“Imagine a Baltimore City where our most vulnerable children and youth are not demonized for living in a predicament that they did not create, but celebrated for their powerful resilience,” said Fanon Hill, executive director of the Youth Resiliency Institute (YRI).
In the south end of Baltimore, the Cherry Hill neighborhood sits within sight of the harbor and the bustling downtown area, but exists very much in isolation from the activity around it. Families in Cherry Hill have been impacted by the closings of neighborhood grocery stores and some schools, as well as limited public transportation options, leaving the community increasingly isolated.
All too often, families and communities are seen as barriers to their children’s success. However, in Cherry Hill, a small, but growing movement is underway that challenges families to take pride in their community and see themselves as the most effective advocates for their children. By taking advantage of the community’s rich culture, Fanon and YRI hope to use “cultural organizing” to create space for students to be themselves and thrive because of, not in spite of, the community where they are growing up. YRI is dedicated to inspiring realization of the authentic self in children, youth and adults. Through a creative, arts-based, culturally rich rites of passage process, YRI offers an array of mentoring and training services grounded in the cultural roots of residents to create and nurture a new generation of effective, community-based leaders.
YRI aims to, in part, teach the youth living Cherry Hill to construct their environment through artistic conversation and activities, giving youth a strong educational foundation, and as they grow, an opportunity to voice their concerns and improve conditions in their community through grassroots mobilization and collective action.
Through a new three-year investment from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), YRI will be implementing the foundation’s vision of transformative family engagement. YRI’s The Journey Project will provide a forum for low-income black families, policymakers, advocates, principals, teachers and others from diverse sectors to strengthen the early learning outcomes of Baltimore’s children who face barriers based on race or income.
WKKF defines transformative family engagement as a shared responsibility of families, schools and communities aimed at helping students learn and achieve. It is a continuous process from birth to third grade and beyond, and occurs across all the settings where children learn — creating environments that support parents and families as strong leaders and advocates for their children. Well-documented research shows that transformative family engagement models that are culturally relevant and respectful can build opportunity for families and students alike.
The Journey Project will help build the leadership and capacity of families, schools and communities to work together to promote opportunities for success. The effort will also help shape a national conversation on culturally relevant family engagement in low-income black communities by generating deeper understanding of the strategies that support resiliency in the development of children from birth to age 8. Support from WKKF is helping YRI to augment and expand the program in Baltimore’s most marginalized and disenfranchised communities.
Fanon refers to Cherry Hill parents and families as a “League of Family Engagement Superheroes,” that places responsibility on everyone in the community, because each individual has a role in the healthy development of a child. “When it’s recognized that parents are assets to their children’s education, it opens up opportunities for trust to be developed, for connections and collaborations to take place,” said Fanon. Furthermore, community leaders from YRI believe that such factors as race, language, family composition, access to resources and ethnicity are critical when developing policies for families to get deeply involved in their children’s education.
Parents are seeing results. Their children are taught to see their culture and community as a source of strength, while building strong bonds with other children and families in the Cherry Hill neighborhood. “[In] this program, we are not just friends, but we are like family,” said Keisha Mack, a mother of five and participant in YRI.
For YRI, “family engagement is the intersection of the past, the present and the future,” said Fanon. “Every community has its own history, its own tradition, its own protocol, and can provide an opportunity for young people to excel academically, with their own cultural backpacks in tow.”