The book, And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students, offers valuable insight into the lives of inner-city youth in Los Angeles and throughout the country. Inner-city students are frequently subjected to poverty, violence, gangs, and drugs in their schools, homes, and communities. Yet, many of these students manage to survive and thrive despite their volatile environment. The book provides school social workers with a unique opportunity to understand the challenges presented to inner-city students, and the power of resilience to overcome adversity. Let us now examine how various psychosocial and environmental factors contributed to the development and success of the students discussed in the book.
Developmental Tasks, Systems, and Resilience
Adolescence is arguably one of the most difficult and challenging stages of development for an individual. It is a time of great social, psychological, emotional, and academic growth that poses many challenges for youth surrounding identity, self-esteem, and self-efficacy (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2007). According to Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development, adolescence is a time of exploration and experimentation in relation to peers and social roles in order to establish a sense of identity (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2007). The students in the book are each facing various identity challenges and demands within their environment. They are exposed to gangs, drugs, poverty, and teen pregnancy in their everyday lives, and they must each make the difficult decision of who to be and how to reconcile various role demands. Sadi, for example, had to make the difficult decision of whether to maintain his gang lifestyle which provided a sense of power, protection, and family for him or to explore his intellectual abilities as a student in school. Fortunately, with encouragement from Ms. Little and Mr. Braxton, Sadi chose to join a different kind of family, one that offered promise and hope through academic achievement.
The students in the book are also charged with the task of navigating various systems within their environment that impact their lives. On a mezzo level, the students interact with family, teachers, social workers, foster and group homes, and gangs. On a macro level, the students interact with the school, community, social services, and the judicial system. Unfortunately, the students in the book are negatively impacted by a number of these systems. Many of the students lack adequate support at home and are forced to work in order to survive. Some students have been neglected or abandoned by their families and are forced to navigate a cruel and unjust world alone. The students are also exposed to violence and poverty within the community and frequently suffer retribution from the judicial system. Additionally, the social service system did not always adequately address the needs of the students. For many of the students, their only sanctuary was school, a place where they felt welcomed, supported, encouraged, and cared for.
The students in the book survived due to their resiliency. Each student possessed the inner strength, power, and motivation to overcome obstacles in their environment and to thrive in the face of adversity. The incredible power of resiliency allowed the students to maintain focus and motivation despite negative environmental factors. Their resiliency coupled with the support and encouragement of administrators and teachers within the school allowed the students to exceed expectations and claim futures full of hope and promise for a better life through education. Let us now examine how the challenges of adolescence, systems in the environment, and resilience shaped the life of one inner city student.
Olivia’s story provides a unique perspective on the various difficulties encountered in relation to systems in the environment, and how the power of resilience provides motivation and drive to survive and beat the odds despite numerous obstacles. Olivia was affected by various mezzo and macro level factors throughout her childhood. On a mezzo level, Olivia’s interactions with her mother, social workers, and various foster and group homes shaped her life. Olivia was physically and emotionally abused and neglected by her mother, and abandoned by her father. At the age of twelve she entered the world of social services, and began her journey through various foster and group homes that provided little to no financial or emotional support. Olivia’s social worker did not provide her with adequate resources and support either, and Olivia was forced to take matters into her own hands and support herself by working a number of jobs, many of which were inappropriate, dangerous, and illegal.
From a macro level perspective, Olivia’s encounters with the teachers and administrators at Crenshaw High School, the social service system, and the judicial system significantly influenced her life as well. At a time of chaos and uncertainty in her life, school was her only reprieve. It was the only place she felt wanted, needed, and loved. School also provided her the opportunity to show her true potential in the gifted magnet program. Olivia received the support and encouragement she needed at school from Ms. Little and Mr. Braxton, who served as her pseudo parents and family. They provided her with the guidance, nurturance, and impetus she needed to reach her academic potential. Unfortunately, Olivia was underserved by the social service and judicial system. She was in the social service system for many years and was never provided the adequate resources and support she needed to survive. As a result, Olivia was forced to seek alternate illegal sources of support that ultimately landed her jail. If Olivia had been given adequate resources and support from the social service system she would not have had to engage in illegal activities to survive. In this sense, the judicial system was reactive as opposed to proactive with Olivia. For many years, she tried to navigate her way through an unforgiving system trying to attain assistance. Ironically, it was not until she committed a crime that she finally had access to the resources and support she desperately needed throughout her childhood. Fortunately, despite all the hardships Olivia endured throughout her childhood she did not let the social service or judicial system prevent her from attaining her dream of attending Babson College. Her incredible sense of resiliency and drive for a better life helped her to stay positive and maintain focus despite the many obstacles she encountered. Olivia always knew she would prevail, and in the end she did! She relied on the strength and perseverance she had used to overcome past obstacles to achieve the dream that had almost been stolen from her. Her story is a source of inspiration for inner-city students throughout the world, and proves that childhood experiences and environmental systems may influence, but do not define, an individual.
Lessons for a Future School Social Worker
The book provided me with valuable insight into the lives of inner-city students. Prior to reading the book, I was unaware of the various obstacles many inner-city students face in their everyday lives. I now have a new understanding of how various systems in the environment negatively and positively influence students, and how I might be able to assist students in navigating many of these systems as a school social worker. The book also helped me realize how important it is for students to have access to adequate resources and support for optimal psychological, social, and academic development. The book also highlighted the relevant role school teachers and administrators have in impacting student’s lives, and how important it is for social workers to work collaboratively with school staff to ensure that student’s needs are being met. On a positive note, I have learned that inner-city students have incredible potential and that as a school social worker I will play a vital role in identifying and addressing obstacles, providing resources and support, and serving as an advocate and coach to help students reach their full potential. I can, and will, make a difference in the lives of the students I work with! J