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Talking to Black Teens About Baltimore

In the face of fear and trauma, a teacher discovers the power of listening, not lecturing

May 14, 2015
Thoughtful young man

It’s 11:20 at night. I have a lot of work to finish and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet, but like so many of my friends, my head is in Baltimore, and I’m caught in the same cycle: TV news, Twitter, Facebook, texting, repeat. Trying to piece together stories as I can, and seeking solace in my friends scattered across the country. And then a new text flashes across the screen — from a former student of mine, a 16-year-old whom I’ll call Tamara. “It’s scary.”

Right away, I went into automatic teacher mode, responding to her fear with reassurance. “I know,” I text back. “It is scary. But you are safe right now. You will be okay.” They’re variations on the words my mother would share with me when I heard of gang violence in our neighborhood or saw frightening things on television.

Tamara’s reply came back just as quickly. “I’m safe but what about the other kids who are stuck and cornered by police?” And here, I froze. Because how do you tell a kid she’s safe when you live every day tolerating the sickening fear that she might not be? How do you respond with honesty and candor, respecting her intelligence, while protecting her from trauma?

I’ve known Tamara for a long time, and she has always been mature, confident, smart and capable. She is ambitious and works hard, holds down a job, and has a spreadsheet where she keeps track of her college applications. It’s easy to think of her as a young adult. And of course, that’s the tricky part with adolescents. They are capable of thoughtful, careful analysis and nuanced ideas, which can make it easy to forget that in many ways they are still children. They need adults who care about them to help them process their feelings without condescending to them, and to provide context for complicated world events without traumatizing them or foreclosing their space to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions.

This time, before responding to Tamara, I took a second to refer to tips from my colleague and mentor Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among his advice about how parents and educators should help children understand potentially frightening or traumatic events in the news, I found two ideas helpful:

• Listen first to hear how they are processing the event. “What you’re scared about, as an adult, may not be what they’re scared about.”
• Model the response you want to see — young people will imitate your resilience.

Listen first. That may seem obvious enough. However, I have noticed that in conversations with teens about violence, it’s easy for adults — especially adults who are experienced political organizers and activists, passionate about social justice and knowledgeable about history — to launch into explanations of systemic violence and inequality without first stopping to ask young people what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. While it’s important to educate young people about our history and offer important alternatives to the dominant narratives they receive from a racist society, it’s a mistake to do so at the expense of their right to share and process their own feelings, or worse, at the expense of their well-being.

So, even though part of me wanted to read Tamara some James Baldwin essays, I opted to affirm her statement about young people getting cornered by police, and follow up with a question. “That is really scary to think about. How do you feel about it/what are you thinking?” What I got in response was a long, expressive, uninterrupted series of poignant texts. “I go home and watch the news again, seeing all the damage done as ABC squashes it between tornado warnings and something irrelevant . . . State of emergency, National Guard. Makes me nervous that the riots could be the fuel that causes more police violence and targeting of black people . . . How many times does it have to happen? How many protests? 

She kept talking, and I kept listening, and I’m so glad I did. The conversation ended up being so much more helpful for her processing — and my own — than if I had launched into a lecture or tried to dismiss her very real fears.

And after you’ve listened, then what?

Read on for more of Eve’s essay on the Black Youth Project, outlining strategies and considerations when talking with teens about police violence and surrounding events.

About the Author

Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing is a sociologist of education whose research is focused on racism, social inequality, and urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. She is also an essayist and poet. She received her doctorate in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016. Follow her on Twitter at @eveewing.
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