Childhoods Lost and Found
by Justin Klugh
The Raymond Rosen housing projects at 22nd and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia were an unsettling place to be a child. Built in 1954 for residents with low incomes, they were in time swallowed by drugs, crime and disinvestment, all of which served as the backdrop for Connie Grier’s adolescence.
“Our family endured harsh realities,” she recalls.
Grier’s upbringing would have been very different had it not been for her father’s continued advocacy to get her into a school more suited to her gifts, and for the involvement of teachers who listened to and empowered her. “Had my father not advocated for me, my life would definitely not be the same,” Grier says.
While Grier has built a robust career in nonprofits and education as an adult, she knows that her own early experiences continue to manifest themselves in the lives of Philadelphia’s youth.
“It has become very easy to treat Philadelphia's children like second-class citizens,” she says, “to send them to school with limited access to things that youth in other areas of the state take for granted.”
Grier drew on her own experience of having an involved father and teachers who helped her as she created the RESPECT Alliance, a nonprofit she founded in 2011 to fill in gaps and build connections among the homes, schools and communities of children in Philadelphia. She wants to lessen the impact of obstacles put in place by economic status and give kids the support system they need to succeed. In a big, loud city like Philadelphia, especially when you’re alone, it’s easy to feel drowned out or left behind.
Grier aims to keep the lines of communication open and support those who have fallen into the cracks. Youth can attend Know Your Rights forums in collaboration with the Childhoods Lost Foundation, where lawyers educate children on laws and their rights. They can connect with mentors or get involved in arts programs that help them process big issues facing their community or their peer group.
“Raising children with the thought that they are to be ‘seen but not heard’ does both our youth and our future society a great disservice,” Grier says. “Parents who are courageous enough to allow their children to ask questions respectfully, and express their feelings respectfully, are helping to raise children who are independent thinkers, who will advocate for themselves.”
As is often the case, Grier’s work has been strengthened by collaboration. Born and raised in South Philly, Kaliek Hayes has joined with Grier and the RESPECT Alliance to facilitate workshops, notably the Know Your Rights campaign and The Unheard Monologues, a theatrical series.
“Whatever we can think of that young people battle with, we show it to them onstage,” Hayes says. He has been writing and producing stage plays on issues facing urban youth for the last five years, including productions that address HIV/AIDS, depression and bullying. He draws from his own experience growing up too quickly; unlike Grier, Hayes didn’t have the support that he needed to thrive at a young age. A CBS news story on Hayes laid out his life: At 13, Hayes and his brother witnessed the murder of his best friend. He was a father at 14, turned out of the house by 16. He dealt drugs, and by 20 he was in federal prison.
He wants to get to kids before their own childhoods are lost. Exposure alone is a boon for some youth, Hayes explains, “Just seeing what other people their age have dealt with and battled.” It’s that lack of connection, he says, that has left youth without a local foundation from which they can stabilize themselves.
Naturally, as a playwright, he’d like to see a deeper commitment to the arts in city programs. “From my perspective, the arts are lost in this city. I’d like to see more programs that benefit young people’s ideas and vision,” Hayes says. “That’s why we use the arts to try to advocate figuring out who ‘yourself’ is, and just growing and building toward that.”
He’s also seen how simply getting kids in the same room through the RESPECT Alliance’s multitude of programs has reignited previously deadened support systems.
“Kids who may have never known each other, seen each other, just seeing how certain programs will have them together—I’ve seen how that builds a sense of community,” Hayes recalls. “That’s another thing that’s missing, especially in urban areas: We lost a sense of community. We lost the sense of knowing each other and being there for each other.”
The STARS (Successful Teens: Aware, Resilient and Strong) program is one of the avenues through which the RESPECT Alliance directly addresses the “lack of awareness” of which Hayes speaks. STARS focuses on empowering young girls and now includes a global component in which they connect with youth in Africa. Mentees in the program are often provided with outlets and information to which they otherwise may not have been privy.
“Not many teens have access to information on college prep,” says STARS high school participant Yahnee Acklin, who is perusing pre-med collegiate programs. “Recently, we had a guidance counselor from [Norristown Area High School] come to one of our sessions, and she explained to us what we needed to do. If I didn’t have the program that I do on Saturdays, I wouldn’t have known about college prep at all. So, bottom line is that this program helps with issues that I think Philadelphia youth are going through.”
With STARS’ intention to nurture teen voices, Acklin says the value of attending sessions is in the open forum that it gives her and other attendees to discuss what’s on their minds and what they’ve been working on—a place to use their voice without concerns of unneeded reprisal or being ignored. Already, she’s seen other STARS members respond well to the environment after only a few weeks, crediting the intimacy of meetings for cultivating a safe space.
“The group is smaller, so you have the chance to say what you need to say, whenever you need to,” she says. “It makes it more comfortable for the mentees; you don’t have to worry about being drowned out by everyone else.”
The goals of all of RESPECT Alliance’s programs cascade into one another; in the broadest example, STARS is working toward flying Acklin and other local youths to its installations in West Africa this summer, bridging a pair of versatile communities and bolstering global perspectives among teens on two continents. Participation in community groups and activities builds supportive relationships with other kids, as well as adults, which leads to better social and emotional well-being. That can mean higher attendance rates in school and better participation in the classroom, which leads to better academic performance and higher graduation rates.
The intergenerational, local and intercontinental connections that Grier has helped create are a critical intercession for young people who may feel helpless, voiceless or trapped, and the RESPECT Alliance will continue to spark larger-scale change by supporting the youth who will become the next generation of leaders—including future doctors such as Acklin.
“I would definitely help,” Acklin says, “especially on the level that Miss Connie does. I would love to do that."