Closing the Gap through Rites of Passage

When I was a teenager, there was so much talk about the generation gap between adolescents and adults. Of course that breach was a vast political an ideological rift that was created with my generation’s call for a black aesthetic and a focus on liberation from accommodating the power structure, and an end to the Vietnam War.  It was a crack in old ways of thinking; it was directed towards unity, purpose, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, creativity and faith.  These goals were from the principles of Kwanzaa and though all aspects of my community did not agree on them, we were at least unified by values about education as an important stepping stone for advancement as well as a respect for faith traditions. 

Over the last 30 years I have seen another gap emerge; it has been created largely by increase of drugs on the street, crime and incarceration that ensues, emulation of the thug-life, devaluation of studiousness and a disregard for faith and God; this gap was exacerbated by a drain of resources for youth development in already underserved communities. 

The inequities heaped upon children of color, supported by decisions made in major institutions in our nation, is an atrocious commentary on the phrase “equal opportunity.”  The rates of incarceration, dropping out of high school, poverty levels, and poor health indicators are directly linked to decisions about privatization of prisons, educational funding cutbacks, absence of a living wage, jobs being moved overseas and a myriad of factors that impact health (environmental racism, closure of hospitals, poor quality groceries in inner-city communities, lack of medical insurance etc.) and the list goes on and on.

Closing the gap today requires a multi-faceted approach to youth development and perhaps it has always been so but the age of information makes the chasm so incredible obvious with each tweet and new friend added to social networks.  The gap is ever before us with a tsunami of news broadcasted daily announcing the crime statistics, across the nation.

Recently, I attended a vibrant conversation that was held at the Brooklyn Museum that featured black men from a variety of perspectives, ages and pursuits.  Much of the discussion focused on what legacy the previous generations have left for today’s youth to refer to as they make their mark in the world.  The responses were just as varied as the panel.    As I listened it occurred to me that there might not be a blueprint but a spirit of resistance to oppression that can be found in every place where people yearn to be able to make a valuable contribution to family, village and world.

On May 12th I witnessed five young people make steps into young adulthood through our Rites of Passage program.  I was most impressed with their level of self-awareness and their desire to work on themselves—their work habits, their trust-worthiness, their confidence and how they learn to ask for help as a key factor to their walk as adults.   It was a profound revelation to me that by their own admission they were concerned about their inner-life and not just the outer show of success: cash, cars, bling and all the things they bring.   In my view, it is the inner life that helps to close the gap.  Consciousness of the inner life awakens one to the humanity of others, and reveals a vast array of possibilities that one never noticed before.  Young people see that there is a community of adults who desires, prays for, acts upon and supports their success. Rites of Passage for youth helps them to gain perspective about life, encourages them to tell the truth about themselves and closes the gap between generations while and building avenues of hope. 

It is our task as adults to work on closing the gap by supporting youth and also by voting for individuals and legislation that militates against criminalization of youth, financially supporting programs that work for youth, joining neighborhood associations that are working for safety for children, making room for internships for youth on our jobs—and so many other ways we can reach out to youth.  We have to be serious about taking an active part in closing the gap of communication, trust and support for our youth.  There are so many forces that are invested in widening it.