Story and photos by Laura Reinhardt
Through World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Project, a young woman is becoming the change she longs for in her Seattle community.
Six eyes zero in on the mirror as three girls crowd in a tiny bathroom, examining every bobby-pin placement, every dress pucker, and even the most minute blemish. In the next room, 18-year-old Quincy Dunham kneels on the floor, ironing a formal gown. The dress isn’t hers; it belongs to her friend Fundisha. Quincy is used to taking care of others.
The young women are from Seattle, known for such corporate giants as Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing. But to these girls from economically challenged neighborhoods, Seattle means drugs, gang violence, broken homes, growing up too fast, and friends dying too young.
Tonight, they are a world away, in Washington, D.C. Tonight, they will sit side-by-side with donors, members of Congress, and White House dignitaries to share their stories. The evening’s gala celebrates the young men and women who, through World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Project, have found the courage to go beyond their own hardship and advocate for others.
The Youth Empowerment Project reaches out to young people from at-risk communities in 12 areas across the United States. The 20-week program focuses on what the youth see as the critical problems in their neighborhoods. The teens then learn to mold their ideas into policy proposals that they present to congressional lawmakers during a five-day summit in Washington, D.C.
Quincy jumped at the opportunity to be involved. She loves her community, Seattle’s Rainier Valley, for the diversity of people and cultures, but she also sees the problems and wants to be involved in creating solutions. “I so think that our community has been separated. It still is right now, but we have made progress. I love where we came from and hopefully where we’re going.”
Seattle Youth Empowerment leader Steve Polzin says the program is a self-esteem builder because it emphasizes strengths the teens might not even know they have. “That is huge, because then they start to see themselves as assets,” he says. Through U.S. programs like Youth Empowerment, World Vision works to help all people, particularly children, reach their God-given potential.
Quincy grew up without much parental encouragement. When she was a year old, her father abandoned the family. Despondent, her mother turned to drugs and alcohol. Quincy eventually assumed a nurturing role with her siblings. “I had to grow up 10 times faster than I would have if [my father] had stayed,” she says.
Eventually, her mother joined a church that helped her overcome her addictions. In 1999, to the shock of Quincy and her siblings, their mother eloped with a man from the church. Later that year, he died of a heart attack, right in front of the family.
Her mother, pregnant with Quincy’s brother, Elijah, fell into depression again. When Elijah was born, Quincy took over his care on top of cleaning the house and cooking for her other two siblings.
Elijah didn’t sleep well. “I would be up all night with him, and we would just be so tired,” says Quincy. Her schoolwork suffered, and she fell behind. Believing she was wasting the teachers’ and everyone else’s time, she often stayed home. “I stopped caring,” she says. “And [the teachers] stopped caring because I stopped caring.”
Quincy was in danger of becoming another statistic. Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, estimates that if high-school graduation rates in the U.S. were 1 percent higher, there would be 100,000 fewer crimes, 400 fewer murders, and a national savings—in welfare costs and lost taxation—of $1.4 billion.
Things reached a boiling point between Quincy and her mother, who pulled out of her depression and regained her authority over the family. “She started becoming the mom, and that was my role,” says Quincy. Defiant, she started staying out late, drinking and doing drugs. At 16, she went to live with her biological father in Michigan, where she returned to school. “It kind of shocked me back into reality,” she says. “I do have stuff that I want to do with my life.”
When her relationship turned sour with her dad, Quincy returned to Seattle. Her mother discovered Seattle Urban Academy, which provided individualized attention for students. Derrick Wheeler-Smith, who teaches African American studies and religion at the school, remembers Quincy as very unsure of herself at first. “She was really like a closed flower,” he says. Soon she began to blossom, and her grades rose.
Hard Work Pays Off
At a Youth Empowerment meeting, Steve Polzin asks the youths to name their favorite color, favorite animal, and favorite body of water. The atmosphere is full of laughter and joking, but things turn serious as Steve reads the final question: “You’re trapped in a room with white walls, and they’re closing in on you. Describe how you feel.” The question is designed to reveal how the teens perceive death.
Dré, one of Quincy’s teammates, says he feels at peace. He has already been stabbed in a major artery. “All my homies is dead,” he says. “My dad is dead.” Dré is 16.
Gang-related violence has increased in recent years in King County, Wash., much of the activity in the neighborhoods where the Seattle Youth Empowerment participants live. Quincy’s half-brother was injured in a shooting. She’s comforted friends who have lost loved ones. When an ambulance races past, she interrupts her conversation to say: “Oh Lord, please don’t let someone else be shot.”
While violence preys on young men, a common problem for young women is settling for dead-end relationships with gang members and high-school dropouts. Quincy says it’s easy for girls in her community to set the bar low for themselves. Most of her young, unmarried cousins have had babies, some more than one. “I don’t think that they see themselves as treasures,” she says.
Later, Quincy squirms while watching herself on the computer screen. She winces and pulls her black turtleneck up over her nose. She’s working on the Seattle team’s Youth Empowerment media project, a video representing the teens’ view of their community, to be shown at the summit in D.C.
Quincy relaxes when her friend Jordan appears on the screen, standing on Beacon Hill with the Seattle skyline behind him and rapping about the problems facing his peers. “My best friend is so amazing,” she whispers.
She’s used to seeing the value in others, but finds it difficult to see it in herself. Her former teacher, Derrick, sees her as being hesitant to step out and take risks because of past rejections. He thinks that as she sees her hard work paying off, she will seize more opportunities. “I really feel like Quincy can do whatever she wants to do if she’s willing to put in the work,” Derrick says.
Over the 20 weeks of Youth Empowerment training, Quincy proved willing to work hard, her efforts culminating in the D.C. summit in July 2009, when she and the Seattle team presented anti-violence policy recommendations to lawmakers.
Quincy longs for “just a handful of [people] who put heart and care into the community. If there were more people who were willing to get down to the nitty-gritty and pull the kids out from the bottom, I think it would be a good thing.” And what she longs for, she is becoming. Building on the Youth Empowerment training, she plans to study social work in college.
Quincy’s former teachers and mentors cheer her progress. “She’s having to create a future for herself that she hasn’t seen the people around her create,” says Seattle Urban Academy language-arts teacher Amy Kendall Timoll. “It is totally new ground for her.”
Laura Reinhardt is a photojournalist covering World Vision’s programs in the United States.