A young person’s perspective on how to talk about race and identity

One of my youth advisors gave me clever advice today on how to engage youth in care in conversations around race and identity, which she agrees are critical to discuss in a foster care setting. Here they are:

1. Use your personal experience to open a general discussion on a sensitive topic. Ask a question that everyone can relate to, and then let young people lead the way.

Without trying to equate your experience with that of others, it’s possible to throw out a very general question that resonates with everyone in different ways: Have you ever walked into a room and felt like you didn’t belong? The brilliance of this question is that it can lead the group down various paths that include, but aren’t limited to, racial or ethnic identity. It’s a great way of broaching sensitive subjects without asking such a pointed question right at the start.

2. A good guest speaker can really help.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I may not always be the right person to lead these sorts of discussions. To take some of the pressure off, my youth advisor said that sometimes “a big black man with a bald head” might connect with the youth better.

3. Find ways of connecting with the quiet ones.

This is just solid classroom management: Try to engage the ones who aren’t as active in discussions by asking them to pass out handouts or write on the board. In my youth advisor’s words, “keep letting them know you see them, even if they don’t speak.”

4. Build in incentives to attend group discussions/workshops.

This is common practice in the child welfare space: Offer MetroCards, gift cards, or food to draw youth to events. Although we would all like young people to show up to our workshops because they’re informational, educational, engaging, and generally “good for them,” the reality is that often the first obstacle is getting them through the door before you can make that case to them convincingly.

Thank you, Nahjee, for your wonderful insights and advice!

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