By Rich Eldredge, VOX’s Senior Editor (pictured above, far right, with the rest of VOX’s adult staff)
VOX is a bit of an anomaly in the nonprofit world. Whether you’re a member of the adult or the teen staff, the folks who find VOX tend to stick around. VOX becomes a necessary, ingrained part of your life. Many of our teens find VOX when they’re eighth or ninth graders and spend the next four years with us. That pays real dividends for VOX. We’re able to track developmental arcs and observe our teens’ progress — often on a day-to-day basis — as our young people grow their writing, reporting, critical thinking and leadership skills. It’s a unique vantage point that even school teachers many times lack.
VOX becomes just as necessary for the adults who support our teens. This fall, I’m celebrating a milestone at VOX — my sixth anniversary as part of the adult staff supporting the uncensored self expression of our teens. Often, in the nonprofit sector, long hours, hard work and modest pay usually attract younger candidates who are looking to build resumes, along with bridges to their next job. But in our newsroom, my desk is situated next to VOX’s founder and current mission director, Rachel Alterman Wallack, right where she’s been for all of VOX’s 24 years.
As we tell our adult volunteers when they arrive for orientation, VOX is a learning environment, whether you’re 15 or 50. In honor of my anniversary, here’s the six biggest life lessons our teens have taught me since I arrived in the fall of 2011.
Operate Outside Your Comfort Zone
One of VOX’s operating philosophies is meeting teens where they are. Over the last six years with our teens, I’ve climbed a mountain, sunken into a ball pit, bounced on trampolines, run a three-legged race in Centennial Olympic Park and sampled most of the Checker’s fast food menu downstairs in the food court on the recommendation of my teen co-workers. Turns out, loaded chili fries really do pair nicely with a blue raspberry Slushie. And whether you’re a teen or a mid-career journalist, you grow more when you try and tackle the unfamiliar.
Embrace the Occasional F Bomb
Some of the most eye-opening community workshops are the ones where we serve young people who have spent their lives in foster care. At one self expression writing workshop VOX hosted a few years back, I was walking around story coaching free writes when I noticed one young man staring at his computer screen with a single word on it — “Fuck.”
I walked over and said, “That’s one of my favorite words. It’s really expressive, isn’t it? Is that how you’re feeling right now?” He nodded. “Cool. Tell me why.” That four-letter word ended up unlocking a painful story about addicted parents and the son they abandoned who was now facing his own addiction challenges.
We are all connected
Whether it’s Converse sneakers, Instagram or “Stranger Things,” the teens and adults alike at VOX love many of the same things. VOX’s teen-led space allows new people to come into VOX and explore these connection points with each other in a safe, supportive environment. I’ve observed teens from all walks of life and from all quadrants of Atlanta bond over mutual interests in female empowerment and then join forces to produce a compelling video package on the evolving roles for women in Hollywood, thanks to the box office success of “Wonder Woman.”
Comics tend to bring all generations together. When our teens binge-watched “Luke Cage” on Netflix in 2016, I brought in a hardback collection of the “Luke Cage, Hero For Hire” Marvel Comics I grew up collecting. That led to multiple dialogues on everything from violence in 1970s comics to how the original Cage comic book (written and drawn largely by white guys) felt inauthentic compared to the TV series helmed by a diverse, largely African-American creative team. We all possess things that unite us. But unlike many places in society, at VOX, we have an opportunity and the comfortability to explore those powerful points of connection.
Food is family
Feeding hungry young people is part of VOX’s core mission. But we also use our electric skillet, griddle and crock pot, our blueberry pancakes, cheesy eggs, black bean quesadillas and quinoa vegetarian chili to build community together. When the world turns dark and difficult conversations are necessary, the teens know there’s a grilled cheese and a comforting bowl of tomato soup waiting for them after a long school day. And I’ve learned it is completely possible to flip eight pancakes while simultaneously mastering the melt of our cheesy eggs recipe.
At VOX, each teen is valued for precisely who they are, whether you can memorize the lyrics to all 11 tracks on XXXtentacion’s new album the day it drops or memorizing the names of all the Atlanta mayoral candidates. When I first started at VOX, being a middle-aged white guy working with a group of young people largely comprised of teens of color, I was constantly concerned I wasn’t bringing enough to the table for the teens VOX serves. But Kaleb, one of the teens who served beside me on a VOX hiring committee set me straight one afternoon while discussing the diversity of the applicants: “Rich, you don’t have to look like me or come from my neighborhood in order for us to work well together and learn from each other. All we really need you to do is show up and be interested in our lives. Well, and check us on our grammar, OK?!”
VOX teens provide a daily lesson on how to live a fearless life. Journalistic acts of bravery at VOX might include Alia using the wisdom of her 17 years to answer teens’ questions for her Ask Alia advice column (My favorite question so far: “Why do parents stay tripping?”). Or Maya staying up the night of the 2016 presidential election to write a deeply personal essay about what it feels like to be a young Muslim woman of color living in Trump’s America. Or Kaleb this summer going public with his HIV diagnosis, a story that ended up being picked up by Huffington Post, Georgia Voice, Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta Pride Guide. I am moved and inspired daily working with these young people.
In our current national climate, VOX’s mission of raising the voices of our young people from diverse and often marginalized communities feels more necessary and urgent than ever. The teens at VOX should give us all hope for the future. Sharing their stories increases awareness and hopefully, understanding. Or as Alia recently brilliantly explained it, “Everyone needs a little VOX in their lives.”
During this season of giving, we invite you to support our work with a donation of any amount!