Adults and teenagers have always existed in slightly different worlds, separated by social norms, slang, music and entertainment.
But nowadays, those worlds feel more disparate than ever, says Michael Hayes, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Umoja Health, Wellness and Justice Collective. “We can never say that we understand what they’re going through,” Hayes says of young people. “Because we’ve never been through a pandemic. I didn’t grow up being affected by social media.”
Last June, Umoja debuted HOPE 4 the Future, a summer camp for children and teens. In its initial season, it served 78 youths. And by summer’s end, it had evolved into an after-school program offering a place for kids to relax, lift weights and do homework. Since that time, a lucky few have also been invited to participate in “The Hour of HOPE” podcast broadcast on the online community radio station WDRBmedia.com.
Hayes and his son Tyequan Harrison are the show’s regular hosts. But in each episode, they invite teens from HOPE 4 the Future to lead a portion of the podcast wherein they engage in conversations and discuss issues important to their lives. Guest hosts are invited to join the podcast based on their behavior in school and their grades, Hayes says.
A deeper conversation
The acronym HOPE stands for “Healing Our Past Experiences.” Participants, notes Hayes, feel empowered both in sharing their own stories and representing their fellow classmates.
To date, “The Hour of HOPE” has released nine episodes, recorded in Umoja’s office space on North Louisiana Avenue. Youth segments have addressed a number of issues, including bullying, preventing substance use and violence, generational trauma and individual accomplishments.
Nygerio Carson, a 14-year-old contributing host, says a segment about school safety was a personal favorite. The topic, Carson notes, addressed school discipline and issues concerning students feeling seen and understood by their teachers and administrators.
“The conversation was deep,” agrees DD Sullivan, 14, who is also on the podcast. “We all go through the same things at school every day,” she says. “We can share our different experiences and relate to [each other]; it goes into a deeper conversation.”
Adds Julia Darity, 13, another podcast contributor, “To get that off of our chest was freeing.”
Adverse childhood experiences
In addition to school-related themes, Hayes says the podcast allows its participants to discuss larger issues they are going through. For example, one child has a parent who is currently incarcerated. Another has lost two siblings — one older and one younger.
Hayes is forthcoming about his own traumatic life experiences, including childhood molestation and drug and alcohol misuse. On Umoja’s website, he shares how he completed an Adverse Childhood Experiences Study survey during one of his prison sentences. The event marked the first time he ever seriously addressed his mental health, he says.
The survey asks questions about childhood adversities that have an impact on mental health and physical well-being, such as “Did you live with anyone who had a problem with drinking or using drugs, including prescription drugs?” and “Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill or attempted suicide?” An ACE score of 4 or more — meaning, exposure to four or more adverse childhood experiences — is related to toxic stress and increased odds of health risks.
According to the Umoja website, Hayes scored “a perfect 10” on his survey.
In response, Hayes began learning about mental health issues and pursued a certification as a peer support specialist while incarcerated. He completed the process through Vaya Health after he was released. Subsequently, he attained recovery coach certification through Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness and became a trauma and resiliency educator through Resources for Resilience.
One of Hayes’ main goals for HOPE 4 the Future is to teach young children the coping skills he did not learn until he was incarcerated. It’s important to him “for our kids to learn how to recover from some of the traumas that they’ve been through and start looking to see what resiliency looks like,” he explains. “Then they can see themselves doing better.”
Hayes acknowledges that the kids do open up to him but says it’s easier for them to connect with each other. “When we’re talking about their mental health and their well-being and them understanding where they fit in and belong, they need somebody [their own age] to bridge that gap,” he says.
A lot to say
For Carson, Darity and Sullivan, their podcast discussion on school safety touched both on their personal experiences as well as the insights on trauma they’ve gained through their participation in HOPE 4 the Future program.
Sullivan believes that the school system is less concerned with students’ well-being than broader aspects of discipline. “They only focus on who’s smoking in the bathroom or who’s raising their voice at the teacher,” she says. “They focus on what they call ‘disruptions’ and stuff like that. They’re not really focusing on what’s really going on with the students in school.”
Adds Darity, “It’s never the ‘why.’”
The students at HOPE 4 the Future regularly talk about personal resilience. An upcoming segment on the podcast addresses building stronger communities. In a brainstorming session, Darity explains, they discussed “how we can make the school a resilient environment for us.”
Hayes hopes the kids on the podcast and its listeners will connect their experiences to issues like how disciplinary decisions impact the school-to-prison pipeline and disparities in academic achievement. “Systems are designed to promote certain communities of people and systems are designed to keep certain communities down — that’s the true facts,” Hayes says. “Those [systems] have to change. But when we allow ourselves to listen to what today’s youth are going through, then it gives us a better picture of why we should address it.”