAYA?

We have been members for a number of years, but it wasn’t until the incident a year ago when one of our teens went missing, that I really realized I needed to reach out to DCAYA. They had far more expertise than I did in terms of the legislative issues that affect youth.

[Background: A 14-year-old girl Jamila knew from Homeless Children’s Playtime Project went missing from DC General. She was eventually found, sex trafficked out to LA. For full details, read Jamila’s blog “Missing: The Will to Find & Protect Our Missing Youth.”]

I think I’m fairly used to encountering road blocks in the field, but this was more devastating than any I had ever encountered. The concept of a child in our nation’s capital going missing and being in danger and not having her hometown look for her was incredibly jarring and really hard to swallow. This was a child I knew from the first grade. The fact that she was in the worst situation you could possibly imagine and literally, her hometown didn’t care because they weren’t looking for her; the silence was scary to me. Then, when we finally went up the chain of command and met with [authorities], that was even more upsetting because I felt so disrespected and dismissed, almost like I was on trial. Even worse was the way they spoke about the child and her family. I then understood another layer of how these systems interact with these vulnerable children and families…the reception that they get, the attitude, the judgment was really shocking. I felt like I was up against this machine and it felt impenetrable. It felt like a really lonely battle.

We were fortunate to find this child and bring her home, but we don’t just want to care about one kid and check that box. Once we discover an injustice that disproportionately affects our children, we want to do what we can to speak out to make sure that changes are made and lessons are learned from the neglectful way that this case was handled.

So the more you dig, the more you see, and it’s really ugly and scary and it’s been an issue that’s grabbed me and I felt quickly in over my head. Then I met with Maggie (the executive director of DCAYA) to have coffee and talk about this case and ask her for help. Venting about the case to Maggie was just so refreshing because you never know when you have coffee with someone what would come of it. Maggie was able to hook me up with Katie (a policy analyst at DCAYA) who really has the policy expertise and strategy to know how to build coalitions and how to tackle something like this. Katie started setting up meetings with legislative folks in the Wilson Building and wanted me to tell my story.

What was so amazing was the Council folks like Mary Cheh and others responded to our call for help and agreed with us that changes needed to be made to the law. Now we’re just hammering out the details to the “The Prevention of Minors Sex Trafficking” legislation. It’s just the most humbling experience to start with one of the most troubling and worst cases that I’ve experienced in my 18 years as a social worker and then actually connect with the people who can help change the laws to prevent other children from being lost. It is just extraordinary. I can’t imagine a more powerful ending to the story, to change the law on behalf of not just one, but hundreds of children every year in our city who go missing.

A special thank you to Jamila Larson for being a part of the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your passion and commitment to the youth of DC is an inspiring example of true advocacy. Join Jamila and DCAYA on September 26th and help homeless youth fulfill their bright futures.

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, September 10, 2014

Interview with "Boogie" - I'm Just A Young Man Trying to Make It

Photos by Tina Dela Rosa
This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate or young person who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today.

Lawrence Cross, who goes by “Boogie,” was 12 when his mother’s pimp kicked him out of the house. He sat down with DCAYA to talk about his experience and what he thinks the District can do to help youth get on their feet.

Join Boogie and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary and meet the inspiring young man who is using his life story to advocate for homeless youth. More about the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary.

The following interview has been edited for length.

When you were on the street, did you meet other kids like yourself?
Yes, I met a lot of people that were actually homeless at my age. I didn’t know there would be homeless people my age. You got to think like, there are other kids out here whose not even teenagers yet, we’re out here on our own trying to make it through life by ourselves with nobody helping us. 
A lot of homeless youth when they get put out, they turn to the gang life because that’s the most comforting thing you can see as a family or as a stable place. When you see the gang life, what are you promised? Oh you’re promised, “We’re gonna love you, we’re gonna feed you, give you somewhere to sleep, give you this, give you that.” You end up in the gang life and never end up getting out.

Was there ever a time when you found yourself in a dangerous situation that could have been avoided if there was a safe place to sleep and food to eat?
Whoow, there are a lot. I’ve been through the ringer. There was one situation where me and my brother was trying to find a place to sleep. One night, we got to this one place and this man told my brother to come in the room with him, but me, I thought we was just going there to sleep ,so I went to sleep.  
When I woke, come to find out, he had molested my brother. Then a month or two later, he molested me. So I believe if there was more outreach programs or more people to help us, we wouldn’t have had been in that situation and we wouldn’t have been molested in that way.

What kind of difference do you think more street outreach programs can make for you and your friends?
They could have been a lot of help. There was a lot of young [homeless] men but also a lot of young females and a lot of young females was prostituting themselves just to have somewhere to sleep or just to have something to eat at the end of the day. And young men were going out robbin’ and stealin’ and hurting people just to make food or make somewhere to sleep at night. If there was more places for youth to go, I think the homelessness problem would really go away. If you give us somewhere to sleep and somebody to talk to help us with our problems, we can go far. Like, a lot of homeless youth get locked up just to get somewhere to sleep, take a shower and eat.

Have you seen that firsthand?
I’ve been arrested probably like 10 – 15 times and probably 11 to 12 of those time I was arrested just to go take a shower and get something to eat. Even though it was just a sandwich it was better than walking around not eating anything.

From your perspective, why don’t you think more people know that there are homeless youth out there?
When you hear the word homelessness you think of people sleeping outside, dirty and unclean. You don’t think of homeless people as someone who’s going to school every day having good grades, but when he leaves school every day, he’s going to go sleep in the woods behind the school or he’s going to sleep in the bathroom down at the train station. 
This actually made me think of a situation. My brother’s daughter, she asked me one day, “Where you sleeping at?” I sleep outside. She said, “You homeless?” I said ya. “No you ain’t you got a cell phone.” It made me think that she thinks homelessness is people who don’t have anything. There’s a lot of homeless youth and people don’t know because people are scared to tell people and that they’ll be judged.

Even through all of this, you still managed to graduate high school. How did you do it?
Friends. Friends' mothers. I knew my social security number and everything by the time I was like 12 so I just told them “Hey, fill out my paperwork, I know my social security number and all that, just put my name on here so I can go to school.” 
I finished high school and everything, Ballou Senior high school.

What kept you going to school?
Me wanting better for myself and to show my little brothers that they can do it too.
When I was in middle school they threw an 8th grade prom because they knew a lot of us wasn’t gonna make it to 12th grade to go to prom or even graduate. 
When I finished and got that diploma I realized there’s so many people living around here who ain’t even got this piece of paper and I got mine at 18 when I was supposed to get it.

So then, it’s more than just a diploma?
It’s more than just a diploma, it’s a sigh of relief. I didn’t honestly think that I was going to make it to 18. My life expectancy for myself was 16. I’m at 20 now. If I make it to 30, I’m gonna throw a big party, cause I made it farther than I ever thought I was gonna make it.

Why did you only think you would make it to 16?
Around the age when I was 16, I was what you called a “Yes Man.” If you gonna pay me enough money, you can get me to do anything. I would not tell you no regardless of what it was, I didn’t care. If you were paying me enough, “Yes”. After you snake enough certain people out – which means doing something wrong to them – even if you get out of them peoples life, a lot of them still want you hurt. 
By 16, I crossed at least 20 – 30 people so I was like, man I ain’t gonna make it to 18 so let’s get this will written and let’s get everything finished so I can just die in peace. Now I’m at 20 and my life did a whole 720 from where it was to now, I see myself living to probably 100.

How has your life changed?
I found Covenant House through a friend and it was the first group of people who actually said, “Ok we’re here, we’re not going to stop helping you whether you push us away or not.” Even when you leave the program, you still can come back and have a connection with the staff that work there and they’ll still talk to you if you’ve got problems and help you out if you need help. 
They connected me down to a program that helped me get my first 9 to 5 job. They connected me down to the food stamp building which helped me get food. They connected me to a psychiatrist to help me see if I had any mental disabilities or any problems. They connected me to a therapist and I told him the problems that I had that I needed to resolve to get off of my back to help me move forward. They connected me to a bed and a hot shower and a meal too.

Now, what are you doing at Covenant House?
Right now, I just got my transcript and my immunization shot records and I finished my application for University of the District of Columbia, I’m trying to go to UDC and then Morehouse after two years.

What does it mean for you to go to UDC?
To me it means a lot. It means to show my son that even though my father wasn’t there for me, I’m going to show him a better way of life. What I’m going for is my bachelor’s in social work.

Why bachelor’s in social work?
I’ve seen about 10 to 12 social workers throughout my whole life and a lot of them aren’t empathetic. They don’t understand what I’ve been through. If a young man comes into my office and he tells me that his mother’s being prostituted and the man that lives there is putting his hands on her, I can be sympathetic with that. I can actually help him get to places differently then somebody who has never been through that because I have actually walked a mile in them shoes. I understand how it feels to be in that situation. Instead of saying, “Oh you can do this, you can do that.” actually say, “We need to get you some therapy. We need to get you a mentor. We need to get you into some programs to get you out the house and get you out the way to keep your mind off of it.” because if you sit in that situation and you sit in that environment, it’s going to rub off on you.

How do you see your future now?
Bright. With dignity, bright. Yeah, I’m going to do my social work thing and change the world, one step at a time. 
I’m just a young man trying to make it and change his life. I’m tired of repeating the cycle - it’s time to break it.

What is your vision for DC?
My vision for DC is that there are no more homeless youth. As a city, I think we can do that. 
If you guys could really help the homeless youth, I would really, really appreciate it, because I’m tired of having to go up and down the street and see kids my age and kids younger than me sleeping outside or asking if they can have a dollar or can I have 50 cents. I give it to them because I know that was me a couple of years ago.
Anything someone can do, even if it’s like a cold sandwich. A cold sandwich could change a homeless person’s whole day. I know it’s changed mine a couple of times. I love me a bologna and cheese sandwich.
*Edited for length

A special thank you to Boogie for being a part of the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your openness and honesty sheds light on the issues DC youth face every day and inspires the work of DCAYA. Join Boogie and DCAYA on September 26th and help homeless youth fulfill their bright futures.

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, September 03, 2014

Interview with Eshauna Smith: DCAYA Beginnings

This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today.

This week we spoke with the founding Executive Director of DCAYA, Eshauna Smith, who is now the CEO of Urban Alliance.

Join us and Eshauna Smith at the celebration by purchasing tickets to the 10th Year Anniversary Celebration.

The following interview has been edited for length.


How did you start working with youth?
My first stint was way back in college at UC Berkley. I was part of a group called the Black Recruitment and Retention Center. Berkley has a very small African American student population and at that time in the early 90’s – mid 90’s it was getting smaller, so this organization was created where current African American students would go out to high schools in the Bay area and do presentations inside the high school classrooms and support them by helping with college essays, FAFSAs, SAT Prep and those kinds of things. So that was my first real stint working with young people and the first real time that I recognized that me being at UC Berkley was a huge privilege and an opportunity, but one that did not come as a result of me. There were people before me who had been the first in their families to graduate and struggled at Berkley and that was the reason that I was able to be there. So there was something in me that said, “I need to figure out how I’m going to give back.”

How did you get into the policy realm?
Immediately after Berkley my first job was at the Boys and Girls Club in the Mission District of San Francisco. I was the Education Center Director and I was basically in charge of the tutoring center and that’s how I was again working with youth. Working there gave me a perspective – I had the opportunity to work at a brand new club that was the result of a campaign promise of San Francisco’s incoming mayor Willy Brown. One of his promises was that if he was elected he was going to build this brand new Boys and Girls Club in the Mission, which was a very, very poor part of San Francisco.

So he built this brand new club and I had the opportunity to be part of the first team of staff that was ever in this new club. It had a recording studio, it had a brand new gym, and it was this big pillar in the community and part of what I saw was “Oh, this came at the hands of this political piece,” and then I also got to see that the club was funded by various philanthropies like the Gap Foundation and so on. I started thinking, what’s behind these programs for young people? I really love young people, but maybe I want to see the other side of it: how did this club get here, where was the funding from, what where the politics behind it. So that drove me to apply to graduate school and I went and got a master’s degree in public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. That is where I then became exposed to systems change and how policies and legislation can positively impact a change and how it works and how the federal government works and how the cities are run. So that gave me the bug for policy work.

Then when I came to DC I was very lucky to be hired by the Moriah Fund which was my very first job out of graduate school at the age of 25.

How did you become involved with DCAYA?
I had been recruited and hired by Accenture after graduate school, and I thought I had it all together and I was going to be in this consulting job and I was going to be consulting for government agencies, so even though it wasn’t right in my sweet spot of social justice and policy work, I felt that it was a good compromise. I was thinking about all of these student loans I had to pay for and I come from a family that actually struggled with poverty as well, so I was like ok, this is going to be my way out. I got to DC and the company told me that they over-hired, so I had to start all over again to find employment.
I luckily landed at Moriah working for Rubie Coles who is one of the founders of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and Rubie hired me as a Junior Program Assistant to help her with her portfolio which was focused on poverty reduction in DC. As a result of working so closely with Rubie and the grantees that she had, I got a bird’s eye view and a serious, deep education on poverty in DC and the fact that there are two DCs. There’s the prestigious, wealthy DC, and then there is the DC that is struggling every single day right in the shadow of the Capitol with extreme poverty and not enough resources. 
Rubie had a really strong strategy, her focus was on trying to support women who were running their households by themselves and had children. So she thought: What were the supports you would line up around that female-headed household to then reduce poverty? I got this education and began working closely with grantees and so I met a lot of the founding directors of DCAYA: Metro Teen AIDS, Martha’s Table, Urban Alliance, etc. Then I left the Moriah Foundation and DC in 2003 with the notion that I would come back in 2006. When I came back, Rubie called me and she said they were starting something called the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and they wanted to know if I would be interested in working with them. That’s how I first got started with DCAYA.

How did DCAYA shift to being policy-oriented on behalf of youth?
One of the first things I had to do was organize a youth-led forum around the mayoral campaign. We did the forum, which was hugely successful and had an amazing turn out by working in collaboration with the other youth organizing groups. The forum really put us on the map in that way. Folks understood that we weren’t trying to take over a particular space around youth organizing, that we were just trying to build a larger voice for young people and on behalf of young people.

I believe after that, we knew we had a lot of work to do as far as who we wanted to be, and what we really want to do. I think it was clear after the forum that we did want to continue to have youth leadership be a focus. We did some strategic planning over a three day session with executive directors, youth organizers, and anyone who was interested, about where DCAYA would focus. The result was that we were not going to be a youth-led organization, but we were going to have youth voice as a huge part of the movement. By working in conjunction with youth organizers and with our member organizations, DCAYA was going to be an adult coalition advocating on behalf of young people and with young people.

We then decided through that strategic planning process to focus on three areas: youth homelessness, strengthening out-of-school time programs, and youth employment.

What do you see in disconnected youth? What is the myth that you want to break?
For me it’s a myth around all at-risk youth, not just those who have disconnected, you know, there are spectrums, there are dropouts, kids who struggle with food insecurity, there’s a whole range. I think for me, the myth I would like to bust around at-risk youth is that it is absolutely not their fault. I feel like, a lot of us are born into families that for whatever reason, deal with a number of circumstances whether it be with poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, food insecurity, where there’s just not enough support and it’s never that that family doesn’t want the best for that young person, but they are just not equipped to give that young person what they need and they are not equipped to leverage that young person’s talents. And I’m thinking of this personally. That was my exact same situation, where my family loved the hell out of me, but they were going through a lot of things that just didn’t allow them to, you know, find me extra sports, or any sports activities, or any extracurricular activities or find me jobs or point me in the right direction. They had a lot of stuff going on, unfortunately, with some of the things I just named, domestic violence and drug abuse and things. So I was kind of out there on my own and I think a lot of these young people are out there on their own. What saved me, and what I know has saved other young people, and what will be the thing that continues to save young people in the future, is when you have programs that are run by caring adults that actually get it. Adults who are really able to help these young people understand that they are special, that they are talented, and let them know that there are folks who believe that they can be more than they are right now and who can expose them to more. Because a lot of times, you can’t be what you don’t see. I just think that that is the myth I want to bust, that these young people are not in these situations because they want to be.

So then, what is the importance of DCAYA supporting these youth organizations across DC?
I think it’s the concept that many voices lift up the issues. You know, really, you can’t do this by yourself. I think DCAYA was founded-- and I know this for a fact actually-- the reason Rubie decided to bring all of these executive directors together is because she was saying to them “Look, I’m funding you guys individually and individually you’re doing great things. You’re meeting certain outcomes, you’re helping people, you’re meeting certain goals, but you are also coming back to me year after year with similar challenges.” I don’t think she felt that people were looking at, well how do you make long-lasting systemic change. That’s great to provide the services, we have to do that. But you also have to think about how we’re changing the infrastructure so that we do not have to keep fighting the same problems.

I think that her message to her grantees was that one of the ways you can combat these reoccurring problems is by collaborating more, because you can’t fight every single battle as a single organization. The reality is the only way to build that systemic change is for everyone to come together and to fight as one. Then, if you have a hundred groups saying “look you guys, disconnected youth needs to be a priority” eventually, that makes a difference. Now, there is a really strong network of EDs working together and as much as they may have wanted to do that, they were too busy focusing on just keeping their organizations afloat. What Rubie pushed them to do was pretty ground-breaking because all of them were not like “Yahoo! I’m ready to do this collaboration thing on top of the one million things on my to-do list.” It was really Rubie spending a lot of time talking to EDs and convincing them that this was the only way that our city is going to get better. This is the only way that we are going to make the city better for our young people and their families. So that’s what I think the power of DCAYA is, it’s this collective voice, which is where the power actually is.

What is your vision for DC?
We would be jealous of Philadelphia because there was a mayor who stood up and said “I will not allow for my city to treat young people like this. I will not allow for us to have a 50 – 60% dropout rate because that says more about us than it does about any of the young people dropping out.” I feel like DC was craving for such a leader.

So my vision for DC is “where do we find these champions who have influence” – in the business community, in the government sphere, in the philanthropic sphere, at the community level. How can we get them to get out there and say “This is not right”? It is not okay that youth are growing up like this and we are just sitting around and saying that we’re accepting this plight. My vision is that we create this set of champions that have real influence that continue to lead this vision forward. The idea goes beyond the mayor; there needs to always be a network that doesn’t turn over politically, that is in it for the long haul. That’s my hope. I hope that we will land on two, three, four, serious champions to say “It’s not ok that DC allows that only 62% of our kids are graduating high school on time today.”

What can they do for the city?
It’s not what they can do, it’s the context that they set, the expectation that they set. What actually is implemented is back to every single person in DCAYA, the folks working with young people, those folks who are in the trenches. These champions, they need to set a sort of context and expectation for any business that lands here, for any educational leader that come here, that you can’t come to DC without making a commitment that you are going to help us do better for our kids. Once that context is set, I think the doers will be who we already know. I don’t expect these champions to do; I expect them to put the pressure on so it makes the job of those in the trenches much easier.

*Edited for length

A special thank you to Eshauna Smith for being a part of our 10-Year Anniversary Celebration. Your dedication helped lay the groundwork for a decade of youth policy and advocacy accomplishments. Join Eshauna and DCAYA on September 26th and help craft the next ten years. 

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