Youth are the Solution, Not the Problem

In her October 27th column in The Olympian entitled, “At-risk youth: the elephant roaming downtown,” Emma Margraf stated early on, “I hope we get the courage to address one of the issues that no one talks about: at-risk youth.”

The truth is, there are a lot of individuals and organizations talking about youth everyday in Downtown Olympia. More importantly though, we don’t just talk about them, we are doing work with them. Young people and youth-serving agencies are engaging in positive, powerful ways every single day. The more we open our hearts, the more they open theirs — indeed, true community is about reciprocity.

In August, the City of Olympia partnered with CommonAction, a local consulting firm, to facilitate a youth forum at the Artesian Commons. More than 50 young people were there, actively sharing their vision for the park with the facilitator, City staff, and a half dozen nonprofit partners. These street-involved youth said clearly and repeatedly that they are eager to be partners with adults to DO something positive Downtown. They are concerned about the labels given to them because of the actions of a few of their peers. They are concerned about the adults who are drug dealers and pimps that prey on them. They said almost the exact same things said in every forum held in Olympia regarding public safety and public space. They want our downtown to be safe, welcome, clean and comfortable for everybody.

Here’s a snapshot of the work happening with youth in Downtown Olympia right now:

  • For more than a decade, Partners in Prevention Education has been engaging youth and their allies in the elimination of sexual violence, bias, hate & general crimes as they contribute to homelessness and as they exist in street culture.
  • Community Youth Services (CYS) Rosie’s Place is a drop-in day center for young people between the ages of 12–24 to get their basic needs met while building positive and caring relationships with case managers and youth advocates.
  • CYS Street Outreach offers basic health and hygiene supplies, snacks, essential clothing, referrals and on the spot crisis counseling for young people on the street between the ages of 12–24 on the street. Street outreach has 3 two-hour shifts during the week where 2 Street Outreach workers meet youth where they congregate in downtown Olympia.
  • CYS Young Adult Shelter is a gender inclusive 10 bed emergency overnight shelter for young people between the ages of 18–24 to have a safe place to sleep at night.
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQQIA) young people and adult allies have been speaking for themselves, educating our community and supporting each other with Stonewall Youth for more than 15 years.
  • Enterprise for Equity has launched a youth financial literacy program in Downtown Olympia called StartUP! Hosted at CYS, the program has taught 15 youth about basic money skills, entrepreneurship and more for free.
  • The PB&J Project serves up sandwiches and conversation to youth, and anybody else who wants it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon at The Artesian Commons.
  • The Emma Goldman Youth Homeless Outreach Project has operated a 7 day a week bicycle outreach program in Downtown Olympia since 1998.
  • The Outreach Workers League seeks to create better networking, info and resource sharing, and communication between the above groups, and any other entity that provides outreach services in Downtown Olympia. Much of their focus is on street-involved youth, and they organize regular outreach fairs so youth and others can engage with social service providers directly.
  • Local businesses like Old School PizzeriaPsychic SisterThe Washington Center for the Performing Arts, and many others hire, support and engage local youth everyday.
  • The Downtown Ambassador Program deliberately connects with young people Downtown everyday. Our Ambassadors form positive relationships with youth, helping them solve problems, access resources, and connecting them with the greater Olympia community. We are partnering with CommonAction to develop a youth leadership academy that engages street-involved youth as social change agents by empowering them to improve our community. These youth are resources, not problems. The very people most affected by downtown Olympia’s problems will be powerful partners who lead us to a better Olympia for everyone.

It is imperative that this community start changing their own personal narrative about the young people who spend time in our downtown. If we expect little, if we expect them to do nothing, to be destructive, if we use language like “disgusting”, “dangerous” , “wasted opportunity” then what do these young people have to aspire to? These young people can hear, see, and read the ways other community members perceive them. It is time for this community to start sharing their positive stories — of the work being done, the fun being had — the good experiences they have Downtown, or we risk the reality of a self-fulfilling prophecy

There is no question that engagement, empowerment, inclusiveness, equality, and justice lead to a greater sense of purpose, ownership, civic pride, and accountability. Any one of us can be a part of making that atmosphere a reality in our neighborhood — it only takes a few hours a week spent volunteering or even just hanging out to make a meaningful impact in the life of just one person. Tiny ripples build great currents.

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