“They knew I had some problems, but they never asked me what was wrong or why I kept running [away] before they took my baby away … they put me in a situation where I couldn’t win,” Teneshia shared, a distant look in her eyes, as if she were looking back at her past. In the VOX meeting room filled with teens and social workers, the teen mom, gave birth to her first child at age 14, detailed caring for her children and drug-addicted mother, all while trying to avoid her sexually abusive male family members. “At home, I was the mom and paid every bill," she explained. She labeled herself as a “serious runaway,” because she ran away from home so often. As Tenesia told her story her voice cracked, and unable to continue, she burst into tears and left the room, trailed closely by her caseworker.
This emotional moment was joined by many others during a VOX writing workshop designed to help adjudicated teens' voices be heard. The goals of the workshop on this particular Saturday afternoon? To inform teens about the laws affecting them, to educate them about how their stories can affect public change, and to help them get their stories written, published and delivered to lawmakers. That's what was on our typed agendas, anyway. But all the planning in the world couldn’t prepare me for the impact the day would have on me.
Kicking off the workshop was VOX board member and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Hank Klibanoff, who spoke about his book "The Race Beat," the Civil Rights movement and social change.
“Dr. King knew the more awareness or exposure that was brought to the issue, the more Americans would not allow racial oppression," Klibanoff recounted. He explained how reporters changed the world by acting as eyewitnesses and writing about what they saw. “With the advancement of technology, everyone has the ability to advocate and push for change.”
In closing, Klibanoff encouraged the teens in the room to share their experiences with lawmakers and bring awareness to issues that impacted youth in Atlanta.
Kirsten Widner, director of policy for the Barton Law Clinic at Emory University in Atlanta, discussed the juvenile justice code. She read a few scenarios to the group addressing reinstatement of parental rights, independent living and status offenses.
“If you keep locking kids up, you groom criminals,” Widner said. “The economy has finally brought the issue to the forefront, because it’s more expensive to lock children up.
After taking some time to brainstorm ideas, the assembled teens split into pairs as veteran VOX teen staff members story-coached them. I partnered with Loretta, who, after she was separated from her siblings while in foster care, became an advocate for keeping brothers and sisters together. She opted to share her compelling journey and words of encouragement for youth currently involved with the system through videography.
At the end of the day, we all came back together to share the stories aloud. Many were raw, detailing trials and tribulations, and telling stories about being trapped in the system. Digesting the information quietly, I took deep breaths and fought back tears of sympathy and feelings of frustration for the amount of injustice these young people experienced from the same system that was supposed to protect them. I immediately remembered why I chose this path of social work — to help empower the youth in our community and ignite a renewed hope for their future. These young people are resilient, strong, and aspire to be "more than their situations," as one noted. They should be given a fair chance and the opportunity to experience childhood in peace.