A Legislative and media initiative to give voice to our young people
By its own description, House Bill H.714, currently in the Legislature: “… proposes to create the two-year Child and Youth Representation Policy Fellowship Program and a related fellowship position to engage in a multitiered initiative to bolster child and youth voices in Vermont, including within its legal, health care, and human services systems, in ways that incorporate racially and socially equitable approaches while ensuring the safety of the children and youth whose voices are bolstered.”
I wrote last year about my haunting fears that we’re ignoring the voices of our young people. Nor are we giving them agency in our decision-making that will determine their quality of life. Are we even aware of the chaos they’ll inherit?
Today, we know that half of high school-age girls have reported poor mental health and 20% of those say they have made a suicide plan ̶ suicide being the second cause of death among 15-34 year old Vermonters.
Our children are undergoing a crisis of trust, failing educational and other social support systems, parenting, school safety, and access to care, all of which result in an accelerating mental health crisis and addiction disorders, which ultimately overwhelm our emergency rooms, courts, and jails.
The need for legislative focus and action is now.
I’ve written about the State’s practice of reaching into the mission sector to do its work effectively, partnering with but consistently underfunding, specialized service agencies (SSAs) i.e. NFI Vermont, designated agencies (DAs) i.e. the Howard Center and human service nonprofits (HSNs) such as Spectrum. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost.
As of Feb. 7, the Howard Center has shuttered its desperately needed Act 1 and Bridge programs for lack of staff and funding and NFI, although very effective at its funded scale, remains seriously underfunded. The Brattleboro Retreat has for years struggled to deliver on mission with its limited finances. Valley Vista, and Serenity House are the only two rehab facilities that accept Medicaid. Sana in Stowe, a private facility, has openings but only for those who can afford it.
Hopefully, this loss of rehab capacity will force UVMHN and other hospitals to allocate more beds to mental health, addiction treatment and recovery. But then again, young people and those suffering from addiction are rarely considered good prospective customers.
So, where is our State?
In H. 816, the Legislature has acknowledged the wellbeing crisis among our young people. H.816 proposes “requiring the implementation of annual mental health screenings for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk in school-aged youth.”
I’m encouraged to see the Legislature acknowledging this and hope they will follow up on this critical initiative by helping to reengineer the provision of healthcare to all Vermonters. We must understand that there is a continuum from deep social and economic injustice to mental illness to addictive disorders to criminal justice and to suicide. Seeing any one step in this descending staircase and trying to fix it misses the larger point.
* * *
As elders and parents, we must acknowledge our own failings. In his 1923 book “The Prophet” ̶ often compared to the works of Blake, Whitman, and Emerson in its depth of human perception ̶ Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), speaks to us in verse about “Our Children.”
“And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
In the earliest years of parenting, parents provide safety, shelter, nutrition, and set appropriate limits such as restricting screen times. In this poem, however, Gibran speaks to us of the transitional time from being children to becoming young adults.
It’s the young people who must now take the reins. They will inherit this planet, such as it is, for the next few generations. The wisdom we’ve accumulated was hard-fought-for and came at a cost. Our job is to simply pass on our learned wisdom and insights, what’s worked and what hasn’t. This doesn’t mean proscribing solutions. We elders are often mired in our pasts, whereas our children must be clear-eyed and open-minded about their future, and we can help.
Inherent in that debt we owe to our young is our own willingness to listen—to not just hear and dismiss, as so often happens, but to pay rapt attention and consider. Our children are talking to us. They have important things to say. We owe it to them to hear them. As elders, our job is to remain ready in the background and help when asked.
But parents cannot do this alone. We have a responsibility to connect our children to others, the larger community of extended family and friends and to other suitable mentors. In my own family, our lives as children and young people were more influenced by grandparents and family friends than by our own parents, who often were distracted from parenting by their own demons.
Community is a group of people who share their individual stories to weave a common fabric with many threads ̶ a common story. Story defines who we are, why we’re here, what we do, and why we do it. Stories are told by those who see possibilities, not limits, by those who see what could be out there, rather than by those who simply accept life as it is. Story spawns hope, promise, and strength and creates a commonweal. Our children are part of that story yet their role as storytellers, as equals, is too often dismissed.
While Darwin never used the term “survival of the fittest,” he did say, ”Those that survive are not the smartest, or the strongest, but those that are most adaptable to change.” Flexibility, adaptability, and curiosity inspire real progress. We can’t make our young people curious, but we can inspire in them a reverence for being curious and teach them curiosity’s role in our survival. The most powerful statement ever uttered? I am. The most powerful question ever asked? Why? If we can motivate our children to build their lives around those two statements, they’ll be fine.
It’s your show now, not ours, but we’re here to help if we can. We want you to succeed.
* * *
By way of doing something, I am part of a group proposing “In Our Voices,” which will be a monthly, half-hour public broadcast television show, 12 episodes total, produced in Vermont, that gives both voice and agency to young Vermonters.
The show will be a simple two-camera production filmed in various local and unified school districts around the state in which 10-15 self-selected young people from grades 5 through 12 will speak to us openly about the issues they believe to be critical to their future.
The show will not be moderated by adults. Each group of young people will select a lead moderator whose only task will be to ensure that every voice is heard. Young people will thus be free and encouraged to express their thoughts emotionally and fully and speak directly to their audience, without fear of interruption or argument. These will be their voices, not ours.
The producers will suggest topics for each of the episodes, including:
- Does the American dream exist for you? What does the concept mean?
- What about guns in homes, neighborhoods, forests, and schools?
- Are school and the “college promise” working for you? Are there other alternatives you want to discuss?
- How do you understand racial, gender, sexual, and equity issues? Are these even issues for you?
- How would you solve problems such as hunger and homelessness?
- What about environmental stewardship: are we poisoning our air, water, soil and ourselves?
- As to the mental and physical health of your generation…what do you need?
The remaining topics or themes will be chosen by those who will resolve them.
The goal of “In Our Voices is simply to give voice and agency to the young people who will determine the future of humanity.