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July 25, 2013
Trayvon Martin could have been our patient. In our office, separate from his peers, and in the context of his family, we would have had the opportunity to look for his strengths and to encourage his development. We would have understood the cell phone attached to his hand, his use of social media, his style of dress, and his experimentation with identities and risks, to be normal and expected parts adolescent development even as we worked to ensure that those things did not interfere with his likelihood of becoming a healthy, autonomous adult. With his parents we would also have been able to discuss his transition through puberty and adolescence and the potential strategies for raising resistance and building resilience and skills for the adult world he was planning to enter. This is the privilege we have as adolescent health providers.
Along with great privilege; however, comes great responsibility. We work with youth because the rewards of connecting with young people and helping them grow are immense. But, the relationships and perspectives we gain from working with youth one-on-one will not change the more commonly held societal perceptions about them unless we also fulfill our obligation to advocate on their behalf. Unfortunately, it is too often those societal assumptions about youth, particularly those from African American communities, which shape and limit their opportunities.
In order to fulfill our mission to help all youth become healthy adults, we must do more to influence the perception of the broader community about young people, and particularly African American boys and young men. As an organization of leaders committed to “promoting optimal health and well-being for adolescents and young adults,” and being the “authoritative voice” for dissemination of new knowledge for effective advocacy on behalf of youth, we must acknowledge the well-documented explicit and implicit biases that have shaped public perception, distribution of resources, and discriminatory treatment of young African American males in the United States and how the behaviors associated with bias influences their longitudinal trajectories.
Yes, there may be more to Trayvon’s story than we know. We do know, however, that an unarmed adolescent boy with a bag of skittles and a cell phone was killed, that the justice system could not adequately respond because gun access and use laws are flawed, that he is neither the first nor the only case, and that our window for advocacy is rapidly closing.
Today’s adolescent and young adults are a part of the most diverse, educated, and technologically savvy generation that we have seen. They are optimistic, have different expectations for how our world operates, and have taken to the streets and the Internet across the nation to rally fellow Americans. With our support, they have the potential to reshape the painful history of discrimination woven into the fabric of American society. On Friday, President Obama acknowledged the pain of being profiled. He illustrates the potential outcome for every African American male youth in the United States when afforded the opportunity to achieve his fullest potential
While SAHM members are busily pulling together workshops and scientific abstracts on brain development and social ecological models to debate Nature versus Nurture next year, it is important that we acknowledge existing historical, sociological, health, and behavioral research that expose the factors that led to the outcome experienced by Trayvon Martin. SAHM must do more on this issue and stand with teens and families to prevent future tragedies.
So, let’s put our hoodies on and get to work—-in the office, in the community, in the media, and in state and national legislatures.
Krishna Upadhya, MD, MPH, and
Maria Trent, MD, MPH, FSAHM
and colleagues of the
Johns Hopkins Health Disparities Leadership Education in Adolescent Health Program:
Hoover Adger Jr., MD, MPH, MBA. Errol Fields, MD, MPH, PhD. Lisa Garrett, BSN, RN. Nicholas Ialongo, PhD. Lana Lee, MD. Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH. Arik Marcell, MD, MPH. Marylou Rosenblatt, RN, CPNP. Shonali Saha, MD. Renata Arrington Sanders, MD, MPH. Phyllis Sharps, PhD, RN, CNE, FAAN. Kathy Tomaszewski, RN, BSN