What If Love Was at the Center?

Megan McJennett is the Best Starts for Kids’ 5-24 Policy and Program Manager.  She has worked over her 20 year career with children of all ages and their families. Megan recently attended the Ready by 21 Conference along with a few other BSK staff. She shares her conference take aways here. 


When attending a youth development conference, I expect to hear all the buzz words: alignment, outcomes, indicators, partnerships, funding streams, quality, and assessment. And, rest assured, I did hear all of these and many more during my time at the Ready by 21 National Meeting hosted by the Forum for Youth Investment last week in Austin, TX. The word I didn’t expect to hear so much was loveLove in public policy. The love gap verses of the achievement gap. Working with children, youth and young adults on how to give love and receive love is Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in its simplest form.  Love of self. Love of puppies.

It was a welcome surprise and caused me to think. What if we talked about love informed schools and communities instead of trauma informed? What if we have love development activities rather than youth development activities? What is mentorship if not a form of love? How would school culture change if we incorporated mindfulness into academic lessons to prep for hard work ahead and provided meditation rooms instead of detention halls? How would the teacher/student relationship change if we infused this type of love into the school day?

Words are powerful. The way we describe our communities, how we describe who we work with and for, and how we talk about what we want to achieve is important. One of the plenary speakers who works with the justice system, Dr. Ginwright, said that one juvenile justice center began using the term “youth” rather than “offender” when referring to the people in their charge. That simple shift reminded the officers and guards that they are working with people first and the infraction is secondary. The youth at the center were reminded that they were not what they were charged with, but a person with worth. That seemingly simple change in words positively shifted the culture of the entire institution and paved the way for more innovative practices within its walls.

sheila ready by 21Sheila Capestany, our own King County Senior Advisor for Children and Youth, presented twice during the course of the conference. The first panel discussed why the words used to frame the work of Best Starts for Kids with equity at its core is essential. The workshop attendees were impressed by the equity statement created by the King County Children Youth Advisory Board and the thoughtful effort spent to create such a statement. If you have not had a chance to review it yet, we highly encourage you to do so.

In the final interactive plenary session, Sheila joined colleagues from St Lucie County Florida and the president of Public Progress to discuss how local governments are funding programs from children and youth and reminded us, “What gets funded, gets done.” Messaging the initiatives to voters to prepare for ballot measures is critical. Sheila challenged the panel and the audience to think beyond the “keeping kids off drugs and off the streets” messaging. It’s important to help people imagine what increasing the good (promotion and prevention) can do for improving our neighborhoods, towns, and our country, not only decreasing the bad. A decreased incarceration rate is not the ultimate goal of Best Starts – thriving youth and young adults is the goal.

equity v equalityWords linked to pictures are also powerful. Many of us are very familiar with the picture above describing the difference between equity and equality. The picture clearly and simply lays out the difference of the two concepts, but it always bothered me that the kids were behind a fence and not in the game. Karen Pittman, Co-Founder, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, presented this alternate version:

real equityThis takes the original further: it illustrates that kids don’t just need to see the game, they need to be actively involved in the game.

It is imperative that we pay attention to what words we use because how we say something is just as important as what we say. If we really are to do things differently with and for all the children and youth in King County, we must be conscious about how we frame things, because we all need to get into the game and keep love at the center.

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