We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Lauren J. Silver, author of System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation. In the book, Silver considers the daily lives of adolescent mothers as they negotiate the child welfare system to meet the needs of their children and themselves. Often categorized as dependent and delinquent, these young women routinely become wards of the state as they move across the legal and social borders of a fragmented urban bureaucracy. Combining critical policy study and ethnography, and drawing on current scholarship as well as her own experience as a welfare program manager, Silver demonstrates how social welfare “silos” construct the lives of youth as disconnected, reinforcing unforgiving policies and imposing demands on women the system was intended to help.
In today’s post, Silver argues for giving youth more than fleeting glances. Rather, we should listen to the stories of their lives, afford them dignity, and reshape social policies accordingly.
2014 was marked by protests across the nation insisting that Black Lives Matter. Many decry the justice system, which has failed to indict officers and vigilantes who have killed unarmed black children, while girl victims receive little notice in the press. We have an urgent need to tell and listen to deeper, more nuanced stories about these youth and other youth of color who remain either invisible or hypervisible in marked, stereotyped ways.
Stories matter. Stories shape public sentiment as well as whether we design policies to protect and educate our youth or to warehouse and punish them. As an ethnographer, I tell stories, but not just any stories. I tell multidimensional narratives about youth that span across years, settings, and identities.
What can ethnographers contribute in this digital age of constant and fleeting media snapshots? I believe we can simultaneously show the complexity and dignity of daily lives. System Kids explores how youth experience multiple identities as mothers, teenagers, students, delinquents, dependents, and black girls. These youth are never entirely innocent victims or blameworthy delinquents—their daily experiences, like all of our experiences, are multifaceted and revealed through community.
Let me be clear: I do not believe that a story is necessary to prove a youth’s worth. Every young person deserves respect and care. I am consistently frustrated by the public’s attempt to identify Michael Brown as either a college student or a conniving hoodlum. We will never uncover an identity to justify the fact that Mike Brown, an unarmed black eighteen-year-old, was shot six times by a white police officer and that his body was left on the street for four-and-a-half hours. This reality is simply unjust and no story about Mike Brown will ever make it okay.
Through social media, young people of color are discussing worth and media representation. For instance, Rafael Johns writes at youthradio.org: “A friend of mine launched a depressing conversation recently, and asked me how much I think he is worth. . . . ‘Like, am I worth as much as a candy bar? . . . What would it take for killing me to be excusable?’” On the site #IfTheyGunnedMeDown black youth post side-by-side pictures of themselves dressed “respectably” in caps & gowns and “menacingly” in hoodies. These images create a mosaic response to the question, “Which picture would the media use?” at once resisting media misrepresentations and suggesting that black lives cannot be boiled down to snapshots because these show an incomplete story.
Deep textured stories can help us to know one another, and when we know one another well, we cannot easily dehumanize each other. These types of stories are urgently needed because in the U.S. we live separate and unequal lives. We simply do not interact and know one another. In fact, 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education and 47 years after the Fair Housing Act, our public schools and residential neighborhoods continue to be racially and economically segregated.
I wrote System Kids so that readers could know these particular youth and so that young mothers’ voices and experiences could challenge our complacency. We tend to normalize our systems of child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and housing. We refuse to see the ways in which these institutions fail black children and construct structures of inequality and institutional racism. Ethnographic stories can provide, as critical race theorists suggest, counternarratives. Counternarratives share the perspectives of people of color whose stories have been silenced or misrepresented. Centering these stories illuminates societal myths and helps us to imagine creative ways for building social justice.
To close with the words of Nelson Mandela, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” It is my hope that we listen to our children’s stories, know them better, and begin to care for all of our children equally.
Lauren J. Silver is assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden. Her book, System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation, is now available.