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Breaking through “the code”: 5 steps for unlocking success in young people

In January 2018, City Year Senior Vice President of Team Leadership Stephen Spaloss was invited to speak at a Mental Health in Schools conference of social workers, guidance counselors and teachers organized by Harvard Medical School. Below is an edited and condensed version of his remarks, “Five steps for unlocking success in young people.”

Growing up in New Hampshire in the 1970s, I was usually one of the only students of color in school. I was adopted by my foster mother, Jane, when I was still a baby, and she provided me with a loving family. But even though she loved me with all of her heart and tried to protect me, Jane was white and I was black, and all of her love couldn’t keep me from systems and institutions that were waiting for me.

I was one of those kids who was quiet in class. One day, my seventh-grade teacher said close to my ear, “You know, Mr. Spaloss? You’re so stupid, I bet you don’t know the definition of the word.”

She then says out loud, “Class, everyone pay attention. I believe Mr. Spaloss is so stupid, he won’t know the definition of the word. And then she opened the dictionary and read the definition aloud.”

I will never forget that moment. I was 12 years old. It was in that moment that I developed my personal code: First, no one was ever going to put me in a position where I would feel stupid again. Second, I would never let myself be let down by an adult.

Young people don’t have a code because they want to have a code. They develop a code because they are trying to stay safe and protect themselves. So, when I am working with young people, I think about developing and maintaining trust and stability. I think about how I can lead with compassion and nurture a sense of hope in a young person. All of that happens through relationships. It’s doing what you say you will do. Acting with integrity. Being an anchor. There are a few steps I walk myself through.

One: Do I really believe this person can be successful? If I don’t believe they can be successful, then I will make sure they are not. Don’t be a poser. Young people know when someone is fake.

Two: Why am I in a position to help them? Am I the right person, or do they need someone else? Can I be a bridge or a connector for them? I need to recognize that sometimes, I am not the right person and I need to find another mentor for that young person.

Three: I check my privilege at the door. I’m not here to rescue anyone. I’m here to provide a service and make sure someone receives something they deserve. I do not let myself think for a second that these kids need to be saved. It’s the zip code we’re at war with. It’s about resources. Some kids get resources and other kids do not. And that’s why we are all in this work–to ensure more kids get the resources they need to be successful.

Four: I need to listen. If I can’t take the time to try to understand where a young person is coming from, how can I help them make any kind of plan for where they should be headed? We have to meet people where they are. Every young person is going to struggle and succeed in their own way. Their dreams are going to be different from other people’s dreams. So, I’ve got to remember that every young person I work with is unique, and that’s what’s beautiful about them.

Five: Celebrate every step with clear examples. I always try to give concrete examples of positive behavior versus putting all my energy into the negative behavior. If something went wrong, let’s acknowledge and talk about it. But, let’s make sure to talk about what a young person did right.

Every day, I think about the kids who could actually have the solution to something we all need. A medical breakthrough. The next great piece of literature. An invention that changes our lives. But because they are growing up in the wrong zip code, without the resources and supports they need, we might never hear their voices.

Our young people represent all the answers we are looking for. Let’s make sure they have what they need to be able to fulfill that promise.

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