October 2021

Showing Up for Youth

By Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Whether or not you’re a parent in this community, each of us has been impacted by the tragic stabbing at Aptos High School that led to the death of a 17-year old child, as well as the arrest of two other children.

This has led me to reflect on the impacts of adults in my life when I was a child, and my role, our role as caring adults.

When was a time when a caring adult who wasn’t your parent comforted, uplifted and gave you space to grow?
I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Donovan. Little in size, big in heart, gray-haired, with red lipstick. I had only been here in the United States for a couple of years and my English was accented, and my grammar incorrect.

Mrs. Donovan saw me crying in the hallway. It wasn’t the first time. The other kids were calling me a terrorist. This was 1987. The Iran hostage crisis still permeated my classmates’ parents’ minds. What they heard at home, they repeated at school. She came up to me, put her arm around my shoulder and said, “Shebreh, you can be whoever you want to be. You can and will do great things. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise. So who do you want to be, how do you want to show up, and how can I help you get there?”

This incident has stayed with me over the years. It was one of the first times that I saw something different for myself. I’ve reflected on the role Mrs. Donovan had in my life, and undoubtedly so many other children. How do we ensure that every child in Santa Cruz County has the opportunity to meet a Mrs. Donovan?

We, as a community, need time to grieve. In our grief and anger, it is easy to jump into blame and shame without pausing and deeply reflecting on how each of us, as individuals, and the systems we are intertwined with, can contribute to a different and better reality for our youth.

After giving yourself time to feel the heartbreak of this loss, I invite each of you to reflect on the following questions:

  • What policies, cultural-norms and systems need to shift for us to create safe thriving environments for our youth?
  • What is my role, and how can I contribute to these shifts?
  • We can get stuck in the seemingly impossibility of a task, or we can find the openings that are unique to our role in the community.

Here are some of the ways I am engaging:
I’m working to bring forward a framework that ensures that the city keeps the needs of young people at the forefront of decisions, including budgets and government policies. This framework will help our community make children and youth a top priority, even during times of political change and financial upheaval.

I’m also working with some of my colleagues on Santa Cruz City Council, and committed community members, on the passing of Measure A, which will be on the November 2021 ballot. Measure A will allow the voters of Santa Cruz to make the Children’s Fund law. The Santa Cruz Children’s Fund provides resources for services such as childcare, after-school programs, and scholarships for summer and outdoor learning opportunities to the most vulnerable children in our community (to learn more: https://www.yesonsantacruzchildrensfund.org).

Finally, and maybe most importantly, I’ve been asking the children and youth in my life what Mrs. Donovan asked me all of those years ago, “Who do you want to be, how do you want to show up, and how can I help you get there?”

I also ask this question to the community.

How can we contribute to creating healthy, safe spaces so that all youth can thrive?

Each of us, as adults, can create lasting change to uplift children and youth. There are many opportunities in our community, including:

  • Voting on November 2021
    Volunteering and/or contributing to organizations that support our youth, such as
  • Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) ( https://casaofsantacruz.org/)
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters (http://www.santacruzmentor.org/)
  • Community Action Board (https://cabinc.org/)
  • Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (https://www.pvpsa.org/)
  • United Way of Santa Cruz County (https://www.unitedwaysc.org/)

If you’ve made it to this part of the OpEd, you are likely invested in the well-being of our youth, and so I invite your thought partnership.

I’m with you. I’m grieving with you. Let’s work together to create a space for all children and youth to thrive.

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson [email protected]

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