“Fighting for the Next Generation”

With the economy limping along the past few years, many of us are struggling to stay on our feet.  Overwhelmed by our own problems, it’s been difficult to look beyond our struggles to consider how this is all going to play out for the next generation.  I had the opportunity recently to visit with a group of 9th graders at the Freedom Academy in Brooklyn, and I left feeling like I’d just been knocked over the head.  In a good way.

I was visiting the school to give a talk about self-esteem and I quickly realized that I was not prepared.  I thought I would be speaking to a captive audience, but the students had higher expectations for me.  They did not want to listen; they wanted to engage.  I was deluged with questions almost immediately: “What is self-esteem?”  “How do we get self-esteem?”  It’s amazing how often we throw around the phrase “self-esteem” but never stop to consider if the kids actually understand it.  To these kids, “self-esteem” was a buzz word.  They knew it was good, they wanted to have it, but they didn’t know where to start.  They had questions, so I quickly revised my plan.

I was struck by how very intelligent these kids were. I couldn’t get over how quick and smart they were, how much energy there was in that room. These kids wanted to learn, not just sit around a room and listen to some lady talk. They wanted answers. They wanted to talk about it. They wanted to be involved. I had been given the impression that these were “problem kids,” from the worst school and a bad neighborhood, and that I shouldn’t expect them to behave.  But the minute I started talking about how self-esteem could help them succeed, they did listen and they wanted to know more.

What I realized in conversing with these children was that they do have self-esteem.  What they don’t have is the benefit of having been taught how to succeed.  I could feel through their eager gaze that these students wanted something more. They have the intelligence and the ability to become amazing students, to go on to college.  They are grasping for a good education, but they just don’t get the attention and support that they need.  They don’t have anyone telling them, “Yes, you’re intelligent. Yes, you can move forward. Yes, you have the ability to do anything you want.”  Instead, they think that other people go on to get important jobs and travel the world, but that it can never happen for them.  They want all the opportunities that every other child has.  They like who they are and just want to be accepted.  They want the American Dream.  They want to be successful human beings.

But we’re failing these children.  Wrapped up in our mortgage payments and our job demands and our own insecurities, we’re overlooking the dreams of an entire generation.  It’s our responsibility to make sure that these kids can dream, that they can imagine a life of success and that they feel empowered to go after it.

After meeting these children, my dream is to build a program where the students would write articles and create videos about self-esteem and present their projects to each other.  In addition to giving them hope and confidence, it would also give them business experience and help them build marketable skills.  It would work with their skills – writing, teamwork, leadership, production, project management – and build on their strengths.  It would give the students a chance to show their talent and build within them a sense of accomplishment.   It would give children a sense of validation that says, “You are worthy. I love what you created. It deserves to be shown somewhere that people can see it.”

If you give opportunities to children who are not used to getting opportunities, you get a response.  I know because my son was considered one of those “problem children.”  School was really difficult for him and he ended up at one of those dead-end schools, where you either make it or you don’t.  And what saved my son was an internship that let him see that there was opportunity for him, even if he didn’t do well on his standardized tests.

Sitting in that room and listening to the kids talk about self-esteem, it hit me that they were 14, the same as my son when he hit his turning point.  I realized that the early teens – 14-16 –is the age where you can catch them, where you can encourage them to take their adolescent energy and devote it towards growing into a successful adult, or you can let that energy overwhelm into and push them into self-destruction. With a little more care, we can move these kids in a different direction. They are developing who they are and they are open to input. And yes, it’s idealistic, but I really believe that if we just give these kids an injection of confidence, they’ll remember it.  It’s time that we all fight for these children, the same way we fight for our own.


About Susanne:
Susanne Veder is an author, educator, business executive and mother, who recently moved to Aventura, Florida from New York City's Upper West Side. Susanne has held a variety of executive positions in the field of marketing for CitiGroup, the U.S. Tennis Association and a number of other companies and organizations. Over the years, Susanne has been working with inner city high school students in helping them develop self-esteem, prepare for college and secure internships – extra curricular activities and the development of student-run journalism programs.

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