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Youth with Opportunity, Not Risk

By Jon Hinojosa

“For last year's words belong to last year's language - and next year's words await another voice.”

T.S. Eliot coined the quote above, and it reminds me that words are meant to be evaluated and reevaluated. Language is a vital part of movement building, and words become even more important when it comes to terms of identity. As the youth-development movement grows, we must pay close attention to our language and the way we identify those we serve.

At SAY Sí in San Antonio, we serve youth from each city district and every part of town. In many ways our student population mirrors the makeup of our diverse city. We are proud to be in a majority minority city, with 63% of the population identifying as Hispanic/Latino. Since SAY Sí’s inception in 1994, we have offered our tuition-free programs to those who need it most - students from lower economic households that live primarily in the urban core of the city. This often (not just in San Antonio) translates to: people of color. On the national platform and in some communities, these youth would be deemed “at-risk.” Here at SAY Sí, we don’t use that term and never will - we call the youth we serve “opportunity-youth.”

What do we find so harmful about the term “at-risk?” Well, for one, it instantly creates a separation of status. The term deepens the chasm between us and our youth that commonly already exists. When we serve our students, we don’t think of them in constant risk for danger, crime, violence, or death. We think of the opportunities they have and will have. We consider their natural resilience when confronted by challenges. And we show them that their futures can be bright and filled with success. The term “at-risk” shows them the exact opposite. The truth is, we are all “at-risk” in some way. Deeming one group as more “at-risk” than another creates unnecessary obstacles for them.

From our organization’s very beginnings, we have always thought about the language we use. For example, many people know us simply as “SAY Sí.” But this is actually an acronym for “San Antonio Youth, YES!”

Affirmative language is important - and we’re not the only ones who see it. Our friends at ElevArte in Chicago have also shifted the language they use with “at-promise.” This intentionally promotes a positive and affirmative message to youth and their community. We are happy to see an advancement in language with our sister organizations, and it seems to be happening sector-wide. Very soon, our “at-promise” and “opportunity-youth” will be that new creative voice that will lead us into the future; a future filled with opportunity and promise.

Bio: Jon serves as the Artistic / Executive Director of SAY Sí, a tuition-free program encompassing 6 distinct multidisciplinary arts programs, including visual, performing, film, and game design. Jon is also a producing and exhibiting visual artist and is active in professional - local, regional and national arts education initiatives, including currently serving as a trustee for the National Guild for Community Arts Education and on the National Advisory Committee of the National Teaching Artists Guild.