We used to warn children of “stranger danger” to avoid assault, kidnappings and other horrendous acts. However, we failed them with this approach. Instead of warning them about sketchy behaviors and actions, we created this image of what “bad people” looked like and allowed predators deemed “safe” by appearance and position to offend numerous youth undetected.
Media headlines remind us there are educators, priests, doctors, coaches and others who victimize without detection based upon the Unhelpful Social Narrative (USN) of who can and cannot be trusted. We now teach the more helpful narrative that pays attention to behavior, not appearance or occupation. This is only one of numerous examples of USNs that plague society; they are in abundance, prevalent and equal opportunity — some apply to us and we apply some to others.
USNs derive from the outside and are then applied to groups, similar to the concepts of etic and emic as explained by anthropologists. Etic is the outsider optic and emic is the insider optic of a group. As with most USNs, the whisper starts from an etic perspective and somehow becomes society’s default message of “who can and cannot, who should and should not.” These messages then infiltrate emic perspectives and can become self-fulling prophecies. These USNs can lead to death, incarceration, poor academic performance, under- and unemployment and create numerous unnecessary obstacles.
USNs surround us daily, influence our default messages, contribute to our implicit biases and often become common social truths. These unhelpful narratives divide, demoralize, devalue and disregard the lived experiences of individuals, youth, families, out-of-school time (OST) programs and the work of youth development professionals (YDPs).
It’s our job to disrupt USNs
Recently at the 2018 National Afterschool Association Convention in Atlanta, several YDPs shared some of the USNs they hear routinely about their programs, youth and work:
- “You are lucky, you get to play at work.”
- “You serve all poor kids, right?”
- “You are a glorified babysitter.”
- “Must be nice to not have to follow curriculum.”
- “Only black kids need to go to your program.”
- “No wonder kids like it there, they just get to run around the whole time.”
- “Have you considered a real career?”
Those in the field, who experience the joys and challenges of working with other people’s children and the adults connected to them, know that OST programs and YDPs provide evidence-based programming, participate in ongoing professional development and are oftentimes the source of uplifting and maintaining the emotional stability of youth. Not only do we know that, but the youth and families we serve know it too. It is up to us to disrupt unhelpful social narratives on behalf of the youth we serve and the work we do.
Disrupting USNs is something I have done since conception; similar to a bee not knowing that its body and flight defy commonly known theories in physics and aeronautics. I know nothing else but to fly using what I have. Born to a white teenage mother and just out of his teens father of black and indigenous blood, research and statistics were not on our side. Neither was the law at times.
In 1967, the Supreme Court invalidated all laws that made illegal interracial marriages in Loving v. Virginia 388 U.S. 1 (1967). Although laws were changed, public opinion was and is still slow to change in many areas of the United States. In 1971, a federal judge refused to marry my parents because they were an interracial couple. My parents demanded another judge and married anyway.
I was born two months early at a time when medical options for premature infants were not as advanced as today. I thrived anyway. I grew up with USNs that included my skin being too light to do certain things and too dark to do other things. I excelled in them anyway. The theme of the USNs applied to me by others is what I call the black tax but with white interest rates.
Disruption = success
I was born a disrupter of USNs and have consistently defied those applied to me as a person, but even more aggressively defied them for and on behalf of the youth and learners I serve. Examples include executing a summer youth employment program in my community for cross-cultural and cross-neighborhood youth. Cautions from others included the perceived fights we would have, low engagement and attendance of the youth, and other etic perspectives that were under- and uninformed. These 180 young people had zero fights and overall 97 percent attendance, the only absences due to illness and preplanned family vacations; we did not have any unexcused or unplanned absences the entire summer.
Another example is the success of an undergraduate student support program I directed from 2011-15, the TRiO Future Educator Success Program, housed in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University. To qualify, learners must identify as first generation, and/or coming from low-income backgrounds and/or with a disability who declared pre-K-12 teaching as their major. Advocacy for this population and disrupting the USNs about them was ongoing. The primary USN was that they were mostly students of color who could not compete academically with their peers (likely because of USNs about who is first generation and poor). The reality was that they were mostly white females and our program maintained 93 percent retention and good academic standing rates, exceeding that of non-TRiO peers.
These two examples are evidence of what can occur when we identify, discuss and disrupt the USNs. I am always transparent with youth, families and learners about the common USNs about them, our work together and our collaborative strategies to disrupt the USNs. It is critical to have personal cultural awareness and engagement prior to these conversations. My colleague, Gwen Jordan, and I use the term “cultural agility.” I have developed training to build and flex cultural agility muscles to move along the cultural encapsulation to cultural engagement continuum.
Awareness of one’s cultural self is necessary to begin to understand and appreciate the cultural selves of others, interrogate one’s own implicit biases and frame conversations with attention and balance to historical and contemporary contexts in order to address USNs about individuals and groups. Many popular approaches include the terms cultural responsiveness and tolerance. Those are two terms and approaches I will never use. I never want anyone “responding to” who they perceive me to be and I certainly never want to be “tolerated” for who I am. “We see the world not as it is, but as we are” is a quote attributed to the Talmud and Stephen Covey that lends itself to disrupting unhelpful social narratives and being self-reflective about perceptions of others and ourselves.
Depending on awareness levels of self and staff, a low-risk activity for identifying USNs about a program or agency is to have everyone draw a simple rectangle shape of a building. On the outside of the shape, ask participants to write narratives stated about their programs by society and individuals not directly involved in the work (etic perspectives). Discuss these statements as a group.
Then, on the inside of the shape, write statements that are authentic and disrupt the USNs based on an insider experiences (emic perspectives). Discuss these and create concise and consistent narratives to share with stakeholders, donors, and the community to continually disrupt unhelpful social narratives and watch youth fly without the constraints of the USNs.
Marcy L. Peake is a Michigan licensed professional counselor and Great Start to Quality trainer, a National Certified Counselor and Certified Family Life Educator. She is a faculty member and director of diversity and community outreach initiatives in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University.