African American youth have historically been disproportionately affected by an array of environmental stressors (exposure to violence, living and playing in high-risk scapes, and adverse childhood experiences) that have put them at higher risk for poor adjustment outcomes (Adams III et al., 2003). Despite their hardships, not all of these youth fall victim to negative and stressful environmental and community level influences (Miller & MacIntosh, 1999). In spite of the many social, environmental, and political factors that shape health and influence outcomes.
The importance of resilience cannot be overlooked. We must remain vigilant in exploring the processes through which resilience is achieved giving full consideration to the world in which they live. There is a T’Challa and Killmonger in every youth.
Extensive research has conclusively demonstrated that children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success.
Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that performance gaps by social class take root in the earliest years of children’s lives and fail to narrow in the years that follow (Elias, 2013). That is, children who start behind stay behind—they are rarely able to make up the lost ground. This trajectory supports as well as stamps the school to prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline is a process through which students are pushed out of schools and into prisons (Elias, 2013). In other words, it is a process of criminalizing youth that is carried out by disciplinary policies and practices within schools that put students into contact with law enforcement.
Instead of pushing students out of school, we need to “rethink schools” and make them responsive to the contemporary needs of our children and young adults. There needs to be teacher trainings, appropriate resources, perceived-risk assessment, and the development of culturally appropriate and compatible trauma-informed curriculum. Furthermore, we must give full consideration to the communities that our kids come from. Schools need to be a safe place where children feel they belong and want to attend. No Child left behind and No Child found on a MurderInk search. According to Dr. Berttina Love (2019), our educational system is maintained by the profits from the suffering of children of color. She suggest that, instead of trying to repair a flawed system, educational reformers offer survival tactics in the forms of test-taking skills, acronyms, grit labs and character education, which Love eloquently calls the educational survival complex. The educational survival complex is a system in which children are left learning how to survive (Love, 2019).
More than just the facts. Many young parents drop out of college to care for their children having difficulties matriculating through school. Black children constitute 18 percent of students, but they account for 46 percent of those suspended more than once and are more likely stereotyped as youth with behavioral problems (Elias, 2013). Schools with a high percentage of low-income students and/or students of color for the most part have fewer resources, spend less on staffing, lack adequate instructional materials, and have worse physical building conditions than their counterpart schools serving higher income or more racially and ethnically diverse (or more uniformly white) student bodies. These conditions may eventually translate into lower educational attainment for the residents of a neighborhood as a whole.
According to Massey and Tannen, 26% of all African Americans in the United States live in hypersegregated metropolitan areas. Among African Americans living in metropolitan areas, 53.1% of African Americans live in metropolitan areas characterized as highly segregated or hypersegregated. Racially segregated Black neighborhoods create high- risk landscapes that increase the threat to Black lives, whether in the form of disproportionate exposure to lead poison and toxic waste, educational inequality, redlining, subpriming, or transit inequity. Racial segregation escalates danger in all forms for residents who live in disinvested, redlined Black neighborhoods, creating what we call “high- riskscapes” where the threat of death and harm are perceived as immanent rather than far off, especially for black youth and emerging adults.
High-riskscapes alter risk portfolios and perceptions of residents’ risk and place concerns for health, education, employment, STIs, alcohol, and substance use low on the list of concern because the threat of violence and the exposure of cumulative community violence mandates of survival in environments of concentrated poverty and unresolved traumas (historical trauma and the epigenetic effect) rank as primary concerns.
For almost two-decades, exposure to community violence has been designated a “public health epidemic” for adolescents and young adults residing in economically-disadvantaged, urban neighborhoods (U.S. Surgeon General 2001). Not only is community violence an enduring public health challenge in many high-poverty, urban communities (Tung et al., 2018), exposure to community violence/trauma in early life may profoundly affect a youth’s development in multiple domains from early childhood into adolescence and beyond (Griffin, Bradshaw, & Furr-Holden, 2009). Community violence affects all racial and ethnic groups, but African Americans living in low-income urban neighborhoods experience higher rates of community violence and crime than other racial and ethnic groups (Crouch et al., 2000). Alarmingly, several studies document that between 45% and 96% of urban, African American youth have witnessed violence in their communities, ranging from assault to murder (Gaylord-Harden, Cunningham, & Zelencik, 2011), and 16% to 37% of youth have reported being victims of aforementioned violence (Spano & Bolland, 2013). Growing up under the conditions of adversity by being victims of violence or witnessing violence has long-term effects. (Center on the Developing Child, 2019).
Significant early adversity can lead to lifelong problems. Toxic stress experienced early in life and common precipitants of toxic stress—such as poverty, abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, mass incarceration, education inequalities and exposure to violence—can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health (Center on the Developing Child, 2019). Among our youth, the “struggle for existence” requires extraordinary coping skills. To face the immense challenges of high-risk scapes, exposure to community violence, lead poisoning, school safety, and a cadre of other adversities, they must adjust to the hardships associated with learning how to survive.
SurvivornomicsTM is a term coined that emerged from a theory developed by public health scholars and activist at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy identified as the Perceived Risk Hierarchy Theory TM (PRHT) (article found in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved May 2017, 28 (2).
SurvivornomicsTM, is not traditionally defined in the ethos of traditional sciences. Rather, survivornomicsTM is the integration of two sciences: survivability and economics. The best way to describe survivornomicsTM is the ability to quantify and measure resiliency and personal mastery over intense physical and emotional states. As we blend these emerging concepts, a cost-benefit analysis calculates the ratio of benefit over cost. Simply put, a cost benefit analysis ismade to identify how well or how poorly an individual adjust or thrive in the face of adversity and/or intense emotional states.
SurvivornomicsTM proffers that youth and emerging adults residing in disadvantaged, hyper-segregated and marginalized communities live, adjust, and thrive in the face of adversities while finding resilience. Because the challenges they face are multi-factorial and involve so many different systems, we must think critically and avoid becoming rigid in our deliberations. The problems confronting our youth are voluminous: morbidity, education inequality, residing in high-risk scapes, cumulative exposure to community violence, as well as un-addressed adverse childhood experiences (ACES). We can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring the deleterious dilemmas facing of our African American youth. This work immediately calls for a deeper thinking and understanding of the all-encompassing features of their everyday lives. We must charge forward recognizing the lack of effectiveness in our current systems. Let’s transform dialogue to action and create a structuring framework for this segment of the population that refuses the disposability of African American youth.
Tupac Shakur also known by his stage names 2Pac and Makaveli, was an American rapper, writer, and actor. He left us with these words: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside while still alive. Never surrender.”
If you are interested in making a difference in the life of youth. Please be a part of the Morgan State University West Baltimore Get Smart Drug Free Community Coalition. Our goal is to delay, reduce and eliminate alcohol and substance use among youth ages 12 – 17 in West Baltimore. For more information, please contact Dr. Lorece Edwards at 443-885-3566 or Lorece.Edwards@morgan.edu.
*A special thanks to Dean, Dr. Kim Sydnor, Dr. Ian Lindong and Dr. Randolph Rowel.