Resilience And Responsibility

One in four youth aging out of foster care in New York City become homeless, an illustration of a terrible national pattern.
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RWhat if someone asked you: "Would you take a (black) homeless teenager into your home?" Not just for a night, but let's start with that. "Whaddya mean?" might be my response, as I backed away from the question.

But what if you knew this teenager, or someone you know well knows him? What if you knew his name, his school, his neighborhood, maybe even something about his family? What if he was not an abstract notion that tapped into all our fears of the stranger but rather a person with a name, like Michael, or Sean, or Ruben? And that you had room in your home and in your heart for someone whose future might be a bit different because of you, and that you too would be a bit different because of him?

Michael Lewis, who brought us tales of Wall Street (Liar's Poker) and professional sports strategy by the numbers (Moneyball) also wrote a story about a 6'5" 330 pound teenager named Michael Oher who was born and raised in the Memphis projects - you could not dream up a name like Hurt Village but that it is what his neighborhood is called - to a mother who was an addict and a father whom he never knew. Lewis' book, titled The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (2007), is now popularized in a movie that carries the same though shorter title as the book The Blind Side; it has actors who draw an audience, like Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw (of country music fame) and Oscar awardee Kathy Bates. So, this story has legs.

The tale is a feel good one where Michael Oher is taken in by a rich family (of Taco Bell fortune, the Tuohys) living in a designer mansion on the country club side of Memphis. The family that breaks the mold is Christian (and Republican) and are people both of privilege and with a sense of responsibility. The story takes a social and political issue and makes it personal.

But my commentary is not a book or movie review, it is about the limits of government and entitlements, about resilience, and about what individuals acting as responsible agents can do to make communities and their lives better. Which is why the question of "would you take a (black) homeless teenager into your home?" has more than one answer, depending on whether the answer is a dominant belief in government as the answer or an appreciation of how government can be most effective when matched by the problem solving energy of responsible citizens.

Government provides foster care for youth like Michael Oher. Without disparaging foster care providers, multiple placements with contracted care providers drives many like Michael to run, or to fail to flourish. One in four youth aging out of foster care in New York City become homeless, an illustration of a terrible national pattern. Many foster youth wind up in the youth correctional system, bringing with them histories of trauma and mental health and substance abuse problems in the great predominance of those admitted. Too often, those who become embroiled in corrections while young - those who survive the violence and drugs of their neighborhoods - become the adult occupants of our jails and prisons.

The Michael Oher story is remarkable; it also offers important insights into the limits of institutional responses to our basic need for belonging. While we need government to support social safety nets, we also need families and communities to redeem their neighborhoods and the lives in peril on every corner.

As important a question as is "why do some youth go bad" is "why others, from the same circumstances and horror, find a way to make a life, to respond to hands that reach out to them?" Resilience is what separates the survivors from the casualties. Physics tells us that resilience is a property, the capacity of some material to absorb energy and respond elastically so as to retain its integrity and not become deformed by the impact of the energy. The emotional equivalent is a person's ability to absorb stress and not be broken by it. Michael Oher had resilience, and so do many more in Hurt Villages across this country and world. But resilience must be nurtured. After awhile, the material, human or otherwise, bends and breaks from the forces impacting it. People, not institutions, are what foster resilience. This is why individuals, families and communities, for their neighbors and those across the tracks, need to wonder "what can I do?"

In New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, over four years post-Katrina, communities there have truly seen the limits of government. They are of course reliant on government action to build strong levees, enforce sustainable environmental practices, and deliver the financial resources that families and businesses need to re-establish themselves. But as Mary Rowe, director of the New Orleans Institute for Innovation and Resilience has said, "we are the ones we have been waiting for." She is referring to urban farming, business development, experiential education, rebuilding homes - local efforts that connect people across race and class to reclaim and rebuild where they live and how they live. She is referring to the ecology of a community where mutual support breeds resilience and safety and health, where mutual support becomes the anodyne to defeat, despair, disease and violence. The Tuohys of The Blind Side also said, we are the ones who need to do something, something for this boy - named Michael, from their town, if not their neighborhood.

What can and must be done, beyond responsible and effectively run government programs, to create alternatives for those dependent on welfare, committed to foster care, and caught up in criminal justice systems in the central Brooklyns, Watts', and Hurt Villages of this country? The answer, neighbor, is revealed in Lewis' story, in the Gulf Coast, and in groups and communities willing to say, "we are the ones we have been waiting for." These stories of resilience and responsibility seem to need retelling again and again to nurture the resilience and responsibility within us all.