Each city in the 13 California-City Gang Prevention Network, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s 10-city National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention is tasked with producing a citywide plan, a comprehensive strategy that blends prevention (such as work with families and preschool education), intervention (such as afterschool programs and drug abuse treatment), and enforcement and re-entry (assisting those who return from prison). If you read those plans, as I have, you’ll notice a trend: Almost every city lists the same critical risk factor – “Absence of a caring adult.” The risk factor comes with a subsequent action item – “getting a caring adult into the life of at-risk youth.” But what does a “caring adult” really look like? What does it mean to be the “caring adult” standing between a young person and a bleak, possibly violent future?
I’ve met several “caring adults” who stand in that gap – and while the acts of care can be simple, the impact can be immeasurable.
I met Pedro at a community forum in Long Beach, California. Pedro was a youth trying to untangle himself from a tangled background. He dreamed of going to college, but was barely making it through high school. And his homeboys kept pulling him back. What, I wondered allowed Pedro to start dreaming, to risk dreaming? What was the last book he read? Blank stare. I gave him a little money to buy books: Teresa, who had worked with Pedro for years, took him to the book store, helping him to make selections – the ride, the time, taking interest in what might interest him – all simple acts of a caring adult. I wondered further what do so many cities envision when they point to the “caring adult” – or lack of one – in an at-risk youth’s life. What does being a caring adult really mean? A conversation with Teresa took me on a journey, leading me to a book I had last read in graduate school more than 40 years ago.
Teresa is Teresa Gomez, the Human Dignity Coordinator for the City of Long Beach, a grant writer and program manager who never strays far from her community development and youth advocate roots. She was reluctant to be interviewed for this blog. “Jack, it’s about Pedro, not me.” She was not reluctant to talk about Pedro, however. “It’s pretty unbelievable. He’s growing up in the sense of thinking, thinking things, surprising me, surprising himself, saying things he’s never said or thought before.” Like what? “He wants to go to Paris.”
I said, “Well, you’ve got to learn French then.”
“And you know what, this is a kid who barely made it through high school, who worked through alternative education just last year, who is now enrolled at Long Beach City College. And he’s taking French!”
Teresa encouraged him. With the encouragement came help with the small steps, the concrete. She helps to set the bar high, then digs, helping to uncover the steps necessary to meet expectations. It’s a combination of the highly practical with the aspirational, which began with helping Pedro get through high school and developing his trust – she would not leave him.
And it’s not clinical. Teresa did set not out to fix Pedro, but to find Pedro. She tells her life story to other kids like Pedro: no English language in first grade; an immigrant father who washed cars and sent five kids through parochial school. “But telling my story is not enough,” reflects Teresa. “What I went through and where I am now can intimidate. You have to see what’s going on under them, get to their story, their dream. I ask the kids, ‘What is your dream?’ One young man said, ‘No one’s ever asked me that.’ Many of these youth don’t feel they have a right to dream,” she said.
But why would they risk dreaming, risk failing? Teresa paused. “I guess it’s because I don’t have to love them. I’m not a parent or a sibling. They sometimes ask, ‘Why would you want to have dinner on my birthday when no one else would?’ I think they’re surprised that they’re loveable. And that makes them feel safe, let’s them take a risk.”
“I and Thou”
The conversation with Teresa led me right back to a book I hadn’t cracked since the 1960s, Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Most of our relationships, he contends, are, of necessity, “I-it,” instrumental relationships: getting kids to school, shopping, relationships at work – who’s going to do what to get things done. But sometimes things can become magic, the stuff of the everyday becoming the “hallowing of thou…if I face a human being as my thou…he is not a thing among things…” It is when the he and she, bound in time and place as we all are, becomes thou, beloved. And it is not one baptizing another as thou, for it happens only if it is mutual, if both are changed. “I become through my relation to the thou; as I become I, I say thou.” It is not without risk, asserts Buber: “This is the risk: the primary word can only be spoken with the whole being. He who gives himself to it may withhold nothing of himself.”
When discussing her relationship with Pedro, Teresa kept using the word “listening…really listening,” and thus seemed to be doing exactly what Buber was talking about. Does not “really listening” ultimately mean communicating to the person with whom one is speaking that they are worth listening to, that they are valuable, yes, loveable?
At the end of our conversation, Teresa said, “You know it’s not one way – a counselor or mentor to Pedro. No, we’re in it together. Pedro inspires me. I tell him how proud of him I am, and that he motivates me to continue. Pedro fuels me.”
It is reciprocal. Teresa and Pedro are in it together, not doctor to client, fixer to fixee, not problem to be solved, but a person to be engaged, a profoundly caring adult risking relationship, Teresa who risks dreaming with Pedro, both then in the process of inspiring, changing, or, in Buber’s terms, “becoming.”
So what then through this prism of Pedro, and Teresa…and Buber, is a caring adult? The answer may lie in the “thou” of it all. Eliminating this risk factor – the “absence of a caring adult” – itself comes with risk…and holds the promise of one of life’s greatest rewards for both the Pedro’s and Teresa’s of this world.