I had the opportunity to hear Tomás Alvarez speak at last week’s Momentus Institute Conference. Celebrated as a CNN Hero for his groundbreaking work combining traditional talk therapies with hip-hop, Alvarez is re-imaging mental health, inspiring a global movement for “at-promise” kids. Yes, at-promise not at-risk as is the current narrative, and is one that CAC also uses when writing about our outreach programs – Camp MetalHead, Feasts of Clay & Glass and unseenamerica – in grant, press and promotional materials.
That’s about to change as I now realize that although the term “at-risk” is easily understood by funders and the media, it ultimately denies students and their families the dignity they deserve by focusing on the negative and not the positive. As one of those kids myself growing up identified as at-risk, I always felt on the brink of being viewed as a throwaway by society. After dropping out of high school and spending a couple of years on the streets and starting to become all too familiar with the criminal justice system, I somehow came out on the other side. I was damn lucky, always believing in my own scrappy potential even when other people no longer did. I was able to go back to a self-paced, alternative high school, then community college, then a four-year college and finally graduate school – slowing and painstakingly putting one foot in front of another until I had built a life of promise for myself.
Alvarez is right – we need to reexamine the language we use to affirm the people we work with because as he said, “language is powerful.” Check out the work that Alvarez is doing through the organization he founded Music, Beats & Rhymes. And while you are at it, take a look at the work Dallas artist Will Richey is doing right here through his spoken word performance and youth development organization, Journeyman Ink, and the Daverse Lounge program.