When my kids were small, they learned their letters and numbers, how to say “please” and “thank you,” how to tell time and take turns. But those are not the first lessons learned by all children. Some start cramming early for far more difficult tests: how to survive gunfire, drug abuse and hunger.
What would it look like if those hard life lessons were taught the same way we teach the ABCs? A partnership in Kansas City, Mo., has created some striking examples. In this video, an actual mom’s message to her very real 6-year-old child is shared in the style of educational TV. I warn you: This might make you a bit uncomfortable. At least, I hope it does.
A team from the global advertising agency VML dreamed up the concept based on writings by Kansas City teenagers involved in a program called Youth Ambassadors. Since 2010, the nonprofit has hired at-risk teens to work on the skills they need to escape the cycle of poverty. For many ambassadors, it’s the first job they have ever held.
Paid minimum wage, the students commit to regular school attendance plus YA programs after school, on weekends and through the summer. They work on communication skills, self-presentation and financial literacy. At least as important, and maybe more, is that every part of the program takes the trauma of growing up in dangerous neighborhoods into account.
A growing body of research shows the value of writing about trauma as a way to break its grip, so part of a youth ambassador’s job is to tell her own story, sometimes again and again. Full disclosure: After I wrote about YA in its infancy for Time magazine, my wife and I served terms on its board of directors. And I can say that, great as it has been to watch scores of teens gain confidence, the really powerful stuff — often painful to hear or read — comes in the essays and poems they create from their young lives.
VML began its partnership with the ambassadors several years ago by publishing a book of those writings called “I’m Not No One,” a beautifully designed creation that received recognition from the advertising industry’s Clio awards. Seeing the stories presented in such a grown-up, professional package was strong affirmation for the young writers. But it also masked the fact that these were children’s stories — the kind children should never have to tell.
That insight led to a second project, another Clio honoree, in which three of the stories were presented in storybook style.
Next came a series of animations — remember that each of these is drawn from the actual words of actual youths in actual American neighborhoods. For example:
The animations led in turn to the new Muppet-inspired series, the latest project from a team led by Aaron Evanson, executive creative director at VML. When the video series was unveiled at a fundraising event in Kansas City last week, agency CEO Jon Cook explained the theory behind it: “These are lessons that no one should have to learn,” he said. “So you got to tell them in a format that we use to teach positive lessons — and that’s puppets and that’s ‘Sesame Street.’ ”
The crowd that evening was enthusiastic about efforts to help Youth Ambassadors grow beyond the 300 students already employed. Even so, I noticed that the applause for the videos diminished ever so slightly from one to the next. Seeing these horrible stories told in the motifs of childhood is unsettling; the incongruity is precisely the point. Something is very wrong here, and the question is: How do we make it right?