The Streets - June 2008

a column by Paulette Lewis


Working with Youths

Have you ever come across a person that had hopelessness written all over him or her? What about a child?

It's hard to imagine, because growing up in a "normal," two-parent, middle class home, I thought all kids had the same bright vision of a happy, prosperous, successful future with the very present love of God in their lives the way I did. Reality sucks.

My first taste of reality left me feeling scared, alarmed, confused, unsafe, numb. Like a foreigner in a different country. I came face to face with hopelessness, despair and violence I had never witnessed before among the youth in our city in the year 2000. The youth. The kids. I was in shock from my first day to my last, but I quickly learned how to cope at the place where I was working: in Cincinnati Public Schools.

I was a sign language interpreter, not a police officer. Who would have ever thought that working in a school would be dangerous? I never thought to ask about my safety during my employee interview, although I did ask the assistant principal about safety at lunch on my first day of work, after witnessing, that morning, one of the most explosive physical confrontations in my young career.

The assistant principal’s response was, "Those two are on my hit list. I have my eye on them." What? Why does a principal have a "hit list"? What did the administration intend to do about the situation to prevent it from happening again? Nothing. I soon realized that confrontations were a regular occurrence.

The school where I worked might as well have been a prison. It looked like a prison, felt like a prison, was run like a prison, and we were locked down during classes as if in a prison. Armed guards and police at the exits, in the gym and the cafeteria. Random classroom searches and students searched like criminals about to be arrested. The stairs were enclosed by a metal cage so no one would be thrown over them, which was fine with the student body, because as soon as a fight broke out, they would scale the cage to watch the action. No one even considered breaking it up.

For one of a dozen white people among an African American population of 1100 individuals, it was unnerving. Everyday was terrifying to me. Being the minority for the first time in my life was very awkward, but the race difference wasn’t the big issue. I had a few black friends growing up, I thought I knew something about black people. The culture within the African American community was the issue for me. I had never seen pregnant 15-year old girls with tattoos on their necks, or guys with permanent diamond- studded gold teeth in their mouths or 17-year olds driving Cadillacs they bought with the money they earned working the streets as a “pharmacist.” Talk about Daniel the prophet in the lion's den - I knew these kids could eat me alive.

They are what I call the pre-prison generation. I say that because the overwhelming majority of kids I've worked with through the years believe they will either die by the age of 25 or find themselves in prison. That age seems to be reducing itself to 21 as the killings and incarceration among our youth increase. They are "livin’ outloud" until they die. If that isn't a hopeless way to see your life, I don't know what is.

I began to listen to the stories. I started making friends with some of the kids labeled as "trouble", treated as the "worst" kids in the school, and I opened up the lines of communication to get to know them. I gained some respect and my life at this school became a lot easier.

I don't know why, but several of them stepped up to protect me when things got out of hand. They began helping me de-escalate situations before someone got seriously hurt, including myself, because I would "get in it" and break it up, and make them "use their words" rather than their fists.

Teachers started sending students to me if they couldn't calm them down or get them to do their work. I started to touch on a lot of issues in their lives, not just the reason they had cussed out the teacher.

I came to the conclusion that I would not survive one day in the lives they lead. I've never been exposed to the level of violence and loss they witnessed. I have never had a friend die in my arms on the way to the hospital after a party went terribly wrong. I've never seen a family member raped or murdered in front of me. I've never had to fight my way past a bad neighborhood just to catch the bus to school. I've never been forced to sell drugs or roll dice just to buy the family a meal or the baby a pack of diapers.

These kids had insurmountable problems they faced every single day, and at home, they were the grown-up. They were the decision-maker in many cases, so to come to school and be treated as less than an adult was a waste of their time. I found, however, that most of them came every day because they valued the reward of earning a diploma. If, by some chance, they survive the hood and avoid prison, they know they will need a diploma.

Leaving the public schools several years later was a very hard decision, but I continued my work with the kids that I’d connected with at school, and I got involved in their home lives. I met their families, their crews (yes, most of them are gang-affiliated), and began to earn a reputation in the communities around our city as "The Mentor". They know I am there with good intentions and I've had very little trouble maneuvering through dangerous neighborhoods even in the midst of dangerous situations over the years because they respect and trust me.

Moving into a community role has been a whole new world. I have been exposed to the inner city culture at its darkest hour, and I’ve had the opportunity to shed a little light. I realize that people come and go in the lives of these kids, so I committed to sticking in there with them – under any circumstances and any conditions – and see them through. 

I refuse to give up on them like others have. I stand by them as they make the right decisions, continue to make mistakes, grow in the Lord, go to prison, or get killed for reasons that often remain as anonymous as the killers.

At some point, the hopelessness of the up and coming generation will become everyone’s problem. We have to stop accepting the violence and the prison sentences as normal for "them". We are all responsible for the children, though if we don't take an active, hands-on interest in the lives of the children around us, there may not be many children left to be responsible for.

Paulette Lewis is founder and Executive Director of Urban Success, a non-profit organization that assists and mentors high-risk youths. You can reach Paulette at


Paulette Lewis

Paulette Lewis