“We’re the leftover kids,” one of the young men told us. He was part of a group of adolescent males who participated in a focus group with students and faculty from the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core. The group met on February 8, 1999, at Cross-Ties Ecumenical Church in Waco, Texas. That evening the young men spoke with the researchers about many of the issues which matter most to them: community, the police, responsibility, the lack of opportunity, sports, and people.
At first the group was somewhat hesitant to speak to a large group of Baylor outsiders, but as they became more comfortable with us and with each other, they opened up more and shared some surprising insights into their lives. The young men did not have easy lives, but they could have a much rougher time as well. Most of them go to school and love sports. Most are involved to some extent with the Gospel Cafe and Cross-Ties Ecumenical Church, which for them serves as a type of community center.
One of the young men, designated as Subject A in the transcript, was probably the brightest and most observant in the group. He loves the church and is fighting hard to stay out of trouble, stay away from the drug scene, and deal with the harassment given to them by the local police. He has a positive attitude and a great deal of potential for success in the future.
Subject B likes sports, and had some good ideas, but he said later that he wasn’t used to thinking that hard for so long. He seemed intimidated by the group, and didn’t talk much after the first several minutes. He also said afterwards that he was tired and possibly sick.
Subject C was the most inquisitive of the group, asking questions of many of the Baylor students regarding life at Baylor. He started off the evening rather quiet, but opened up as the night progressed. He is close to his parents, who try to protect him from the dangers of the community. This includes a six P.M. curfew on Saturdays. He loves sports and school.
Subject D was the only one in the group who had left school and begun working. Since age 12 he had lived either on his own or with various foster families who frequently moved away, forcing him to switch to a different family. He went to University High for a while and played football until a shoulder injury ended his football career and convinced him to drop out. He now works as a bricklayer and has career ambitions.
Subject E had participated in one of the other focus groups. He apparently found the event amusing at first and thus didn’t take it too seriously. His main concern was the police, repeatedly using the phrase, “Once you’re marked, you’re marked,” in reference to the police force. He also described his peer group as “the leftover kids,” partly in regard to the closing of the Boys’ Club and Kate Ross Park, both former recreation centers for the young men of the community. He gets headaches from reading, which suggest an uncorrected vision problem. He believes that Baylor students need to get out more into the community, which implies that his own community does not fully meet its own needs. Overall his attitude was rather cynical, which could be a defense mechanism again the more difficult aspects of his life.
Subject F did not say very much over the course of the evening, but what he did say had a dark tinge to it. He didn’t live near the church and didn’t understand at first what we were doing there. Frequently he joked around with Darnell.
Subject G was the nephew of B, in fifth grade, and very quiet. A wrestling fan, a large percentage of his words involved the wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Concerns of the Young Men
From this discussion and its subtext, several primary concerns emerge. One of the most stressful for them is the relationship between the police force and the young men in the community. The area was once a high drug-activity area and still faces problems with crime today. The very building in which the group met was a renovated drug house. Apparently, as a result, the police are very suspicious of the young men in the area, since statistically they are the most prone to criminal activity. This suspicion, in the teens’ eyes at least, has turned into outright harassment. Subject E told us twice that “once you’re marked, you’re marked [as a threat by the police].” One of the young men drove a nice car in the area and was stopped by the police, and people are also stopped for walking in the closed Kate Ross Park. The group unanimously said that people in the community are angry at the police over the harassment. Crime is a problem in the community as well, but it seemed like the young men were more concerned with the enforcers of the law than with the breakers of it. They want the police to stop harassing them and show them some respect and trust. They are not criminals and do not want to be treated as such.
Another major concern for them was the closing of the Boys’ Club and Kate Ross Park, which took away two of the main opportunities for recreation in the area. The city closed the Boys’ Club either because of drugs or theft of the club’s money. They closed Kate Ross and tore down its playground because of drug activity. At these centers many of the young men played basketball, football, swam, or did other activities. The loss of these centers has added to their frustration and forced them to seek other things to do. They really want both these centers to reopen so they will have somewhere to go besides Cross-Ties and Sul Ross, where they play basketball.
The members of the group made several references to other relational-type problems in the community. All are concerned with money, and mentioned it as a way that would make their parents’ lives better and easier. Apparently the young people in the neighborhood show a lack of respect for their parents and other adults in the community. This stems in part from a lack of discipline on the part of the parents there. This lack of respect, they say, increases the crime rate in the area, because people don’t care about each other as much. With regard to parenting and pregnancy, they saw pregnancy as a problem which they hoped to avoid for the time being. They dislike the fact that many young men run away instead of taking responsibility for their actions and supporting the children whom they father. Fathers, they believe, are an important part of a child’s upbringing, especially a boy’s. The people of the neighborhood, they feel, need to take responsibility for themselves, their actions, and their families and show some respect to the other people there.
Sources of Comfort
Despite these struggles, the young men have at least two sources of comfort, or refuge, or hope, or distraction, depending on one’s perspective. One of the main ones is sports, in which nearly every member of the group expressed an interest. Many played basketball or football. They also enjoyed watching sports on television or following them in the newspaper. When asked whom they most admired, most chose famous athletes like Scottie Pippen or Rodney Smith. Sports form a common bond among the young men of the community, and provide something fun for them to do and think about besides the problems of their neighborhood. Another source of comfort and a sense of community is the Gospel Cafe at Cross-Ties. Most of them had some connection with it, and it serves as a type of community center for them. Many go to church there sometimes. Subject A told the group that the church “helps keep me in line” and stay out of trouble. The church seems to provide hope for a better life through faith and, in more practical terms, moral guidance.
First and foremost, something must be done about the relationship between the young men of the community and the police. A Police Athletic League, which gives community members and police officers the chance to interact and form relationships through athletics, could improve relations between the community and the police and eliminate some of the ill will and suspicion on both sides. Improved relations will not result from legislation or words; the two sides must form a relationship in order to better understand one another and break down the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding which stand between them. A petition, or even a simple letter or phone call, to members of the City Council or the Mayor on behalf of the neighborhood could help bring the community’s police concerns out into the open and spark discussion, and generate ideas for possible solutions.
In addition to the police issue, the young men of this community need a safe and enjoyable place to meet for fellowship, athletics, and other similar activities. One solution that they proposed themselves is the reopening of Kate Ross Park and the Boys’ Club. I understand that recently Cross-Ties has begun preliminary work on a project involving the old Boys’ and Girls’ Club building, which could prove to be a great asset to the community. Another possibility is the addition of a community center for the neighborhood, which would help unify the community. Once unified, the people of the community would be better prepared for sociopolitical action to seek help from outside, as well as to generate ideas and plans for improving their community themselves. It would also improve its internal relationships, and increase the sense of respect for others and responsibility for oneself and one’s family.
Cross-Ties Ecumenical Church began, in part, with the goal of helping this South Waco community. It obtained a former drug house and transformed it into a church and gathering place for the people of the area. It now helps to meet the spiritual and social needs of the residents, including the young men who participated in the study. Recently the church has begun exploratory work on other projects to benefit the community, such as reopening the former Boys’ and Girls’ Club building and a child-care service. The efforts of the members of this church should be applauded, encouraged, and supported in whatever way possible.
Subject E called the teenaged boys in the neighborhood the “leftover kids,” and to an extent this label is accurate. They aren’t always treated well by the community outside the church; they face constant hassles, disappointments, and frustrations from the police, poverty, and the opportunities which others take away from them. Yet they do not seem depressed. Indeed, many seem to have hope for a better life in the future. Nearly all were interested in college, and most had ideas for improving their community. They take life as it comes and deal with it accordingly.