by Abraham Velazquez, Jr.
Five years ago, as an adult, I sat with my mentor and they said,
“When I’m with a young person, I do three things.
First, I listen.
Then, I listen.
And then, I listen some more.”
I chuckled at memories of at times appearingly awkward silences with my mentor
As they intently listened to me,
Because as a youth,
I was the teacher’s pet–
Until I became a nerd gone gangster
Back when home didn’t feel safe, and I was full of anger,
Bronx bullies taught me the answers,
How to toughen up and fight,
How to never smile, or ever shine my light.
Because being soft around 125, gets you more taken advantage of
Then unlimited metrocard swipes.
Eh-yo $2, $2, I got that swipe, $2!
A nerd- gone gangster.
That was right around the time I became a youth member at The Brotherhood/ Sister Sol.
I was disruptive several times during sessions
Trying to navigate and understand my calls for attention.
One day my mentor asked me if we could meet to check in for just a second
17 years later, those 15 – 20 minutes forever changed the destiny I now walk.
It was the first time, I was able to confide in an adult,
The years of living in fear because of my family who’d resort
To sniffing heroin while my uncles pumped through an open pulse,
Watching their heads nodding to the realities of my uncle
Almost dying and barely surviving an overdose, before I was 15 years old.
All that anger was bottled up into shots I started taking at 14,
Building Jericho walls around my heart and whoever came in between
It was not the 1st time I had put weed to lips to smoke away my problems
Or knife to chest as the solution to resolve them,
Alcoholic before 18, stressed and living with anxiety,
But my grades were good enough for NYU to be eyeing me
So everybody thought I was alright,
And there was nothing wrong with me,
So as a mentor today, I pause to scope the scrolls
Our little sisters and brothers write as their chapters unfold
As they compose the compounds to break out the mold
That we’ve taught them to internalize and hold
Like our alleged concern for the environment in our old speech
When we practice putting handcuffs on roses for growing out the concrete.
It’s not your fault you were raised between a hard place and asphalt
We see you, we hear you, and we believe you,
And we don’t expect you to “break the cycle” or achieve alone,
But to teach us how to continue walking home
As we lift and climb, and grow,
And we will listen— because I know— before you get to class
They don’t even know where your head is,
Walking through metal detectors with armed police
Waving wands in your face before you even had breakfast
So let me ask you how you doing and wait for a response other than “good” or “fine”
And I will listen, when 72% of our nation’s youth have faced at least one major stressor
Including witnessing violence or abuse, or having a loved one missing,
I will listen because I understand when your dad actually IS at home, but isn’t present,
When your mom bears depression while cooking, cleaning,
And juggling alcoholic interventions,
I will listen,
When over the past decade youth suicide rates have risen over 70%
And instead of psychologist that could help intervene or prevent,
We have 14 million students without a counselor or therapist,
We are paying heavily to have our children handcuffed, sprayed, and tased,
In the place they’re supposed to learn and feel safe,
So I will listen,
When Black girls are 9x more likely to be suspended than their white peers,
For horseplay, vulgar language, or insubordination,
We must listen, we must continue advocating,
We must remember we are more precious than gold
Despite the violence and insults you face at home,
We must remember that we are beautiful because OF our skin tones
And that despite the different shapes and forms of our bodies
Chose for us at birth – they should not be the determining factors of our worth,
So I will listen to how you’re feeling and how you’re doing,
To how you’re watching that show on Netflix
About yogurt aliens from Ohio
scheming to make the US a greener place
Before China beats us to it.
I will listen to you. Intently.
To how you lost your patience, or broke up,
Or don’t know how you’ll ever make it with your grades,
I’ll listen, because a whole village did the same for me.
Silvia, Jaques, DaMond, and LC (Lyrical Circle),
Thank you for listening, listening, and listening to me.
Because although listening didn’t not stop the domestic violence at home,
Your support, and just hearing my poems,
Made me feel not alone, and kept me on point as I journey down a new road,
A Lakota elder told me that the Lakota nation
Never rears or hit their children because they believe that children are sacred beings
Here to bless us with their divine purpose,
And we are here to listen– because we are in need of healing,
Because we don’t believe in giving voice to the voiceless,
That’s just teaching people to repeat memorized noises,
We see your agency amidst struggle and enjoyment
And we uplift everything you’ve lived and celebrate your future’s choices.
Abraham Velazquez Jr. is a youth worker at the Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), an organization in Harlem that provides comprehensive, holistic, and long-term support services to youth who range in age from eight to twenty-two. He is also a cofounder of the Hip-Hop and poetry collective the Peace Poets, sharing art which responds to social and political crisis in over forty countries. Abraham earned his master of arts in educational theatre at New York University, where he studied theatre of the oppressed with Julian Boal, Barbara Santos, and Sanjoy Ganguly. In 2015, Abraham released his first solo album, A South Bronx Tale, engineered by Grammy Award recipient Mikaelin “Blue” Bluespruce.
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