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Changing the way we support black youths




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Roughly 30 years ago, Shawn Ginwright began using the term ‘healing centred engagement’ to describe challenges with the traditional way of looking at youth development and trauma.

The problem, as he saw it, was that social workers, counsellors and their professional peers concentrated on transforming the young people they were trying to help and ignored race and other issues that contributed to the bigger picture.

The paradigm shift he felt was necessary has caught on in the years since. Dr Ginwright is today recognised as a “leading US expert on African American youth activism and development”.

What has helped is his work as chief executive officer of the non-profit he founded, Flourish Agenda.

“My career has been spent working and trying to understand how systems like schools and social workers and probation departments can better support young people of colour, particularly African American young people,” said Dr Ginwright, the keynote speaker at a virtual conference the Inter Agency Committee for Children and Families is hosting on Thursday.

“I created an organisation years ago that really tried to create the kind of relationships and opportunities for African American young people to really improve the quality of their lives. And from that I began to do a lot of research about challenges that we find in neighbourhoods and schools and now I’m really focusing on trying to support those systems with the lessons about really how to support young people of colour, particularly those who have experienced trauma.”

Such trauma tends to be “persistent and ongoing” rather than a single horrific act, explained Dr Ginwright, a published author and education professor in the Africana Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

“The form of trauma that I’m talking about is the kind of ongoing exposure to racism, ongoing exposure to police violence, ongoing exposure to incarceration – that type of trauma has been under-examined and underexplored. And so my work is really trying to get people aware of how to respond to the broader notion of trauma.”

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, and the onslaught of Covid-19 heightened the need for Dr Ginwright’s approach.

“It’s forcing people to think more deeply about how they support young people of colour with multiple exposures to trauma,” he said.

“Young people in cities – their parents may have Covid, they know what happened with Mr Floyd and they understand what happened with Breonna Taylor and need spaces to have conversation and dialogue but teachers, social workers, aren’t always given those tools. [They’re left wondering] how do I have that conversation? How do I need to show up?”

He added: “There’s been a significant increase in demand from teachers and principals – anybody that’s really working with people of colour – to really give them some tools; to actually support them in ways that matter.”

The coronavirus pandemic cancelled the two-day training session Dr Ginwright planned to offer social sector workers here. Thursday’s Compassionate Care conference is an opportunity to take part in “an important conversation” that has the potential to transform the support they currently give.

Healing centred engagement goes further in that it addresses issues such as race, poverty, class and wellbeing, Dr Ginwright said.

“It sort of builds upon trauma-informed care which is kind of a standard, a way that everybody is trained to think and see and respond to trauma.”

His non-profit, which works largely with middle and high school students, measures its success in a number of ways.

“Success looks like young people having the space to talk about what they’re feeling,” said Dr Ginwright. “Success looks like when parents e-mail us, when they thank us and say, ‘Hey I really appreciate the training that you did for us because I understand what my kids are going through.’”

Success is also determined by the response from participants in a regular retreat Flourish Agenda holds in a low-income neighbourhood in northern California.

“[This year] it’s online but we’re doing training with those parents who are experiencing the same kind of stressors and so success looks like for us: ‘Thanks for this space. We can better understand the issues of our young people. We can support them with their stress.’”

Success is also registered when schools implement practices in classrooms that allow teachers “the tools necessary to create the space for [kids] to talk about what’s on their hearts”.

“We want the system to be better first,” he said. “We want them to show up and provide young people with that support.”

The idea is to have students become more “optimistic” about their future and think about their lives in “a more holistic way”.

Said Dr Ginwright: “[The social sector workers] are not just reducing symptoms of behavioural problems [the students] are more engaged in school, they have a sense of their own identity, they have pride about who they are.

“They have an understanding of the broader social and political issues that actually harm them. So it’s not just ‘this thing happened’ but there’s a broader reason why there’s poverty, there’s a broader reason why these things happened. It’s so young people have a broader world view about their lives.”

He believes that with those tools in place it’s possible to achieve in Bermuda what Flourish Agenda has accomplished elsewhere.

“It’s really the same,” Dr Ginwright said. “While the demographics are different, some of the legacies of racial inequality still remain. Let’s just take, for example, the racial shame about not feeling good about your skin colour or your lips or your hair texture – all these sort of things that are a result of the historic legacy of slavery.

“African American young people in Chicago, San Francisco or Bermuda can have a shared experience of that.”

He acknowledged that for healing centred engagement to work well there must be buy-in on three levels: those that control budgets; the people who build the teams and implement strategies and the frontline workers who deal with young people directly.

“And so ideally, when we work in a system, we try to put a team together with a cross-section of representation from each place in the system,” Dr Ginwright said. “That’s when we’ve found the most success.”

But, he added: “We really need to be able to provide the kind of healing and support for social workers and those that are working with young people because there are stressors [and] the sense of uncertainty really requires that our systems be more compassionate with the adults so that they can show up in powerful ways for young people.”

Register for the Inter Agency Committee for Children and Families here: Tickets are $40 for IAC members and $45 for the general public. For more on Shawn Ginwright visit

Shawn Ginwright, an expert on African American youth activism and development, is the keynote speaker at a virtual conference hosted by the Inter Agency Committee for Children and Families this week (Photograph supplied)
Shawn Ginwright, an expert on African American youth activism and development, is the keynote speaker at a virtual conference hosted by the Inter Agency Committee for Children and Families this week (Photograph supplied)




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Published November 16, 2020 at 1:00 pm (Updated November 14, 2020 at 4:16 pm)

Changing the way we support black youths

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