Youth Justice


It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. – Frederick Douglass

“If I tell you a smile could save a life, would you believe me? A smile can save a life. There was a gentleman, a young gentleman … named Kevin. Kevin was one of those children who did well in school and had great grades. People liked Kevin. Kevin was a handsome young man. But Kevin was a miserable young man. Kevin suffered from depression. Kevin decided that he was going to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and jump. … Kevin said, ‘If there’s one person who would smile at me or ask me if I was okay, I would not jump.’ Kevin jumped.”

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Dr. Sean Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, shared this story with a group of 2,000 college students before they spread out across our country to teach and mentor mostly children of color from low-income families this summer. He wanted to illustrate the importance of connectedness and building relationships. As one of the country’s leading experts on Black mental health and Black male suicide, his lessons should be shared with parents, teachers and faith congregations and all of us all across our nation, because they might save a child’s life.

A shocking new national study released in late May, shortly before Dr. Joe spoke, observed for the first time higher suicide rates among Black Americans compared to White Americans. Among school-aged children under age 12, the Black suicide rate increased significantly—almost doubled for Black boys over the 20 year period of study—while it decreased significantly for White children. The study authors noted the reasons for the increased rate of suicide among Black children are unclear, but mentioned that Black children are disproportionately exposed to violence, traumatic stress and aggressive school discipline. Many also have an early onset of puberty, which increases the risk of suicide as does the fact that Black youth are less likely to seek or have available help for mental health problems.

Speaking about the challenges Black boys face today, Sean Joe explained: “They’re operating with a straightjacket. They’re operating with how tough they’ve got to be to defer some of the experiences they’re having, and at the same time, we have people who tell them that ‘men don’t cry. Toughen up, okay? Stop being soft.’”  When 1 in 4 children in America is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, instead of telling our boys to toughen up, Dr. Joe says, we need to encourage them to express themselves and their feelings. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death for all children in the United States lagging only gun violence and car accidents. Among Black Americans, Black males between the ages of 15 to 24 are most likely to commit suicide, and 70 to 90 percent of suicides among Black Americans are committed by males in every age group.

Dr. Joe says remembering that children are children and creating safe places for them to talk and to tell you their worries is critically important. Encourage them to keep journals, write, read poetry and express themselves, he says, because creating that space for our young Black boys and teens is absolutely necessary to their survival.

Dr. Joe shared a case study to put the struggle of young Black males in perspective. “I remember reading about a 13-year-old boy who looked ahead and considered his life with limited opportunity [and] severe pain. His life was destined for just hard work and ripe racism – ripe racism. He was so burdened that he attempted, many times in his thoughts, to take his life under a tree. See, our young people are like this boy. However, they are more than their trauma and with your help they’ll be able to soar beyond those circumstances.” That boy in the case study was Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, who became a famous abolitionist, writer and American statesman who believed passionately in freedom and equality for all people.

Basic respect and human decency—just plain kindness—can go a long way in building self-esteem in our children and helping a young person in crisis make it to the next step. High expectations in the classroom and in life and empowering children with the knowledge that they can make a difference in themselves, their families and communities are the foundations upon which the CDF Freedom Schools® programs are built. Twenty years ago, Sean Joe learned those lessons as a college student who chose to give back to the children in his community by training to become a summer teacher and mentor in the CDF Freedom Schools program. His subsequent distinguished career led to college graduation and graduate degrees at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and tenure at the University of Michigan. I hope every teacher, parent and grandparent, aunt and uncle will take these lessons to heart and listen to the children around you and know that just a smile can save a life.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.