Volunteer Voices—How is race important to youth health?

    Published on October 31st, 2019

    If you missed part 1 of our blog series, “Recruiting a more inclusive and diverse volunteer corps”— which discusses lessons learned in updating our volunteer application— CLICK HERE. Read on for a powerful example from one of our applicants and now Chicago volunteer Jorge Mendez.

    Application Question: Our approach unapologetically starts with race because we know that the majority of the young people we serve are Black and/or Latinx. How do you see race as being important to a young person’s health and experiences? 

    Response: Race and ethnic background are essential to being able to communicate information to youth. I think it imperative to understand the cultural environment in which a child grew up and developed their standards both in health and personal ideals. This can range from what a good meal looks like to what is considered normal, right, wrong, and even what a fun weekend should look like. 

    Personally, as a Latino, I’ve been in situations where I’m looked at judgingly by family for being a “p**o”* when refusing to drink when offered a cup of beer or to be a “prude” by my cousins for avoiding going out too late for a game of soccer. These experiences might seem light or minimal, but they are portions of an ongoing mosaic of the influences built by communities which can be blind or willingly ignorant of the risks which can come from behaviors which have been commonly accepted. 

    If we are to attempt supporting these students, we have to understand what backgrounds they are coming from, otherwise, we could be providing terminology or methods which do not resonate with them and consequently cut short the worth of the lessons. It is important to form the personal connection between their personal experiences and our experiences regarding the threats they’ve unknowingly observed or even experienced. It is important to provide a manner in which to handle a majority of these situations which can come from “how my grandma was raised” and truly understand what they can do to avoid such dangers to their safety. It’s better to avoid accepting alcoholism as a manner to enjoy an afternoon or smoking as a coping mechanism because our “tio” (uncle) is doing it, instead of learning how to recover from the long term effects.

    **Editor’s Note: Agency and communication are important to us at Peer Health Exchange (they’re two of our core values!). Which is why as editors of our blog, we had a lengthy discussion of how we would handle one part of this post: Jorge’s use of a word that is often used as a homophobic slur by Spanish-speaking members outside of the LGBTQ+ community to describe Jorge’s lived experience. Wherever possible we aim to spotlight volunteers in their own words—and beyond editing for clarity or brevity—we don’t censor them. However, as an organization rooted in equity (another core value), we also have an obligation to spotlight opportunities for growth, learning, and inclusion while not amplifying or recreating painful or traumatic moments. That said, these discussions helped us reach a decision to redact any offensive word in any piece, with an explanation of why we did so. Language is constantly evolving, and it is not our place to declare what is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ use of this word. And with certain words the meaning changes depending on how it is used. For example, the word puto does not have a hateful connotation when it is used by members of the Spanish-speaking LGBTQ+ community to reference or express their own identity. With everything, context matters. If a word is used in a way that connotes hate speech, we will not publish it in its entirety. 

    Posted in Volunteer Voices

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