Youth Issues/Children

A first generation Eritrean immigrant, Youth Radio’s Awet Habtom must learn for herself how to navigate her cultural traditions – including sexism and patriarchy.

My dad used to tell me: I shouldn’t play sports. I shouldn’t wear revealing clothes. I should take care of him and my brothers.

I’m first generation Eritrean. I’m proud of my heritage. I love the music, the food, the holidays. But the society can be pretty patriarchal. Just a couple years ago, the United Nations slammed Eritrea’s treatment of women.

My parents came to the US in the ‘90s. They divorced after I was born. Now, they run very different households. My dad lives with his extended family–my aunts, uncles, and cousins. At mealtime, the men eat, while the women serve them. We don’t sit down until we’re done cleaning up after the men.

I didn’t question this. I didn’t even think to tell my mom. If she had known, she probably wouldn’t have let me visit my dad as much.

In 7th grade, I told my mom girls can’t play basketball. When she realized I was serious, she cried. “What kind of child thinks like this?” You can imagine, when I said I got this idea from my dad, she was mad. She told me I was wrong, that my mindset was unfair towards myself and other women. That I should never let “being a girl” stop me.

Letting go of my sexist ideas took effort. When I caught myself holding back, I’d pause and give myself permission. Over time, I adopted a newfound respect for all women, starting with me.

When my mom confronted my dad, he apologized. After that, when I visited, I was allowed to eat beside him. But I was the exception. From then on, my aunts, female cousins, and grandma served me alongside the guys. They called me disobedient for rebelling against “our culture.”

Sometimes, I wish I could erase those early years around the table. But at the same time, my newfound feminist beliefs are real. They weren’t handed to me. I had to earn them by living day by day.

With a Perspective, I’m Awet Habtom.

Awet Habtom is a high school senior and lives in Union City. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

Youth Radio’s Riley Lockett says he’s always been skinny, and he wishes the world could just get over it already.

Here’s what I hear from everyone in my family: “Why you so skinny?” “Boy, you thin!” “Get some meat on your bones.”

I get it from my friends, too. One time I was sitting having school lunch, and when I took off my coat, my friends acted like I opened the Ark of the Covenant. “Whoa!” they asked. “Do you wear your jacket all the time to hide how thin you are?” It’s like people can’t keep their opinions to themselves.

I don’t go up to other people and say, “Geez, you look like you could lose a few pounds.” Because that would be insensitive. That would be rude.

I’m 5’8” and I weigh 125 pounds. And everyone says I look like Steve Urkel. I know I’m skinny. In a swimming suit, you can clearly see my ribs, and my butt is so boney that it almost always hurts to sit. Yet my doctor says I’m healthy, and this may come as a shock: I’m also pretty comfortable with my body.

So what’s with the constant attention on my weight?

I feel like the real issue isn’t how many pounds I weigh. It has more to do with what it means to a young black man.

In my family’s minds, muscles are a kind of insurance policy against the dangers black men face. My mom is always worried that people on BART are going to target me, assume I’m easy pickings. She’s also very aware of how police see black men. My family wants me to look like I could handle myself if attacked, to be able to defend myself against bullying and harassment. They want me to be big so I’ll stand tall in the face of confrontation.

I get that that my family wants me to be safe. But at the same time, they are sending me the wrong message about what it means to be a man.

I can be a strong man with a skinny body, as long as I’m confident and comfortable with my size. I don’t need to be the toughest guy on the block. I just need to approach situations with courage and conviction.

With a Perspective, I’m Riley Lockett.

Riley Lockett is a high school junior and lives in Oakland. His commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

Sometimes, life doesn’t go according to plan. And when it does, it’s time to take the hit and adapt to the new reality. Youth Radio’s Stella Lau has this Perspective.

It’s the start of a new school year. I’m seeing my friends off to college. I thought I’d be going with them. But it didn’t work out that way.

I was rejected from all the universities I applied to: just six very elite colleges, and zero safety schools. I don’t know, it was probably an ego thing. I thought that I was too good for state schools. Also, I aspire to be an artist. There’s not exactly a straight path. And I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know what I was doing, so I fumbled by myself through the application process.

When it became clear I wouldn’t be attending a four-year college in the fall, I felt like I’d failed. I kept thinking back on my dad’s graveyard shifts, my encouraging teachers, and the many hours I studied. It all felt wasted on somebody who couldn’t get into even one college.

I mentally prepared myself for negative comments: that I was stupid, a failure, a disappointment. But when I started opening up to friends and teachers, they comforted me and reassured me that the efforts spent on my education hadn’t gone to waste. Their support helped me move on.

All throughout high school, I was told college was my next and only step. Being rejected opened my eyes to how many options there actually are. I could go to Paris and study at Beaux Arts. I could attend trade school. I could skip post-secondary education altogether. The possibilities are overwhelming, but also exciting. For now, I’ve enrolled in community college. Part of me is bitter about missing out on the traditional freshman.

But I’m also glad to sort out some of the confusion of transitioning to adulthood, without the burden of a pricey tuition. After having my life completely structured for 18 years, it’s up to me now.

To be honest, I feel liberated, if still a teeny bit scared.

With a Perspective, I’m Stella Lau.

Stella Lau is 18 and attending community college in Berkeley. Her Perspective comes to us from Youth Radio.

Last summer, my family spent practically all of our time together. This summer, we had a lot of fun too, but something was missing — my brother Cole.

He was busy taking summer college courses–though that’s not the only thing that kept him from us. He also has what he calls a second family.

When my brother returned home from his first weeks at college last September, I was excited to hear all about how it was going. Dorm life, cafeteria food, and frat parties. Instead, when my family sat down at the table to eat, Cole closed his eyes, clasped his hands, and silently mouthed grace.

My jaw dropped in shock.

Atheism is all we’d ever known. But the first friends Cole made on campus belonged to a Southern Baptist church group. Not long after, he converted.

My parents are trying to understand. They read those books about spirituality and even went to Easter church services. It’s been harder for me to accept.

Early on, I asked Cole, “Do you think that when I die, I’ll go to Hell?” I expected him to say, “Of course not! You’re a good person.” But without pausing, he told me that if I didn’t repent for my sins, then yeah, I would. I wanted to scream that I’m his sister. Regardless of the Bible’s rules, he knows I’m a good person. I guess he has more faith in God than he has in me.

I also have to own that I’ve made some very mortal mistakes on the road to acceptance. I fought with my brother a lot about his beliefs. I even laughed at him when he tried to explain them. Would a good person laugh at their own brother for something he cares about?

I want to hold onto the Cole of my childhood, the one who climbed trees and loved making stupid puns with me. In some ways, we’re not those people anymore. We’re both changing so much.

The thing I’ve learned through this, is that I can’t choose to focus on our differences.

He’s not Cole the Southern Baptist, he’s just Cole — my funny, smart best friend.

With a Perspective, I’m Sierra Fang-Horvath.

Sierra Fang-Horvath is 17 and lives in Oakland. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

Since my junior year of high school, I’ve been saving up money for college by working at a fast food restaurant.

I regularly work the closing shift, which means getting home around 3:30 in the morning. Sometimes during my breaks, I’ll sit at the tables in front of the restaurant and scroll through my Snapchat only to see pictures of my friends out at parties, which always hurts a little. It feels like I’m missing out on the fun of being a teenager.

At the same time though, the sizzling grills, bubbling fryers, and orders being yelled out sometimes provide a welcome distraction from worries I have about my future.

We never really talked about it, but I grew up knowing that my family would not be able to help me with tuition. So even though I was accepted to a four year university, I decided to go to community college for my first two years to save money.

My family has always been economically vulnerable — something a recent survey, called GenForward, from the University of Chicago, says is common among black and Latino youth. The survey asked millennials how an unexpected bill of a thousand bucks would affect them.

I know what this kind of sudden expense feels like because it just happened to my family.

Last month, I was getting ready for school, when I walked into the kitchen and saw my dad on the phone looking worried. His work truck had been stolen during the night with all of his tools for flooring inside. He’s the primary breadwinner. But without his tools, he couldn’t work.

We had just enough savings that he was able to buy the minimum amount of equipment and with an old pickup truck he was able to get back to work within a few days.

It was a very close call. My family was able to stretch to cover this loss, but who knows, what if there’s a next time? This is a question I’m taking with me as I step into my future. I’m hopeful, but also very aware that I don’t have much of a safety net.

With a Perspective, I’m Emiliano Villa.

Emiliano Villa is 18 and lives in Oakland. Youth Radio produced his commentary.

I don’t cry during sad movies, or happy ones. I often joke, that I don’t have emotions. So why did I feel a lump in my throat when I recently sat down to watch Sesame Street?

When Big Bird walks over to introduce himself to Julia, a new Muppet with autism, he gets offended when she doesn’t respond right away.

Then a surprising thing happens. Without dwelling on her autism, the characters normalize the situation, explaining that she’s a kid who happens to process things a little differently.

When I was young, I used to be obsessed with making up stories. Dolls and other toys became characters in long complicated plots that would evolve over months and years on end.

It was like living in a moving bubble that created a barrier between me and everyone else. For a long time, no one else could really connect with me, even members of my family.

Once, while playing with my tiny plastic PollyPocket dolls, my mom unwittingly altered one of my storylines when she had one of the dolls stand up for herself after being bullied. I was frustrated by her intrusion upon the world I was creating. I got upset. We stopped playing. And I learned that dolls were something best played alone.

I spent the first 8 or so years of my life oblivious of my autism label. My parents broke the news to me in 4th grade. And when they told me, I started crying.

I remember feeling ashamed. I wanted to distance myself from my diagnosis because I didn’t want to be any different from my peers. I felt that sharing my diagnosis would isolate me.

These days, it’s not like I walk around with a neon sign proclaiming that I have Asperger’s, but for practical reasons I do have to talk about it. Like getting accommodations on tests at school.

Sesame Street’s Julia isn’t going to change much for me…but she does something better, by helping the next generation of teachers, kids, and parents, understand what it means to live on the spectrum.

With a Perspective, I’m Adina Shoshana.

Adina Shoshana is 16 and attends high school in San Francisco. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

It seems like everyone is talking about how more women need to go into technical careers. For a while I considered studying computer science. During high school, I learned some Python, C++, and other programming languages. But I found myself craving something more tangible. I ultimately opted for less screen time, and more hammer time. I decided to go into construction.

My dad is a general contractor, who works on residential projects. Through him, I’ve come to appreciate the joy that comes with building. He and his brother own a company, and I grew up working with them on jobsites.

A typical workday involves hard labor in the morning. Sanding rough wood in preparation for staining. Nailing down plywood for a home remodel. Organizing a creative plan for narrow workspaces. Etc, etc.

Then at noon, my family and I would gather for lunch. We’d sit on our coolers and upside down milk crates, digging for our tuna fish sandwiches buried deep beneath the now-melted ice. Our faces would be wet with sweat and coated with sawdust.

My cousin, sister and I would try extending our lunches longer than our dads ever thought reasonable. We always lost those arguments and would end up working until the sun went down.

In the fall I’m heading to Cal Poly to study construction management, a career that I know isn’t going to be easy. Barriers like sexual harassment, lower pay, or just being viewed as bossy rather than the boss, are all issues women face when entering heavily male-dominated fields, whether it’s construction, tech, or business.

Beyond fighting to close the gender pay gap and create opportunities for women in the workplace, there’s another reason I am doing this; It’s because during those lunches with my family, I always felt like I had truly accomplished something. A visual reward for my visual mind, an actual physical structure I could walk by later with pride, because I was a part of creating something.

I am ready to don a hard hat and challenge the status quo. Because at the end of the day, I’m committed to building something bigger than myself.

With a Perspective, I’m Grace Vaughan Brekke.

Grace Vaughan Brekee is 18-years-old and a high school senior in Oakland.

My mom is Chinese, with black hair and tan skin. My dad is white, with light eyes and skin the color of office paper. I, on the other hand, am an awkward midway point: dark skin, but not super dark; black hair, but not super black.

It used to be that I never thought about my mixed race. But as I’ve gotten older, and now that I attend a predominantly white suburban school, race is constantly on my mind.

Recently, my classmates and I participated in a survey calculating our privilege,

One question, asked whether band aids match my skin color. Are band aids supposed to, I wondered?

Another question, asked whether I can surround myself with people of my same race whenever I choose. I looked around my English class and saw blond hair and pale skin.

At the end of the quiz, my white classmates had racked up scores suggesting they have three times as much privilege as I do.

Now, I no longer think of myself as Sierra. I’m brown Sierra.

I went to my dad in hopes that he could set things back the way they were, back to when I didn’t have to think about this.

I asked him whether people would make assumptions about me based on my skin color. His furrowed brow confirmed it: probably.

I asked whether boys wouldn’t find me pretty because I was dark, and his eyes filled with tears. He told me good dad things. That I’m beautiful and smart and capable. But the more he talked, the less I believed him.

I enjoy a lot of privileges. I’m middle class and I go to a good school. On top of that Asian Americans just seem to fare better in terms of bias and racism — at least these days.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that privilege exists. We don’t have to become defensive, and we don’t have to feel guilty for it, but we do have to know when it’s there.

I’m not white. I’m also not not-white. So it’s fuzzy figuring out exactly what privileges I benefit from.

With a Perspective, I’m Sierra Fang-Horvath.

Sierra Fang-Horvath lives in Oakland and is a junior in high school. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

As I gear up for Donald Trump’s inauguration next week, I’m flashing back to the morning after election day. My rage, sadness, and apprehension blurred together into an emotional tidal wave.

I wanted to cry, but instead, I reached for a tube of liquid eyeliner.

This was was unusual for me. I came out as transgender at 14 and until very recently I’ve been terrified of not passing as male. I used to bind my chest so tightly it hurt my ribs. I wore layers of clothing to disguise my body shape and shoes with huge lifts hidden in them to make me look taller. I avoided make-up and ‘girly’ outfits even if I thought they looked nice. And I laughed when my straight cis friends made sexist or transphobic jokes.

I believed that being totally stealth and assimilating into masculinity would allow me to lead a normal and happy life. But all it did was force me to keep hiding. I was holding myself to a standard I didn’t actually believe in. Coloring within lines that don’t exist.

Make-up usually made me feel uncomfortable. But the morning after Donald Trump won the election, I stared at the black war paint around my eyes and I felt strong, defiant, and free.

Being stealth kept me safe. But now I want my queerness to be seen, or else discrimination will go unseen. I don’t care if my nonbinary identity isn’t “normal” enough for people to easily understand. “Normal” in our society is misogyny and queerphobia; the election just made that more apparent than ever.

This year, the Republican Party’s official platform took some of the the most anti-LGBTQ positions in its history. The platform represents the agenda of the party that now controls the House, Senate, and the White House.

I can’t predict exactly what the Trump presidency has in store for me. But on the morning of his inauguration, I’ll be preparing for battle– and eyeliner is just the beginning.

With a Perspective, I’m Desmond Meagley.

Desmond Meagley is 20 years old and attends college in Berkeley. His commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

I was put into foster care when I was two-years old, and I’ve been in the system ever since. The moment I stepped into a group home when I was 12, I felt like it was a mistake. There I was, with about a dozen other teen boys.

On my very first day, I got into a fight during a basketball game. I was physically restrained by a staff member and put on “lockdown.” That meant except for school, I had to stay in my room, eat alone, and keep apart from the other kids for seven days. I didn’t feel like a kid in time out. I felt like an inmate.

Even on a regular week, our lives were super-regimented.

At night, staff walked the halls with flashlights, looking into the rooms. In addition to heavy security, I met regularly with a therapist who prescribed me medication. I remember almost all the kids there were on something. We lined up for our medicine, which was given out in those little, paper condiment cups. The drugs made me feel like a zombie.

After a year, because of good behavior, I was eventually returned to my foster family. It took me a long time to adjust to normal life, because for so long I couldn’t rely on anyone and I was always afraid of getting in trouble.

We were sent to the group home to turn our lives around. But for some of us, we ended up worse off than when we started. That’s the problem: Group homes are supposed to be a safe haven for kids. But often, they’re not. Our adolescent behavior was penalized harshly.

New California law requires that starting next year, the state move away from placing teens in foster care in group homes. I have my doubts. But it’s a step in the right direction to rethink how we treat kids in foster care.

With a Perspective, I’m Noel Anaya.

Next week, Noel Anaya turns 21 and will officially be out of foster care. His Perspective comes to us from Youth Radio.

“Penguins,” I told my mother, while driving to my first debate competition. “They all look like penguins.” I was referring to the waves of high school students in suits and skirts, unloading from minivans and filing into the gymnasium.

Like mini-senators, the young debaters strutted through the parking lot, shuffling through papers and doing vocal exercises. Most were guys. I didn’t think too much of it then, but that gender dynamic would end up being one of the reasons I quit debate.

The blatant stares from guys checking me out as I walked between rounds had me hiking down my skirt and clutching my notebooks to my chest. As I nervously reviewed points with my partner, two guys from an opposing team laughed and said, “Take it easy, baby,” which left me stuttering at a loss for words.

I once complained to a girl on my debate team about how I had four phone numbers slipped to me before the end of my third round, and she shook her head and scoffed: “That’s what happens when you take a bunch of high school nerds and put them together with just a few girls — they think they own us.”

After one particularly rough tournament, I angrily threw my bags into my mom’s car and complained to her about the guys I had to deal with. I was looking for sympathy, but instead to my surprise she told me to get used it.

As a woman working in tech, she’s had to deal with the same kind of misogyny. Belittling comments. Men taking credit for her work. And sexist assumptions.

That’s why when I told her I wanted to drop debate junior year, she tried to convince me to stay. Not to improve my public speaking skills, but because the sexism I’d face there would prepare me for the rest of my life as a woman.

Even though I agree with my mom, I decided to quit debate to get away from that sexist atmosphere– at least, for a little while.

With a Perspective, I’m Nila Venkat.

Nila Venkat is 16 and lives in Hayward. Youth Radio produced her commentary.

As a brown-skinned girl, my summers were once filled with self-deprivation. I avoided going swimming or out to an amusement park because of worry I would get darker.

Growing up, kids would tell me my skin color resembled dirt, or poop, or burnt toast. I used to come home from school crying and run straight to the bathroom to try and scrub the brown off.

But, it wasn’t just kids that made me feel this way. TV and magazines reinforced that beautiful was never brown. And, my family – many brown women who had also been conditioned to be ashamed of their skin color- constantly nagged me to bathe in 110 SPF sunscreen or better yet stay indoors.

You can imagine, for me, this accumulated into toxically low self-image.

Then my world was flipped upside down when I learned about colorism — the discrimination against people with dark skin that often even comes from those of the same ethnic group.

I immediately took all this new knowledge to my best friend; my mom. We sat in our PJ’s on her bed and I searched “Dark Girls,” a documentary on Netflix. We watched as sociologists explained how the very statements my mom would tell me like, “Stay out of the sun” seriously impact young girls’ self-esteem.

Finally, the movie ended, and I studied my mom’s face. For what felt like forever, she didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Then, one of us — it might have been me or her, I can’t remember — started crying. She told me she was sorry.

Looking back on it, summers have totally changed for me. All my closest friends know that I’ll jump at the chance to go to the beach, that I feel most at home dancing in the waves with the sun baking on my skin. Free to actually enjoy being outside without the pestering fear, “Am I getting darker?”

With a Perspective, I’m Amanda Agustin.

Amanda Agustin is 17-years-old and a college freshmen in San Francisco. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

My chest was tight and I couldn’t breathe–because my spine was pinching my right lung. My classmates passed me on the track. And when all of my friends were done, I still had another lap.

Until that mile run in the seventh grade, I used to pretend my disability wasn’t there. But that day, I realized I’d have to face it.

My doctor told me that one in a million people have multiple pterygium syndrome — a combination of congenital scoliosis and a joint disorder that makes it hard to move my arms and legs. At the age of 10, I went from being a kid who climbed trees and ran just about everywhere, to one who might never play sports again. I felt angry and alone.

Then, I was adopted out of foster care, and eventually my mom took me to wheelchair basketball because she didn’t want me to give up on being active.

I remember my first time in a gym full of other kids with disabilities. Some were making basket after basket from in their wheelchairs, but I was just trying to get used to pushing one for the first time.

From then on, I practiced every Saturday and traveled out of state to compete with other teams. My body changed. Muscles grew. My lung efficiency shot up–I got more air with each breath.

The emotional changes were even more profound. As a former foster kid, I was used to being alone, and not relying on other people, But to improve as part of a team, I had to learn to listen to criticism, be vulnerable, and trust my teammates. Eventually I was able to do the same with my adoptive parents.

My case of scoliosis won’t ever be “fixed.” For a while, it was getting worse. At its most extreme, I couldn’t walk a block without scorching pain. But I stopped seeing my disability as a limitation. Sscoliosis enabled me to be who I am–the athlete, the daughter, the friend.

With a Perspective, I’m Christie Levine.

Christie Levine is 18-years-old and lives in Berkeley. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

Young people aren’t supposed to be the jaded ones, yet more and more, it feels like gallows humor is the only tool I have to face the day.

This summer we’ve seen the biggest mass shooting in American history, and repeated examples of black men getting killed by the police, on camera. But our society’s reaction to these events is what truly haunts me. To be young and growing up in the 21st century is a constant exercise in aching.

We go to schools that cost more to get jobs that pay less to live in a housing market that borders on class warfare.

I grew up in Washington DC. I bought into the beltway groupthink that government is a force for good, and elected officials are fighting to make actual change in the world.

But by the end of my first semester of college, the banks had been bailed out. Trayvon had been murdered. And 26 kids and teachers got mowed down at Sandy Hook.

And what changed? Well, not much. Our mass shootings are more frequent and more deadly, black people continue to be killed by police, having their lives reduced to little more than a hashtag on social media, while the architects of the great recession got off scot-free.

I want to be part of the change. That earnest part of me from childhood still exists. But the hope so many of my generation felt when Barack Obama campaigned for president — it honestly doesn’t even seem real or possible anymore.

I’m at an age when I’m supposed to find myself. Choose a major. Build towards a career where I can see myself for years to come. However, at college I’ve cycled through majors like Instagram filters. Because when the world resembles a dystopia out of Philip K. Dick, how is someone my age supposed to figure out where I belong in all of this?

With a Perspective, I’m Andrew Meyer.

Andrew Meyer is 22-years-old and attends Sarah Lawrence College. His commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

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