Seeing Young People

Choosing a Community

I just became a grad school student five weeks ago after going back and forth on if I could do it. I’m here, and as part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Social J Program, we’re tasked with choosing a community to forge enduring bonds with, one we can parter with to make journalism (newspapers, podcasts, whatsapp communities, and other media) more useful and less homogenous. I’ve wrestled with this charge, having been a part of intersecting communities here in Minneapolis, where I care for my dad, work as an interpreter and do some food writing.

Coming into this program I worked primarily with Latinx families, mostly Mexican/Chicano youth and their caregivers and parents. I worked at a charter high school as an Americorps Promise Fellow and support staff, later doing work around growing and preparing food. Youth came to school facing multiple challenges of separation from family, having to work long hours to provide financially, and often having experienced some form of trauma, though no two students were the same. I felt many days that the broader education system failed them, that there were not enough supports or creative outlets for students to express their perspectives, curiosities and values. At the same time, I saw students produce brilliant work at El Colegio and just as critically, build the community overall.

In the past week, I’ve considered working with youth who are active in the environmental (anti-apocalypse) movement, I’ve interviewed folks who are doing work in immigration and racial justice, and have also considered partnering with immigrant and refugee communities in Minnesota who need more expansive coverage like what’s bubbling up at the Sahan Journal. I’ve tried to consider what communities I could serve best as a journalist. There is no one best answer, but I have to make a choice. I want to work with youth who are living and learning outside the mainstream education system, whether due to a lack of services at traditional schools, disciplinary issues or ongoing outside conflict. This decision comes from both a place of concern for our young people and also deeper yearning to hear how young peoples’ stories can better inform discussions about schools and the systems that surround them

How are the Children?

A friend shared with me that in Africa the Masai greet each other with, “And how are the children?” For me, I care deeply about the fates of our kids, and many of them are not given a fighting chance to love, to be curious, to thrive. Far too often, our Black and brown youth are treated as problems to be dealt with and corrected rather than complex young people who bring wisdom, wit, and also struggle. When I got out of college, a private liberal arts institution of great privilege, I started working at an elementary school. I had gone to public schools but in a wealthy town called Brookline in MA. While every school including this one has dedicated and innovative staff, there were many aspects of this school that reminded me of a prison. The students were segregated by gender with physical contact being closely monitored, the walls inside were all brick with little chance of natural light to enter, and most critically, administrative staff referred to students using problematic terms, again, as if they were dangerous.

I remember walking up the stairs one day at this school and encountering a group of students in two lines facing the wall. As I recall, they were predominately Black girls, which immediately struck me as racist and draconian. I had known about the “achievement gap,” a term that refers to the inequities in outcomes between students of color and white students. The term that’s now used is the opportunity gap, which focuses on inequities as the consequence of disparities of societal conditions in and out of schools that create different sets of opportunities for white students and students of color and indigenous students. I then also learned about the school to prison pipeline, whereby schools exercise zero tolerance disciplinary measures that blur the line between the justice system and schooling, thus socializing students to see themselves as criminals and also face the increasing possibility of becoming incarcerated. I could see this happening in real time.

Navigating Identity

I live in Minneapolis, blocks from where George Floyd was asphyxiated until he passed out by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. This was one in a string of murders of unarmed black men and people of color that happened without recourse or redress including the murders of Philando Castille, Jamar Clark, Fong Lee among others. These killings by the police are inhumane and invoke notions of the police’s original function as slave patrols. Still, police brutality is only one manifestation of systemic racism here in this state that ascribes power and opportunity to whiteness. I would like to focus on the ways racism, trauma, and incarceration intersect with the education system and how supports outside of school can better serve young people and their families. Young people, particularly young people of color and youth from immigrant backgrounds have much to offer in this moment when people are critiquing the role of policing in community, the racial, economic, and gender inequities that Covid is exposing, and more broadly how this next generation will do things differently.

Two factors that give me pause in this work are my privilege and my lack of contact with youth who have been expelled or are in the juvenile justice system. Though I’m multiracial and from a single parent home, I have white skin and have other critical privileges including financial safety and a college degree, and I don’t inherently bear the weight of our oppressive racial caste system; it always hurts me when I see or experience its barbaric effects, namely discarding or walling off children and young people. Also, I’ve been affected by microcosmic incidents like when my friend came to visit his home state (MN) and I. This was in 2015 to 2016 when more confederate flags and Trump-Pence were going up in peoples’ front lawns. As we were leaving Chipotle, Wes, who is Haitian and Black, held open the door. After I exited I quickly noticed he was fuming. He asked, “Did you see that?” I hadn’t. There had been a white woman behind me who had refused to walk outside, presumably frozen in her damaging preconceived notions of danger tied with blackness. We processed, and I still feel vividly the groundlessness I felt by the discrepancy in our experiences.

I also question how I will build relationships with young women of color, queer youth, and femmes who may have distrust for men due to past harm. To work with this, I will have to seek out trusted adults who can help facilitate these connections and also be attuned to how I can help make the youth I’m working with feel most comfortable and safe.

Picture of two young people taken at the intersection of Chicago Ave. and Lake St. at an empty lot where a building burned down in 2008. The space is now being used for creative gatherings. Photo by Abe Levine.


In this process, I have to refine what I want to ask of these youth and what they have to ask using the tools of social journalism also known as engagement or solutions journalism. For now, I am focused on building relationships and asking broadly what has worked for them in education and what needs to be changed. I am anticipating that more direction will emerge, especially as I use approaches such as participatory action research, which strives to empower young people with the tools and guidance to ask their own questions regarding dilemmas they experience or simple curiosities they have about their neighborhoods, identities, society, etc.

I do know that I love people and vibe very often with young people, in part because I’m somewhat comfortable being my whole self. I grew up an anxious, quirky, and emotional kid that would put his fears and oddity out there. I think youth can tell that I’m approaching them with tenderness and authenticity. And after reading fellow CUNY J-school student, Tori Hoffman’s piece on thinking through definitions masculinity, I’m reminded that this effort to build relationships requires showing up time and again.

Not Subjects, But Authors

I want to bring together experiences I have with education, relationship building, and writing to create spaces for young people to tell their stories, ask questions about the overarching systems that surround them, and for the broader public to be better informed about where the children are when not visible. What options exist for transformative or healing justice? How can young people fulfill an innate curiosity to learn and grow, even when that has been taken away?

In reading an introduction to a qualitative research by Lisbeth A. Berbary of the University of Waterloo, I’m thinking of different methodological frameworks and approaches I can bring to this task. They include participatory action research, feminist action research, and narrative inquiry among others. These methods critique the binary and power relations between researcher and subject or in my case, journalist and protagonist, while also culling up the innate capacity of young people to ask and find answers to their own questions. Stay tuned and stay open.



Abē he holds a masters degree in journalism @newmarkjschool. Topics of interest include food, environmental and racial justice, and being more human.

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Abē Ross Levine

Abē he holds a masters degree in journalism @newmarkjschool. Topics of interest include food, environmental and racial justice, and being more human.