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Friends of the Children seeks to combat representation disparities facing our youth

At the Friends office, youth like Darius* have relatable role models

A current analysis by The Seattle Times and The Columbian shows that teacher demographics in Washington State strongly underrepresent students of color. Fifty-three percent of students in Seattle Public Schools are students of color, while only 19 percent of teachers are people of color. The gap is worse in South King County; for example, only 20 percent of the Renton school district’s teachers are teachers of color, yet their student body is 74 percent students of color.

This lack of representation is especially relevant for Friends of the Children (Friends – Seattle), given that 94 percent of our program youth are children of color. Our youth already face significant systemic barriers that manifest in experiences such as housing insecurity, involvement in the child welfare system or an incarcerated parent. One multiracial student involved in The Seattle Times’ teacher diversity project said: “When you have students of color who are marginalized, overworked and unsupported not only in their day-to-day lives, but also in their classrooms, it’s a recipe for creating more drop-outs.”

Because of such compounding factors, school has been a contentious environment for Darius*, 12, who has been in the Friends – Seattle program for six years. His father has been in and out of prison all of Darius’s life, while his mother works long hours to support Darius and his brother. These experiences have led Darius to be an independent sixth-grader, but he struggles with managing his temper. Last year, Darius felt unfairly singled out by his white teacher. He lashed out verbally and was suspended from school.

Darius’s professional mentor Andrew, of Filipino descent, has been instrumental in guiding Darius through a process of learning to manage his temper, and finding ways to navigate the differences between him and his teacher. They’ve worked on more open and honest communication, breathing techniques and “other methods that helped me deal with my temper when I was younger,” says Andrew. Playing basketball together is more than another way to burn off pent-up aggression; their shared love of the game has allowed Darius to relate to Andrew more deeply.

Andrew believes Darius can focus, think critically about his actions and constantly improve himself, or "level up". He holds Darius to high standards in his “level-up mentality,” and Darius rises to the challenge. “He isn’t the kid that the statistics say he should be,” Andrew says. “Teachers of color may be more likely to set higher expectations for students of color,” but in the absence of teacher representation, many of our youth look to their professional mentors for that connection. After all, our youth are not a jumble of statistics but whole, unique people full of potential. Fifty-six percent of Friends – Seattle staff members identify as people of color, which means our youth have a better chance to look around and see themselves. They have role models that represent them and a support system that sets high expectations for their potential.

We just celebrated African-American change-makers during Black History Month. Now let’s also acknowledge all the work there is yet to be done. Our youth still face inequities in Seattle schools. For 12½ years no matter what, professional mentors like Andrew give youth like Darius a chance to level up when all the odds are stacked against them.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of our youth.