The kids are frightened. So am I. This election brought fear and despair, a violent anxiety took root in my gut and remains. It was a struggle just to summon the will to leave my apartment and when I did it seemed odd that people were going about their daily business and the sun had risen. I’m scheduled to volunteer at 826 Valencia on Wednesdays but I felt drained and hopeless, not certain I wanted to live in a country that could elect that man. But I went, not making a decision with purpose, just walking to the bus and then the Tenderloin Center on auto-pilot, propelled by a sub-conscious desire to do something. I expected to find like-minded people at 826 and, of course, I did. But I didn’t want to try to put a happy face on a cataclysmic tragedy: these kids: African-American, Muslim, Hispanic—at the beginning of their lives—were going to suffer much more than me. They will have to grow up under a government elected on a platform of ignorance, racism, and misogyny. They can look forward to a Supreme Court dedicated to limiting their freedom in order to protect wealthy white men. I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning and I can choose to leave this country. They are so young and already faced with the significant obstacles of “otherness”. Now what?
Well, 826 is a special place. Kona encouraged us to talk to the kids about the election, let them express their feelings and encourage them to write about them; help them to develop their voices, let them know someone is listening. I had been thinking of my task as helping them unlock their imaginations but this was a more important job. They need to know their feelings are valid and they must be heard.
I was working with two Hispanic kids and a young Muslim girl. They began by feeling me out. “Who did you vote for?” I told them I had voted for Clinton and they said they did too, or they would have if they could vote. They said their parents voted for Clinton and they were afraid of Trump. He doesn’t like Mexicans. He’s a racist. He’s going to build a wall so no more Mexicans can come here. One kid looked at me and asked if he could write about anything he wanted. I smiled for the first time that day. “Of course.” He wanted to know if he could just call him Trump, not President. I said that was fine and he wrote about the wall and all the Mexicans stuck on the other side. He wondered if Trump would build a wall around the whole country and what that would mean. It frightened him.
Another child said she didn’t want to talk or write about it because the election made her parents angry and she was frightened when they got angry. She just wanted it go away and wanted to finish her story about a very small banana split. The third child arrived late and began by asking me how I felt about the election. I said I was very, very unhappy and she said she was too. She said her parents were worried but they didn’t want to talk about it.
I said this was a difficult time and we were all a little scared but we were there to help and support them and that would continue. My voice broke and for a second I thought I would not be able to stop the tears that were imminent all day. I got through it, had to because I had to push my lazy problem child to start writing.
I didn’t expect to finish this piece on an optimistic note—it’s not my usual inclination—but I have to search for sanity in a world I see as dangerously unbalanced. On the ground level, programs like 826 can often feel like entering a battle naked and unarmed. It can seem impossible to do enough to make a difference. But it’s not. The ability to communicate is power and if we can help these children learn to express themselves, if we can foster their confidence and support their ambitions, their time will come and they will be equipped with the tools they need to succeed. They need to know now that their voices matter and surrounding them with adults who listen and take them seriously is a beginning.