I was intrigued by CFK’s mission and decided to conduct a study of the organization for my graduate program at NYU. Now, I have the amazing opportunity to intern here this summer.
My interest in studying the organization Change for Kids stems from my unyielding commitment to provide every child with an excellent and equitable education. Change for Kids is a mission based non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that not only understands the underlying issues and disparities of the public education system, but also, and more importantly, takes action through various approaches. The stated mission of Change for Kids (CFK) is “to create opportunities for kids so they can overcome inequality. We provide critical supports, experiences, and access so kids in New York City public schools can overcome inequity and reimagine their possibilities.” The wording around their mission is intentional; education reform has developed numerous buzz words such as “narrowing the achievement gap.” Yet, CFK understands that the inequality derives from an “opportunity” gap rather than a “achievement gap.” The mission and core values of CFK redirects the focus on the structural inequalities in society that creates barriers for children in low income communities and is aligned to their approach as an organization. CFK is an inspiring organization that is making real time change in the lives of children and families across NYC. Their wide range of programming around academic and social enrichment, strategic resource distribution, and community engagement has made a profound difference in the lives of children and families. While their approach is research based and constantly adapting to the needs of the community, with every organization, there is always room for improvement. With an analysis of purposeful conversations, detailed interviews, and thorough research on the organization, it is evident that Change for Kids is undoubtedly an exemplary non-profit, striving for a more just society for all.
You can read the full paper I wrote for my course at NYU, here.
New York City is a world city and a pace-setter. It is a beacon of hope to many and a space where creativity flourishes. For New Yorkers, our diversity in many forms — race, national origin, ethnicity, sexual identity or orientation, religious or spiritual beliefs, industries, and occupations — is our greatest asset.
Recent unrest in our city, across our nation, and around the world is a reminder of the fact that our nation remains a work in progress. We are a nation founded on imperfections. Too often, these unaddressed imperfections manifest themselves in the form of the degradation, humiliation, and even death of Black people by those who are sworn to serve and protect.
As leaders of Asian, Black, Latino and Middle Eastern descent, we say this is intolerable. The lives of Black people matter. Being Black is not a crime and peacefully protesting criminal behavior of some in law enforcement does not make us anti-police. While we support the work of our police officers who keep our communities vibrant and safe, we cannot stand by idly while innocent Black people are killed or abused by those who act unlawfully.
The right to assemble, dissent, and peacefully protest is a fundamental tenet of American democracy. True patriots are those who challenge our democracy to be all that it can be.
As leaders who believe in the freedoms codified in the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we also go on record as deploring and condemning the looting of business establishments by vandals and opportunists. Whether mom-and-pop stores, large corporations, or somewhere in between, businesses are vital to our economy. Large, medium, or small, they are at the core of what makes New York City a world class city.
Like all New Yorkers, we look forward to a return to normalcy. However, we do not seek a return to injustice, inequity, unfairness, marginalization, hatred, privilege, or contempt.
We call on our local, state, and national leaders to protect our rights, create opportunities that will jump-start our economy, and move us closer to the more perfect union spoken of by the Founding Fathers. As was the case nearly 250 years ago, we call for strong leadership from our government. We seek leadership that is truly representative of all people, not just the powerful few. With strong and representative leadership we can create and implement meaningful policies that address longstanding structural impediments.
As Americans and New Yorkers committed to improving the quality of life for Black people and other historically marginalized populations, we demand that:
• Black New Yorkers and their allies are provided space to raise their voices and attack injustice;
• systems that perpetuate poverty and stifle economic freedoms be dismantled; and
• opportunities are created to enable those who have historically been left behind to flourish and thrive.
To make these demands a reality, we call for:
• Changes in police training, practices, culture, and tactics and
• the end to the unwarranted surveillance of political activists and community advocates.
• Increased access to city, state, and federal contracting opportunities for community-based organizations and small businesses, in particular those owned by people of color, women, veterans, or other marginalized groups
• an end to tax incentives that disrupt the social fiber of low-income communities, foster displacement, and undermine small businesses; and
• greater support for the establishment, management, and growth of worker-owned cooperatives, especially in communities that have historically had low rates of business establishment by neighborhood residents.
• An expansion of the AmeriCorps, City Year, Jobs Corps, GEAR-UP, and TRIO programs to create additional education, skills training, and employment opportunities for New York’s historically marginalized populations;
• increased federal and private funding for “shovel ready” city or metro New York area-based infrastructure improvement or enhancement projects that will create employment opportunities that provide living wages for our city’s low-income residents; and
• reforms in federal Opportunity Zone legislation that increase capital access for low-income New York City communities without draining those communities of needed tax resources or providing additional tax relief for those who already enjoy numerous tax benefits
It is long overdue that our communities’ needs and demands be prioritized, and it is time for our City to make the deep systemic investments in our communities that we have been calling for far too long. When we have an honest dialogue about how we got here, we will dismantle the system that perpetuates our poverty and disenables our economic freedoms. When we are provided space to use our voice and attack injustice, we will make good on the promise of America for those who were not considered Americans when our country was founded, and for the generations of Americans who have been left behind. Only then can we rebuild.
For all of our brothers and sisters who have and continue to fight against racial, social and economic injustice.
Steve Choi, Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition Janelle Farris, President & Executive Director, Brooklyn Community Services Damyn Kelly, JD, PhD, President & CEO, Lutheran Social Services of NY Frankie Miranda, President and Chief Executive Officer, Hispanic Federation Jose Ortiz, Jr., Executive Director, New York City Employment and Training Coalition Eileen Torres, Executive Director, BronxWorks Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director, Asian American Federation *Sudha Acharya, Executive Director, South Asian Council for Social Services Diya Basu-Sen, Executive Director, Sapna NYC, Inc. Esther Benjamin, CEO and Executive Director, World Education Services Carla Brown, Executive Director, Charles A Walburg Multi-Service Organization, Inc Jessica Clemente, Chief Executive Director, We Stay/Nos Quedamos, Inc. Robert Cordero, Executive Director, Grand Street Settlement Joan Oby Dawson, PhD, Chairperson of the Board, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement Karen Dixon, Executive Director, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center Kevin Ervin, Executive Director, Change for Kids Sabrina Evans-Ellis, Executive Director, Youth Development Institute Lakythia Ferby, Executive Director, STRIVE NY Jeehae Fischer, Executive Director, The Korean American Family Service Center Debbian Fletcher-Blake, Chief Executive Officer, Vocational Instruction Project Community Services, Inc. Ingrid Floyd, Executive Director, Iris House, Inc. Margaret Fung, Executive Director, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) Peter Gee, Interim Executive Director, The Door Lisa Gold, Executive Director, Asian American Arts Alliance William Goodloe, President & Chief Executive Officer, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity Anita Gundanna, Co-Executive Director, Coalition for Asian American Children and Families Sunil Gupta, Dean, Adult Continuing Education & Workforce Development, Borough of Manhattan Community College LaShawn Henry, Chief Executive Officer, Urban Strategies of New York Inc Paloma Hernandez, Chief Executive Officer, Urban Health Plan Inc. Wayne Ho, President and Chief Executive Officer, Chinese-American Planning Council Jukay Hsu, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer, Pursuit Marwa Janini, Executive Director, Arab American Association of New York Carine Jocelyn, Chief Executive Officer, Diaspora Community Services Dominique R. Jones, Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Harlem Roderick Jones, Ed.D, Executive Director, Goddard Riverside Amaha Kassa, Executive Director, African Communities Together Gabrielle Kersainr, Executive Director, Brooklyn-Queens-Long Island Area Health Education Center Sanjana Khan, Executive Director, Laal NYC Jeremy Kohomban, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Children’s Village Harvey Lawrence, President and Chief Executive Officer, BMS Health and Wellness Centers Hong Shing Lee, Executive Director, CMP Linda Lee, President & Chief Executive Officer, Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, Inc. Mae Lee, Executive Director, Chinese Progressive Association Regina Lie-Seid, Executive Director, Chinese Methodist Center Corporation Maria Lizardo, Executive Director, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC) Rosemary Lopez, Executive Director, AIDS Center of Queens County Derrick A. Lovett, President and Chief Executive Officer, MBD Community Housing Corp. Vanessa Luna, Co-Founder, Chief Program Officer, ImmSchools Glenn D. Magpantay, Executive Director, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) Marissa Martin, Executive Director, The Advocacy Institute Yesenia Mata, Executive Director, La Colmena Kavita Mehra, Executive Director, Sakhi for South Asian Women Mari G. Millet, President & Chief Executive Officer, Morris Heights Health Center Paul Moore, Deputy Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer, Morrisania Revitalization Corp Haydee Morales, Executive Director, Casita Maria Dr. Danielle R. Moss, Chief Executive Officer, Oliver Scholars Linda Oalican, Executive Director, Damayan Migrant Workers Association Reuben Ogbonna, Executive Director, The Marcy Lab School Toyin Omolola, Chief Executive Officer, Dsi International Inc John Park, Executive Director, MinKwon Center for Community Action Marjorie D Parker, President and Chief Executive Officer, JobsFirstNYC Liliana Polo-McKenna, Chief Executive Officer, Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT) Malcolm A. Punter, Ed.D, MBA, President & Chief Executive Officer, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, Inc. (“HCCI”) Jocelynne Rainey, Chief Executive Officer, Getting Out and Staying Out Marble Reagon, Executive Director, Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement Zareta Ricks, Executive Director, Opening Act Janet Rodriguez, Chief Executive Officer, SoHarlem, Inc. Jerelyn Rodriguez, Chief Executive Officer, The Knowledge House Rosita Romero, Executive Director, Dominican Women’s Development Center Nathaly Rubio-Torio, Executive Director, Voces Latinas Jeannette K. Ruffins, Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director, West End Residences Marrisa Senteno, NDWA NY Chapter Co-Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance Sharon Sewell-Fairman, Executive Director, Workforce Professionals Training Institute Frederick Shack, Chief Executive Officer, Urban Pathways Nikita Sheth, Chief Executive Officer, Womankind Yvonne Stennett, Executive Director, Community League of the Heights Jennifer Sun, Co-Executive Director, Asian Americans for Equality Bishop Mitchell G Taylor, Chief Executive Officer, Urban Upbound & Center of Hope Int’l Robert Taylor, Executive Director, Youth Action YouthBuild East Harlem (YAYB) Joseph Turner, President and Chief Executive Officer, Exponents and Co-Chairperson, NYS Harm Reduction Association Christopher Watler, Chief External Affairs Officer, Center for Employment Opportunity Kimberly Watson, Chief Operating Officer, Graham Windham Andre White, Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer, Phipps Neighborhoods Angela Williams, Executive Director, I Have A Dream – NY Foundation Thomas Yu, Co- Executive Director, Asian Americans For Equality Lourdes Zapata, President & Chief Executive Officer, South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO)
On Friday, May 29, 2020, CFK was proud to host a Virtual Career Day!
Normally in May, CFK facilitates in-person Career Days with several of our corporate partners. Kids take field trips to different workplaces around the city. Through these types of opportunities that expand their awareness beyond the familiar, kids see what is possible for their unique future and be empowered to make them a reality.
And just because we are quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic does not mean we are stopping our programing! CFK decided we would still hold a Career Day, but this year, it would be Virtual.
The result was nothing short of fantastic! We had hundreds of kids tune in to each panel. Because the event was virtual, held via Zoom, students from our partner schools, like P.S. 160, Grant Avenue, P.S. 6, and P.S. 329, students from all over NYC, and students all across the country could join us. Panelists first spoke about their careers, then kids could ask their questions live as “spotlighted speakers,” or they could type their questions into the chat box. The chat box was buzzing as kids asked panelists everything on their minds!
Our college panel kicked us off. We had panelists from law school, fashion school, and business school. The most popular question was, “Is college hard?” Our panelists reasoned, yes, college is hard, but it’s so worth it.
Next, we learned from panelists in the Arts and Media. Our panelists ranged from artists, to editors at Essence, to designers at frequent CFK collaborator B Floral. Kids were thrilled to meet artists and learn that careers that don’t seem “practical” are still available to them.
Midway through the day, we received this powerful message from a teacher at P.S. 160:
“The first two sessions have been really good. Good content and presentation!”
With this positive feedback driving us into the afternoon, we moved on to our Entrepreneur/Business panel. One of our panelists worked at CFK corporate partner Deloitte, and our other speakers had all started their own businesses. Kids learned how to navigate changing paths when things didn’t go as planned, and were inspired to be the agents of their own lives.
We finished our day with a STEM panel, where kids heard from healthcare researchers and app developers. We even got to talking old school video games! Kids asked what the hardest part of a job in STEM in is and heard that if you do what you love, the hard work pays off.
We are appreciative of all of our panelists who spent the day opening the minds of kids in our communities. When things can seem hopeless for a kid, whether that is from the larger circumstances of our world, or from smaller situations they find themselves in, having exposure to something different, something beyond them, can motivate them to boldly pursue their dreams. I’m excited for the art, research, apps, businesses, and who knows what else, the kids who joined us will create!
Principal Hicks of P.S. 160 sent us flying into the weekend with this note:
“I just wanted to express my sincerest thanks and appreciation for helping us bring Career Day to PS 160Q. It was an amazing day and you have helped spread the CFK joy into the homes of my students & teachers… Rest easy this weekend knowing that the work you are doing is meaningful, intentional, and powerful.”
Tristan wowed the crowd at our recent talent show, CFK’s Got Talent with not only his math skills, but his dancing, and his basketball moves! Tristan sat down with CFK for a quick chat.
Age: 9 years old
School: Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem
Talents: Math, Dancing, and Basketball
CFK: What’s your favorite subject in school?
CFK: How did you learn your many talents?
Tristan: My Dad taught me basketball. I learned math from my Mom. Ever since I started school she would help me by asking me math problems at home.
CFK: What do you love about math?
Tristan: I like math because it is challenging. You can work hard to solve a problem and you will find the right answer.
CFK: What about dancing? What do you love about that?
Tristan: I love dancing because it is great exercise. I love learning new dances.
CFK: What was your favorite part of CFK’s Got Talent?
Tristan: My favorite part is when I was dribbling the basketball and everyone was impressed.
We sure remain impressed by Tristan, the boy of many talents! Tristan took home second place at our talent show two weeks ago. You can catch Tristan reprising his winning performances LIVE on Change For Kids’ instagram page next week as part of our #GivingTuesdayNow campaign. We’ll see you there!
Hot off her first place win at CFK’s talent show, CFK’s Got Talent, the lovely Niya sat down with CFK so we could all get to know her a little better!
Age: 12 years old
School: Channel View School for Research
CFK: How did you first get involved in singing?
Niya: Everyone in my family is a singer. My Mom says I started singing when I was only a few months old! When I was about 5 or 7 years old, I became a serious singer.
CFK: Do you take singing lessons?
Niya: No, I am self-taught. I listen to my family sing and learn from them by ear.
CFK: Where do you like to sing?
Niya: I sing in church. My whole family goes to church together.
CFK: What’s your favorite style of music to sing?
Niya: Gospel is my favorite, but I also like to sing R&B and Disney.
CFK: What’s your favorite place in the whole world?
Niya: I love Canada, I saw Niagara Falls.
CFK: Who is your favorite singer?
Niya: My favorite singer is my Mom.
Thanks for chatting with us, Niya! Niya is the proud first place winner of CFK’s first talent show. CFK’s Got Talent was last Friday night and was a huge hit! Using zoom, we watched kids from all over the world showcasing their singing, drawing, dancing, and even math skills! Thanks to our guest judges, our audience, and to all the kids who participated! These are changing times and we are so proud to #ChangeTogether.
Since the dawn of time, women have been at the cornerstone of life. Somehow along the way, we (men) forgot that, and stopped honoring the power to create and the strength to enact that women hold.
My life and career have been feathered with the strongest of women. My mother and god-mother, who played the dual role of parent for me. Sandi Friedman, who played the dual role of Jewish-mom and organization leader for me. Ellen Jones who sparked a love for learning in me that has never gone out and Athena Fliakos who breathed on those embers the one (or two or three) times boarding school nearly quashed my zeal.
There have been so many great women who’ve carried me to where I currently stand.
Today, I take pause to honor a trifecta of women who are movements by theirselves but a force when they’re together: the Chair and Vice-Chairs of Change for Kids.
Natalie Auerbach, Lisa Bernstein and Sara Hinkle.
These women are living history. Giants in their own regards, in areas of life that may have never connected. Each is vastly different from the other. Yet, with their powers combined, they’ve led Change for Kids into this new decade.
The nonprofit sector in NYC has been traditionally male lead. I can imagine what their trek to shattering this invisible wall has been. They’ve broken the mold in an effort to ensure that future generations can overcome inequity. And for that, I salute them.
I salute them as mothers who push the envelope to ensure the safety, care and love for each of their own children – and deeper, for the children of NYC. I salute them as professionals in their fields who stand within the “boys clubs” of their industries and not just “hold their own” but stand out from the crowd. I salute them as leaders who take time to understand their own voices to help elevate the voices of others. I salute them as colleagues who bring critical thought, deep analysis and thoughtful structure to all they do. I salute them as friends who hold me accountable while sprinkling joy on my world and care on my insecurities.
Take a pause today and let’s watch history in the making.
by Marissa Jones Business Development and Special Projects Manager, Change for Kids
Mental health is equally as important as physical health, and each can affect the other in myriad ways. However, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health and the open discussion and treatment thereof. If you felt sick, or you thought your ankle might be sprained, or you seemed to be having an allergic reaction, you wouldn’t hesitate to go to the doctor and treat those issues impacting your physical health – why should mental health be any different?
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been observed in the U.S. since 1949. According to mentalhealth.gov, “[m]ental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
I’m really proud that Change for Kids is a passionate advocate for social-emotional learning (SEL) and for ensuring a holistic educational experience for all children. It may be more difficult for someone with mental health concerns to actively show competency in areas such as empathy, self-regulation, emotion recognition and management, impulse control, and more. However, with a focus on SEL embedded in day-to-day interactions, the intricate link between SEL and mental health can be strengthened. Many of Change for Kids’ partner schools have implemented a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) program in their school communities, having recognized the need for increased interventions in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral support. PBIS programs can take many forms and can be used in many different settings, and the ultimate goal is to recognize and reinforce positive and pro-social behaviors.
One such program is the Psycho-Educational Model, or PEM. The hallmark of PEM is to ‘catch kids being good,’ and reinforce positive behaviors at a higher rate than negative behaviors. Codified most prominently as the treatment model of Boys Town, a nationally recognized leader in the realm of child care and positive youth development, PEM is a self-help model. Hundreds of “PEM skills” are available to choose from, and most frequently, youth and their caretakers work together to decide which PEM skills are appropriate for them to focus on.
For example, if a kid displays positive behaviors related to the skill of “self-monitoring/self-reflection”, an adult directs the youth to give themselves points. The adult does not write the points down, but instead initials next to where the child wrote their PEM skill and applicable behavior. If kids don’t write their points down, they don’t count toward their daily level. This model encourages youth to take direct action and invest in themselves through their own positive choices; by modelling appropriate pro-social behaviors and statements, adults are able to show youth, who may be struggling, a path forward to regulate their emotions and behaviors. PEM is used throughout all settings – at home, in school, and while out and about in the community. This model works because of its consistency, and can be easily modified to suit all age levels, whether at school or at home.
So how do PBIS, PEM skills, SEL, and mental health all converge? Put it this way: if a child’s mental health is suffering, they are likely to struggle with self-efficacy and self-regulation of emotions and behaviors – key indicators of high levels of competencies in SEL. Conversely, if a child is lacking in social-emotional skills, they may not have the wherewithal to gauge their own behavior patterns and emotional responses, leading to the inability to advocate for themselves to receive support for their mental health needs. That’s why providing additional SEL resources to our schools – and supporting their existing programs – is such a primary focus for CFK. You can learn more about the interconnectivity of SEL and mental health here.
This is National Volunteer Month, a time that always makes me reflect on how grateful I am for the volunteers that helped me learn, who shaped my determination to make a difference for kids into my choice as a career. I originally got involved in volunteer work because of the impact it had on me as a child. I saw that positive role models cared about my well being, my education, and my future. Volunteers can serve as a catalyst to demonstrate to children that there are multiple ways to escape the cycle of poverty, inequity, and despair. Children have the future in their hands, and being someone who can help them mold that future is what the volunteers in our schools provide.
I was able to fuel my own drive to serve after my acceptance into AmeriCorps in October 2018. The AmeriCorps program consists of a network of local, regional, and national organizations committed to using service to address critical community needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment. I serve in a leadership and professional skills building program called Public Allies, which places its members within nonprofit organizations. I feel very lucky that my placement is with Change For Kids as the Volunteer Coordinator.
As an Ally, I use my leadership skills to help strengthen Change For Kids in addressing the real issues facing kids in NYC’s Title 1 elementary schools, including lack of access and opportunity facing thousands of families with young children. CFK believes that the road to success is to provide public elementary school studentsa holistic education that addresses their whole person, not just their academic performance. Change For Kids values our volunteers so much, because they inspire our students and enrich our school communities by supporting our efforts to improve literacy, social-emotional learning, and community engagement.
As a CFK volunteer, you are working to help create positive learning environments for our students, and strengthening our capacity to meet the evolving needs of our schools and communities. Our programs include reading and literacy, music, sports, arts and crafts, STEM, career exploration, school beautification projects, fitness activities, and so much more. YOU are the link connecting CFK’s mission to lead as powerful change agents, providing direct and valuable support to underserved elementary school children within NYC public schools, and making a long-lasting impact on their young and hungry minds!
At CFK, we invest in deepening relationships with volunteers and organizations who can help us provide us with the human capital and resources necessary to continue the critical work we do in public elementary schools. That’s why we value you so much, that’s why we encourage you to be part of our community of volunteers, and that’s why we are so grateful to all of our current volunteers.
April is Autism Awareness Month (also known as Autism Acceptance Month). Change for Kids emphasizes Social-Emotional programs for our schools that are designed to help create an environment in which all children can learn at high levels. Every student in every school deserves a quality education – no matter what their learning style is – and every student can learn and achieve.
Our CFK School Managers often interact with students who have a variety of neurodiverse issues that affect the ways they learn and socialize. Here’s one story of academic triumph, as reported by CFK School Manager Charlotte Bush.
Mr. Funky Slow Jams: Dispatches from the Spectrum
It was March of his third grade year, and the little guy still wasn’t talking. He could communicate through writing and drawing just fine, but – to the dismay of both me and his parents – he was still nonverbal. His teachers from past years had told me how “stubborn” he was, and exchanged increasingly implausible theories about why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t speak. He was a sweet, gifted kid. I should know – I was his teacher that year.
I was new to teaching, still hopelessly idealistic, and stumbled onto a helpful tool for him completely by accident. I was sharpening pencils before the school day started, singing to myself. “Gotta sharpen all the pencils” I sang under my breath to an approximation of a tune, as my silent student sat at his desk, eating his cafeteria breakfast. I thought I heard something from his direction, but chalked it up to the growl of the pencil sharpener. As it continued, I stopped my chores and listened: my silent little friend was singing back to me. “Sharpen allllll the pencils” he crooned, for all the world sounding like a nine-year-old Al Green impersonator. My jaw hit the floor, and it continued to descend throughout the day, as my previously silent student sang his answers, sang that he needed to go to the bathroom, and sang goodbye to me and a few of his friends at the end of the day. It was as though we’d turned on a tap, and the words were gushing out of him, albeit always to the same generic funky slow jam. He wasn’t just verbal, he was dulcet. He was Billboard Top 40 – Mr. Funky Slow Jams. And not only that, his self-stimulation (or “stimming”) behaviors that he did when stressed or uncomfortable, like rocking, biting his clothes, and pulling his hair were nowhere to be seen. He seemed to be so much happier, as well as more expressive, because he was able to sing.
So why am I telling you about him? My tuneful buddy had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a toddler, and difficulty communicating is pretty characteristic of a wide swath of the Autism Spectrum (though of course, every individual case is different.) Mr. Funky Slow Jams is in middle school now, and is very proud of himself. Sometimes, he told me the last time I saw him, he even speaks. He still mostly sings, but his tunes are evolving as he’s exposed to different music. He sang about how much he loved doo-wop, and how his choir friends harmonized with him sometimes, and I must admit, I got a little misty.
You might be wondering as you read this, “is he bullied?” The answer is yes. It’s a cruel world. But that shouldn’t be a reason for him to stop singing. My funky little friend has more resilience on his hardest days than most adults. Instead, his creative solution can serve as a metaphor for inclusive education at its best. Letting him sing instead of speak isn’t “cheating.” It’s the goal of differentiated instruction; leveling the playing field so that all kids can participate. As a former teacher, I know that differentiated instruction is a need as basic to be able to function in school as wearing glasses is to correct vision. A kid who wears glasses isn’t getting an unfair advantage. They’re just getting what they need to see the same materials as their classmates.
As public awareness of ASDs grows, it’s sad that the understanding of ASDs hasn’t increased to meet it. The pop-cultural stereotypes of people with ASD’s – the Sheldons, the Rain Mans, the Sherlocks – none of them prepare you for working with kids like Mr. Funky Slow Jams. Many otherwise well-meaning organizations take a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting people living with ASDs, or even view ASDs as something to be “cured,” or as something that ruins lives. Due to misinformation, some parents are exposing their kids unnecessarily to measles and other diseases that were nearly eradicated through vaccines, rather than have their child risk “catching autism.” That mindset of fear shows just how little is still widely known about this complex series of conditions. I’d like sit down and compassionately tell any parent facing an ASD diagnosis that no, their child won’t become like Sheldon. No, their child isn’t “broken.” No, this isn’t because of something they, the parent did to “make them that way.” And no, it can’t be “cured,” and it doesn’t need to be. Neurodiversity is as normal as a student needing glasses, and the sooner our culture embraces this truth, the better off we’ll all be.
This April, here are some ways you can make a difference to support the autistic community:
When someone on the spectrum talks about their experience, listen. You may want to reassure them, or try to help, but sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is listen. Make a space for those on the spectrum to talk about what they’re dealing with.
Advocate for inclusive education whenever possible.
Fight stereotypes whenever you can, including those around vaccines.
Donate to Autism advocacy groups, but please, do the research first. Make sure that the groups you support have people with autism in positions of power, on the board, or in management.
Keep an open mind when working with kids; solutions and supports can come from anywhere.
When I last saw Mr. Funky Slow Jams, he was not only surviving, but thriving, or “kicking butt in Middle School,” as he sang it. Leveling the playing field for a kid who needs it can be as simple as letting them sing, so this April, let’s make sure all voices are heard!