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PACEs in Pediatrics

Want to empower youth in communities of color during COVID? Let them lead.


Widespread reporting has revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many poor communities of color. Less widely known is how the pandemic has affected young people in those communities.

“COVID-19 has had a particularly harsh impact on youth of color,” further traumatizing [juvenile-justice] system-impacted youth and their families already struggling with disproportionately high rates of disease, death, job loss and housing insecurity,” said Jim Keddy of Youth Forward. Keddy was speaking at a Jan. 27 webinar entitled Youth Development in the Era of COVID-19.

The panelists explored what isolation looks like for young people in these communities. They explained how organizations that provide support, fellowship, care and guidance for these youth have been affected. And they showed how young people and the organizations that support them have developed lifelines and support amidst mounting economic and social challenges.

The webinar was part of a series — sponsored by Youth Forward, the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, California Urban Partnership and Policy Link, — that focused on cannabis, equity and racial justice. The speakers included Audrey Jordan, a researcher with ADJ Consulting and Coaching; Marcus Strother of Mentor California; Ashley Rojas for Fresno Barrio Unidos; Antonio Delfino with the California Health Collaborative; and George Galvis of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.

In 2018, California passed Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use. A provision of the law called for cannabis revenue taxes to finance organizations that provide support for youth in the communities torn apart by the “War on Drugs” — the U.S. government’s failed 50-year program that disproportionately targeted Black and brown people. A total of $85 million from those tax revenues has gone into funding these efforts. (For funding details, see here and here.)

Youth Forward wanted to understand how organizations serving young people were able to meet those needs during the pandemic. It sent surveys to 117 grant recipients in November 2020 and received responses from 40 organizations, said Jordan. Some 82% of the respondents identified as LGBTQI-serving organizations. The majority were located in urban areas, with just 18% located in rural areas.

Not surprisingly, organizations said their greatest challenge during COVID-19 was their inability to meet young people in person (95% reported this as a challenge). Fully 85% said this interfered with their ability to build relationships and impeded their outreach efforts. Other challenges included providing access to mental health services for youth (76%) and declining youth participation (40%).

However, 33% experienced the same level of engagement as before the pandemic and 22% of the respondents saw an increase in youth involvement in their organizations.

What would have made their work less challenging during the pandemic?

  • Better and more available Wi-Fi
  • Virtual language translation supports
  • Sample curricula for supporting youth virtually

Organizations also described how they pivoted during the pandemic and what helped them move forward. Johnson, who presented the research, cited these takeaways:

  • Increased use of social media, text messaging and phone calls
  • Redirecting funding to meet basic needs such as providing food
  • Partnering with other organizations virtually

Make me more than an appointment on your calendar

Several speakers from youth organizations discussed how they’ve weathered the pandemic. Marcus Strother of Mentor California said that when he saw a drop-off in engagement among mentees in his program, he went directly to them to ask them what they needed. One thing they made clear is that they wanted greater access to their mentors.

“Don't make me an appointment on your calendar. If I’m just an appointment, you don’t really care about me,” they said in a focus group.

But young people also said they didn’t need to connect in person with their mentors and didn’t need their mentors to drop everything if they called. Instead, they asked that their mentors just let them know when they’ll get in touch and also find other ways to connect with them virtually.

As an example of an app that helps youth who are in crisis connect with supportive adults, Strother mentioned NotOK, which was developed byteenager Hannah Lucas after a suicide attempt. Teens enter the names and contact numbers of supportive adults in their lives; if they’re in crisis, they send an alert that notifies those adults that they’re not OK and need help. After the teen has had a chance to talk with one of the adults, they send a message to the other adults on their list that says: “I’m OK.”

Strother believes mentoring should be funded by public health programs, because it provides a way to prevent and mitigate ACEs. “It lets our young people know that they have one caring adult at the end of the day that they could check in with and who supports them in a huge way.”

Connecting and experiencing joy

How was 2020 for Fresno Barrio Unidos? “As a second-year executive director, it was certainly the most challenging experience of my professional life,” said Rojas. “It brought to life a lot of the issues that our young people are navigating every day, even before the pandemic, with lots of added urgency.”

Rojas knew immediately that if her staff were going to be able to support the young people they served, they needed support themselves. “They opted to co-create spaces to engage in individual activities and group activities,” she said. “And I think that really communicated to us that our staff were craving the same sort of connection and support that the young people we serve were needing.”

The staff, all under 30, already had created digital spaces to connect with the young people they serve. But to ensure that everyone could meet in those spaces, the organization spent time making sure their youth could get access to tablets and technology in their own language.

Once the access was available, Rojas said, the bottom line was making sure that those digital communities were places where young people could connect and experience joy.

“We’ve held a lot of game nights. They’ve played the game ‘Among us’ together. We put them in different rooms and let them just meet other young people and play,” she said. “I think that's something that we really want to elevate more. Where does play live in our strategic plan? Where does joy live in those strategic plans? Because it’s so critical to those relationships.”

Beyond play, Rojas and her staff tapped into the connections their young people already had and turned them into influencers. This effort earned the organization a contract from the city to help counteract the rampant misinformation they were seeing about COVID among young people.

The organization paid these influencers, some of whom had thousands of followers, to engage with their peers as trusted messengers.

“We were able to access more youth than our county Department of Public Health and city government,” Rojas said. “So, we’re really proud of our young people not only for showing up for that, but showing a lot of vigor and creativity, designing art, storytelling, reclaiming the narrative.”

Let young people lead

Antonio Delfino runs the California Collaborative, an arts organization whose aim is to empower and heal youth. One of his main takeaways during the pandemic has been to let the youth in the organization lead the effort.

“They know what is relevant, they understand social media, they understand marketing. They informed our content. And it really made it relevant to them and their peers,” he said.

The teens in his organization urged leaders not to water down the message.

“We're going to talk about the war on drugs; talk about it. Right?” he said. “Talk about race, talk about systemic racism, talk about mass incarceration in the school-to-prison pipeline, give them the facts, give them the data.”

Like Rojas, Delfino has created digital communities for the youth they serve and said that “it’s kind of tricky” to have authentic engagement online. He advised building trust.

“Don't get caught up in the numbers and the pressure,” he said. “Just showing up being yourself and being present over time is going to help create better authentic engagement that I think ultimately will help retain students in your programs.”

Translating righteous rage into substantive policy

The mission of George Galvis’s East Oakland-based organization, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, is to elevate the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated young people, justice system-involved young people and their families. To understand how that works for the people his organization serves, Galvis said, it’s important to recognize that Proposition 64 is providing baby steps toward repairing the harm leveled against Black and brown communities during the War on Drugs.

“The legalization of cannabis created an opportunity for a lot of White guys now to kind of line up and get rich off that legalization,” he said. “And previously (those transactions) subsidized a lot of Black and brown families in the underground economy. And so, what we're seeing now in terms of most crime that's happening in California, is that they’re really crimes of survival, because some of that subsidy is no longer in the family or in the community.”

When the pandemic hit, the organization gave stipends to young people who were helping with food distribution. They also bought Chromebooks and helped their youth get connected. A major turning point for youth in his organization, Galvis said, was that they were on the frontlines of organizing demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

“It was youth-led out here in Oakland,” he said. “Some of our young people put out a call in Oakland for a youth march that was 15,000 strong, and…they marched beautifully, they marched powerfully, and they marched peacefully.”

The young people, however, were pelted with rubber bullets and tear-gassed, “and had bruises up and down their bodies,” said Galvis.

“We've mentored the young people to really translate their righteous rage into substantive policy demands and systems change. And we started showing up to every city council member’s house and the mayor’s house in the morning doing what we call the Wake Up Calls to demand that they defund the police budget.” With youth leading, and then adult support, they continued rallying and defying curfews.

“Finally, the [city council] caved in and said they would defund the Oakland police by 50% and create a reimagined public safety council,” Galvis said. The task force issued final recommendations on March 1, which include recommendations for alternatives to policing, violence prevention and addressing root causes, budget allocation, improving policing and data transparency.

Today, March 9, is the final day for Oakland, California residents to submit feedback about the recommendations at:, by phone at:  (510) 663-4399, or via a community listening session this evening at 6:00 Pacific time. A draft of the recommendations will be submitted to the Oakland City Council on April 1.

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