October 2, 2015

The Side We Stand On

by Kavia Khosla '16

Kavia is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow, who worked with homeless youth in workshops at La Casa Norte in Chicago this summer.

“If anyone yells again, you’ll be asked to leave for the day! No more he said-she said nonsense.” Lauren made the rules perfectly clear. She apologized for the chaos, but cautioned that I should get used to similar conflicts erupting on the regular.

And thus began my work to unite the homeless youth at La Casa Norte. I can personally attest to the immense diversity at the youth center, from race to sexuality to appearance, and the number of disagreements that this causes between them. I thought it would be impossible for these youth to cooperate with one another, until time illuminated the reasons for their friction.

During the first workshop, I listed community issues and told the participants to stand to the left side if they felt influence over it, to the right side if they felt concerned about it, and in the middle if they felt both. After a half hour, I was able to theorize why the youth had so many conflicts. This activity was meant to prove that most community issues feel out of our control; issues like gun violence, police brutality, graduation rates, poverty… homelessness. But they surprised me by standing on the “influence” side of the room for almost every issue. They explained, “I know where police are patrolin’ at night. It’s your fault if you’re lurkin’ around there,” or “Graduation rates are in my control cuz I should’ve worked harder to stay in school,” or “He asked to be stolen from, flaunting his money like that.” I was truly astonished at how much personal blame these young people took for the unfortunate events that were thrust upon them at such an early age. This dangerous mindset is bred in a system focused on personal responsibility and blame.

I asked youth in the workshop to describe their hopes and aspirations; something a stranger should know about a community they belong to; and how they think their community could improve. One youth (left) says the youth community at La Casa Norte resembles a “dysfunctional family”. Another (right) says he or she hopes to “be a strong image to other peers and not lead them the wrong way”.

Homeless youth are constantly told, through school, caseworkers, and job training, that they have to take responsibility for their own lives. They have to fight to reintegrate into a society that shunned them because it’s their only chance to survive. This breeds a sense of “survival of the fittest” and competitiveness. On top of that, many homeless youth I met were wrought with guilt because they were forced to do things on the streets that they knew were wrong. Many youth were quick to aggressively point out each other’s life mistakes, which I presumed to be a coping mechanism for their own guilt. This behavior would subsequently lead to full blown arguments between them.

However, the youth perceive this phenomenon differently. Many described La Casa Norte as a “dysfunctional family”. The workshops slowly revealed to me the deep bond they feel with one another based solely on shared experiences. I saw they were deeply empathetic when someone got a new job or got their baby’s first sonogram. As we discussed problems within the drop-in community, they eventually put their minds together. They voted to fight for increased security in the overnight bedding facility by installing a storage system and training staff. This will prevent many of the thefts that lead to accusatory fights between the youth, and thus allow more trust between them.

This program showed me the eagerness of homeless youth to unite in the fight against homelessness. The community of youth I worked with was small and my time limited, so going forward, I hope to expand my program to show other youth in Chicago that if they speak up, they will be heard.



Related Stories

  • August 11, 2016

    "My name is Gwendolene Mugodi and I am a writer and the founder of Paivapo Storytellers, a movement that aims to provide better access to local, good quality literature to the children in Zimbabwe--and eventually beyond. Our work would not be complete without the help of local artists like Abel Zvorufura who I met through the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. As two different artists we spent about a month and a half going back and forth on this book until we got to a place we were both happy with. I look forward to sharing that full book in a few months, but for now here's a little bit about Abel and why he does what he does." 

    Gwendolene Mugodi
  • June 13, 2016

    Lauren Maunus '19 is starting a bold new venture.

    Its goal: To help eliminate food waste and bring healthy, affordable food to "food swamps" in Rhode Island and beyond.

    Nitya Amalean, Storyteller for Good
  • March 15, 2016

    Yelitsa Jean-Charles studies Illustration at RISD with a a concentration in Gender, Race & Sexuality. She identifies as a visual activist, and believes that artists have a responsibility as society’s image-makers. Her doll company and book series, Healthy Roots, combats internalized racism and colorism by getting to the root of the problem: altering beauty standards and cultviating self-love for young girls through education, diversity, and positive representation. 

    Isabel DeBre and Nitya Amalean, Storytellers for Good
  • March 12, 2016
    An Excerpt

    Mina is a Brown-RISD Social Innovation Fellow. She traveled to her home in Iran last summer and brought back a cultural souvenir: the book she wrote, Taste of Culture. She explores Iranian families, streets, stores and the stories and spirit embedded in the recipes of Iranian food. She hopes to start a conversation about the benefit of knowing cuisines of different cultures to connect societies. 

    This year's class of Brown-RISD Social Innovation Fellows have just begun their yearlong foray into the world of social entrepenuership. Check out their projects here

    Mina Jafarpoor '16
  • December 16, 2015

    Ria is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow and co-founder of No Country for Women (NCFW), an internationally-recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India. Ria and her co-founder, Shreena Thakore ’16, who grew up in India, were awarded the Projects for Peace fellowship and used this grant to launch the project in May of 2014. NCFW was set up to educate the people in India on gender, rape culture, and misogyny through a series of workshops and initiate informed discussions about social change.

    I was inspired by Ria’s story because she was determined to start a conversation about an issue in a country that fights hard to keep such issues silent and hidden. We reflected on Ria’s experiences, her interactions with young people, most of whom had never thought about this obvious form of discrimination before, and her moments of self-doubt and extreme conviction. 

    Nitya Amalean '16, Storyteller for Good
  • September 9, 2015

    Queen is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow. She is the founder of Radical Cards, a bilingual card game that encourages young people, especially those who are identified as "marginalized," "at-risk," and "of color," to use their creative self-expression for interpersonal social reflection. This summer, she took Radical Cards to Oakland, San Francisco, New York, and Cabarete, Dominican Republic.

    Queen Nefertiti Shabazz '17