Civic Imagination

The Inner City Youth

I was 14 years old when I began to volunteer at the New York Public library with a group then known as The Teen Central. Several of the larger library branches had designated areas for the Teen Central program and I worked for the Donnell Library Center. My first they working there was quite a cultural shock and one particular instance was the “ice breaker” activity. We sat around a round table surrounded by books and we shared the basics: who we were, age, where we lived and so on. When it came my turn I explained that I was attending the United Nations International School and that my parents were diplomats and that’s how I ended up going to that particular school. One person stopped me in the middle of the sentence and asked, “what’s a diplomat, and what is a white girl like you doing here with us?” I was surprised that I needed to give a definition of a pretty basic word but what really moved me was the fact that I was not much different from them. We were all strangers sitting in a circle, with very different backgrounds and in a way I was an outsider and I was out of my comfort zone but so were they. I explained that I was volunteering and it took them teen central members a long time to warm up and open up to me. But when they did, their stories were heart breaking. All of my participants came to the program because they had dropped out of school, they could not read or write nor did they have computer skills. Their ages ranged from 15 to 27 and all of them stressed the fact that they were ashamed that they couldn’t read or write and that they would be bullied by their peers if they found that they were trying to go back to school or being in such a program. They came from broken families, drug addicted parents, and no possibilities for growth. Being part of gangs as they explained to me was the way to survive in their neighborhood; they provided a family environment as well as jobs, which were all illegal and criminal. They were the kids and young adults that was deemed as delinquents, criminals and hopeless but the problem was that educational institutions kept rejecting them and instead of trying to help them, it was easier to push them out and label them the inner city youth.

It was very inspiring to see young people wanting to make a change in their life. They were scared, timid and afraid that this was their last hope and that inspired me to mentor them because I saw such strength and courage that I wanted to be part of this tiny movement we had going. Soon the group grew from 7 to 23 members and more and more of them were spreading the word to other in similar situations. Sadly in my four years there few members stuck around but there was a constant wave of incoming and going participants and despite the fact that they didn’t “graduate” the ones that did stay spread the word to others in their community, enrolled back in school and were on a new path of life. 

The Bowery Mission's

The Pforzheimer Collection
"It's really a collection that should be helpful for young people who want to change the world, which is what Shelley wanted to do." - Elizabeth Delinger.

education, empowerment, youth,

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