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Dear Cleveland: To learn, you first have to listen

Fellowship Story Showcase

Dear Cleveland: To learn, you first have to listen

Photo courtesy of Hope Smith
Hope Smith, 15, and Yondez Webb, 18, lead a group of their peers at Cleveland School of Science and Medicine recently in a conversation about stress and what causes it, such as transitioning from middle school to high school as well as family and friend issues. The teens are part of the Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC) and will be asking fellow students about stress in a survey they've designed. (Photo courtesy of Hope Smith)
The Plain Dealer
Friday, March 23, 2018

CLEVELAND, Ohio — We recently introduced a project, Dear Cleveland, that we hope will be driven by the voices of Cleveland children sharing what it's like to grow up, play, go to school and live in this city, and their thoughts about what needs to change.

First, our thanks to the young people and adults who have reached out with ideas and thoughts for this project.

We are thrilled to add your energy and your perspective to this endeavor.

Unfortunately, some of the responses to our initial story were exactly what teens expected, based on their experiences: judgmental and racist.

Rather than taking a moment to hear the worries that the aspiring engineers and computer science students shoulder, and the things they hope to change for their communities, some readers seemed to care only that some of them wore hooded sweatshirts. Others questioned why hip-hop music and rap were used as a conduit to share the students' concerns and hopes. C'mon people, the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame is here, can't we at least agree music of all genres are a pretty potent form of expression?

Others decided the complex community problems the students mentioned boiled to down one thing: making better choices.

One wrote: "So how to make things better? It's simple really, it starts with the individual taking some ownership for their actions and inactions."

Many of the students we've talked to are astute enough to look around their neighborhoods and see that decisions made long before they were born have contributed to the conditions in which they are expected to thrive.

Most also seem to agree personal responsibility and making good decisions are important and they'd like more guidance in those areas.

But that's hard, they say, when the decisions include whether they should arm themselves to stay safe or worry about dodging bullets when they get off a public bus that they take to get to school or work.

Some of the online responses were so disconcerting, soul-crushing and unproductive  that we decided to close down comments, something which we'll continue to do, as necessary, to protect the goal of the project, which is encouraging children to share their stories. In short, we're putting a few adults in time out in hopes they'll think about their knee-jerk reactions and do some listening.

We will keep an open line for feedback at

More to come

We have lots of plans that now include community research and interviews and discussions with young people already hard at work to transform the communities they care deeply about. We'll share more about the shape that will take as soon as we can.

What do they care about? According to surveys, group discussions and one-on-one interviews, the list is long.

Being able to safely traverse the city to get to school and work and activities with friends. More accessible help for mental health problems like anxieties and depression. More adult and peer mentoring. Respectful relationships with police. Jobs. Food that is healthy and affordable. Opportunities to learn more life skills in school. Not to be judged by the color of their skin or the neighborhood where they live.

We'll also share and elevate the work of young artists, poets and performers who already take on community issues, especially ones around race and segregation and double consciousness -- forced to live with a divided feeling of identity -- that we, two white reporters at a majority white newspaper, haven't experienced. These folks, and others who have agreed to advise us, will help us cover our blind spots.

Here's some of what is planned:

An online and social media survey by Cleveland School of Science and Medicine students participating in the Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC) program that will help them better understand the things cause stress for their peers and how to deal with those stresses. They plan to ask questions like: 

  • Who do you confide in when life is rough?
  • How do you find calm when you're stressed?

Before we met Hope Smith, 15, and Yondez Webb, 18,  the pair was already holding after-school sessions with fellow students to discuss stress and what caused it, like transitioning from middle school to high school and into upper grades.

Their goal: to create a support system.

One of their recent sessions dealt with fears.

"Students had fears about what things were holding them back," Yondez said. Like time management and getting enough sleep.

The people that come to the sessions often know the problems but don't know how to handle them, Hope said. "They don't know how to fix it," she said.

We also will share the stories of some of the young people who work with Pam Hubbard, whose Golden Ciphers program in Slavic Village uses cultural context and African traditions to help young men and women learn to make healthier decisions and understand their roles as part of our community. Most of the kids Hubbard and her son Anthony work with are on probation or have been incarcerated.

When asked for advice on the project, Hubbard shared a version of story that may be familiar to those who work in social work or other helping fields.

She told of a little girl on a beach, surrounded by starfish that had washed ashore. The little girl was plucking them up, one by one, and hurling them back into the ocean. A man walked up and told the little girl she was wasting her time. She looked over at him, picked up one of the creatures and flung it into the ocean. She turned to the man and said: "Saved that one."

Not everyone cares to listen to the young people Hubbard chooses to work with. Some will always choose to blindly criticize them, their parents, their race, to keep a safe distance from the realities they grapple with.

That's not a choice the kids have.

[This story was originally published by The Plain Dealer.]