“In Marin, the youth are invisible.”

by Felicia Chavez, Ph.D, Green MBA

Zara and Felicia Chavez

Zara and Felicia Chavez

When I initially sat down to write this blog, I had a sinking feeling. I wasn’t my usual, enthusiastic self. I paused to wonder about that. Hadn’t my meeting with Zara been uplifting? Yes, but…there was a “but.”

I realized shortly that it is the gravity of this topic that was making me feel…heavy. Not only had I been on the very edge of homelessness at times in my life–due to family challenges, and later, employment challenges–but I feel great sadness at the way that young people are nearly–or actually–dispossessed by society. Many of these individuals fall through the cracks. They are, as Zara said, “invisible.”

Homeless youth. Two words you never want to see next to each other.

Zara Babitzke’s magic is in the very act of getting “next to” the young people she and her network support. That’s why I am writing this blog on a systems thinking website. Lately I have insisted that first and foremost, systems thinking is about relationships: relationships between people, first. Zara’s program embodies this principle.

To begin with, Zara and many others who have what I call a systems thinking approach don’t necessarily use that language. So this is my overlay on her work.

Second, I’m conscious of the fact that I keep referring to Zara herself, while in fact her model is fundamentally inclusive; a network of participants, primarily the young people who have benefited from AHO (Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity). However, the fact remains that she is the primary spokesperson for the organization she founded and shaped, so, I’ll keep talking about her.

Third, Marin County is a decidedly older population (click on the graph at right to view). Given the high numbers of people over 60, there are many services in Marin to serve this older group. However, I don’t want to gloss over the fact that many elders in this group–particularly the poor and non-white–suffer from poor quality of life. This dual injustice–both young and older people falling through the cracks–is a symptom of a society that has not quite figured out how to reliably care for our most vulnerable members.

Below I outline a few of the ways I believe Zara’s framework for supporting homeless youth lines up with systems thinking principles. Feel free to share your comments in the comment box if you have additions or different observations.

  1. The person who needs help has to ask for it. “At AHO, the first step is to call for help.” (Ref.) Zara emphasizes that she does not step in to offer supportive services unless the person in question requests help. This is perhaps a subtle, but key aspect of her program. At root this principle honors the ultimate autonomy of individuals, putting him or her in the driver’s seat. I’m challenged to articulate precisely why I feel this is a systems thinking principle, but I can say that it requires a willingness on the part of the service provider to recognize the full humanity of the other, and to not presume that you “know better” than the person you want to help.
  2. Relationship. “At the initial meeting each youth, with the support of an adult ally coach, work together to create a plan…” (Ref.) Relationship is an internal thing; something you feel. There are no magic formulas, models, or forms that can ever replace even a tiny sliver of true relationship. Systems thinking it is as much about feeling as it is about thinking, if not more. Our senses, feelings and emotions are systems that lie outside of the reach of the human mind. If we allow the mind alone to govern relationship, the arrangement is very shallow indeed. Many well-meaning service providers feel they have to cut out their personal emotions, feelings, and senses to execute their official roles. Zara runs in the opposite direction! (Here is a link to a great TED talk by another practitioner who gets to the nitty-gritty of the power of relationships to transform the social services landscape, and in dramatic, measurable ways.)
  3. Engendering autonomy and leadership. “Youth are outreach and program advisors, board members and spokespersons of their experience with community and political leaders.” (Ref.) Anyone who is exposed to the work of AHO and Zara gets the message loud and clear: youth are the leaders in their individual lives, learn leadership skills through AHO, and many later help other people who need support. AHO is a far cry from a short-term, bandage approach to a complex, collective social failing: young people without a home.
    If you missed the Dominican Town Hall event on September 25, 2017, at which Senator Mark McGuire and others, including three AHO youth recipients, share their personal stories and the AHO story, then check out the video below, or click here.

Make a cup of tea, get comfortable, and while you listen to these individuals, I hope that you will take a moment to appreciate the gifts those of us with food, shelter, and a stable home are fortunate to enjoy. And perhaps you will be moved to donate time, money, or your services to the AHO provider network, or to in some way, get involved.

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