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The Therapeutic Value of Connecting Kids with their Culture
If you love yourself, you know where you come from, your history is rich, and you know that and understand that — that’s a huge form of self-care.
Identity is one of the most important facets to a person’s self-esteem and wellbeing. Your identity is how you define yourself and how others define you, though those definitions are not necessarily the same. How we define ourselves represents many things: our interests, relationships, and abilities. It is also impacted by things like our experiences, community, environment, and our culture.
One way Mercy Home strives to help our kids build a positive self-identity is through cultural celebrations like Black History Month and Latinx Heritage Month. These celebrations are so important because they are key to making sure our kids see their own cultural identities mirrored back to them in a positive way.
“I think often in history, the political figures or the historical figures we talk about are overwhelmingly white male figures,” Marc Velasquez, manager of spiritual development and a member of the Black History Month committee, said.
“And so as a result, African-American youth and Latino youth, when they grow up, they don’t see themselves reflected in their history books or in their classrooms.”
Tying into that, self-love is an important part of building and maintaining a healthy self-esteem—as well as being an essential part of self-care, Brittany Terrell, the director of education resources, said.
“If you love yourself, you know where you come from, your history is rich, and you know that and understand that — that’s a huge form of self-care,” Terrell said.
When it comes to helping kids build a healthy sense of identity, representation matters, according to Terrell. She said that it’s important for our youth to have a fuller understanding of African-American history, including the great moments that are often overlooked. Maintaining a stronger connection to their history—and not just the negative parts—is the key to empowering young people.
The committee sees education as essential to understanding not only your background, but also yourself. Velasquez explained that last year, particularly during Black History Month, there was a focus on the impact of individuals who have used their voice to impact change.
In fact, it is a belief in yourself and a strong identity that empowers someone to be able to stand up for their beliefs, according to Velasquez.
“Standing up for yourself means there’s going to be consequences,” he said. “That’s why you have to believe in yourself to be able to stand up for yourself.
“The idea is we want to give our kids a full picture of who they are, where they came from, so they can be proud and use their voices in ways that empower them. And therapeutically, that all comes back to identity. It’s all about having a positive self-identity.”
While celebrating months like Black History Month and Latinx Heritage Month are extremely important, Mercy Home works all year long to give our kids a safe place where they feel welcome and comfortable exploring who they are from their cultural identity.
“People of color in this country have been told for generations that ‘your culture was inferior to ours,’” Kevin Felisme, manager of vocational training and placement, said. “The way that you eat, dance, communicate, whatever it is, is not the standard, which is white. … I think the opportunity we have as an agency is to celebrate [culture] with our kids and emphasize it’s okay to be who you are and [say that] your culture is beautiful. We need to be able to do that, because it’s part of their treatment, it’s part of their identity.”
Along with allowing Mercy Home’s kids to explore their own cultures, it is equally important to give them the opportunity to see and learn about other cultures as well.
“I think it’s good in general for all of us to learn from all of our backgrounds, from everyone, different cultures, different traditions, different ways of living,” Felisme said.
“I think that education piece can get rid of the ignorance that can lead to hate and discrimination.”
Additionally, while some of our kids come to Mercy Home with a strong cultural identity, some come with a negative idea or no sense of cultural identity at all.
“Many come in with very strong cultural identity and a lot to contribute to cultural discussions,” Velasquez said. “And I think we do a good job of encouraging that … the idea of doing intentional presentations [for things like Black History Month] I think is to reach out to both, including the kids who might not have a good self-identity. We’ll be able to start building that.”
Terrell said, “A lot of African-American and Latinx youth have a lost history [because] it’s not being taught in their schools or just in their everyday setting. So they lose that sense of identity or that sense of greatness. It kind of diminishes their value of themselves and also their peers.”
Connections, strong family bonds, and peer groups are so important.
For our kids, valuing their identity helps create a sense of purpose, which is crucial to their success in life. A way to create a sense of purpose, Terrell explained, is to realize that they are working toward something that goes beyond themselves or even their family.
“For me personally, if I feel like I’m working towards something to better my community and to better my people, I feel like no matter how hard it is, I gotta go,” she said. “This is bigger than me. This is bigger than even my family. A lot of what’s happening with African-American men, young men in particular, is they don’t feel like they have a purpose on this earth so it’s okay to be part of violence or participate in it, whatever the case may be.”
And while it may not seem immediately obvious, exploring other cultures helps our kids define their own.
“You experience another culture and that experience allows you to see room for similarities, to acknowledge healthy differences. And I think if you’re doing that, if you’re comparing your culture to someone else’s, ultimately what you’re doing is you’re growing your own identity.”
Mercy Home also strives to surround our kids with coworkers who look like them and who can serve as positive role models.
“Our kids are going to naturally model their behavior on the person that they identify with most, and, culturally, that’s going to be the first thing they go to,” Velasquez said. “That’s just the importance of having a diverse workforce, a diverse group of coworkers, and not only that, but that there’s a cultural humility among our coworkers, that we’re able to work together to get a positive treatment plan for the kids who live here and just to make sure that they’re represented in that as well.”
But perhaps the strongest way to help our kids build a positive identity is by embracing their roots.
“Connections, strong family bonds, and peer groups are so important,” Terrell said.
Giving our kids the opportunity celebrate things like Black History Month, Latinx Heritage Month, and other cultural heritage events is so crucial, she added.
“It just creates a sense of power that just cannot be taught. No amount of cultural competency can replace that. It’s not just connecting to the literature, but also that celebration component of actually coming together to do something together.”