Pictured above from left: Lucero Velasquez, Hope Alvarado and Christina Rodriguez
"The Time Is Right. To invest in children and youth throughout the legislative session is the right thing to do." That is how emcee Jasmine Vigil, a senior at Española Valley High School, announced the theme of the press conference in the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on the state of New Mexico’s young people Tuesday, January 19, 2016.
She led a chant of “Investment is Right,” asking that the crowd of 100 or so in the Rotunda could make their voices heard on the fourth floor — where the governor’s office is located. Tuesday was the first day of the 30-day legislative session, and it was Celebrating NM’s Children and Youth Day at the Roundhouse.
Veronica Garcia, Executive Director of NM Voices for Children, said the state of New Mexico is last among the 50 states in terms of the percentage of children living in poverty — 30%. The percentage improved a little over last year, but the state slipped to last place.
“At Voices, we worry, we advocate, we study…. We advocate for policies and spending that will improve the lives of children — babies, preschoolers, elementary and middle school children and young adults. We believe in spending money on children because we know that … investment is right!”
“If investments are right in quality home visiting, prenatal care, high quality child care and NM PreK, children would be able to read in third grade,” she said.
She contrasted the annual cost of home visiting for a child — $3,100 — to the $37,000 it costs per year to keep a person in jail. “You don’t need to be a math whiz to know the investment (in early childhood) is right.”
When she raises the issue of investing in children, some people talk about not wanting to throw money at a problem, she said. But when they talk about attracting business to New Mexico at a cost of more than $200 million in tax breaks for business, there is never a question about throwing money at a corporate problem, she said. She talked about the large numbers of children who are not yet being served by quality early childhood programs.
The state has the money to invest. She said the state has a land grant permanent fund of $15 billion and it could take a small percentage of that fund each year to invest in young children.
Crystal Peña (left) and Gloria Lopez starting their chant in the Roundhouse!
Gloria Lopez and Crystal Peña from H.E.L.P Head Start in Las Cruces and Deming led the audience in a chant of “The Time Is Right” again before representing the thousands of children in New Mexico by reading a poem by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the renowned schools of early childhood in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Here is a sample of the poem:
“The child is made of one hundred. The child has a hundred languages, a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing of speaking….The child has a hundred languages.” The poem talks about the inventive variety of children’s marvels and joys. “The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred hundred hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine. The school and the culture separate the head from the body. They tell the child: to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not to speak, to understand without joy, to love and to marvel only at Easter and Christmas….”
Hope Alvarado, part of the Youth Alliance of the NM Forum for Youth in Community, said she is part Diné, Apache and Mexican, and said the state cannot afford to wait longer on youth issues. She talked about issues identified by 300 young people at an Oyé conference last summer.
“As a young Diné woman, tracking and mining on Native lands have devastated my community with an increase in cancer and illness and destruction of sacred sites that are the heart of my people,” she said.
She called attention to huge gaps in service for mental health, behavioral health and suicide prevention. Those gaps have been documented by Generation Justice activists, she said. She herself had been getting treatment for post traumatic stress syndrome in Hogares but after transition out of that program she lost the treatments.
“We need to be able to access services in our Native languages,” she said.
Lucero Velasquez, who attends Media Arts Collaborative Charter School in Albuquerque, talked about a lecture from juvenile officers who tried to scare and shame students about attendance of classes. “They didn’t ask us about our hard lives or why we weren’t coming to school. They didn’t want to understand us.”
“Get rid of ageism,” she said. “Youth is the solution, not the problem.” Invest in more programs for youth intervention and prevention, she said.
Christina Rodriguez, who works with Generation Justice on its project of documenting problems with the behavioral health system, said the switch in providers in 2013 to Arizona companies was a big disruption of services and 10,000 fewer people were treated that year. Now, some of the new companies brought in are leaving. People look for hope and stability and find an absence of services, she said. Or there are gaps in services, with great staff turnover.
She herself heard stories of patients being overmedicated, or who had to wait six months to get a diagnosis. There is a shortage of available drug and alcohol treatment programs, too. “There are wait lists even when you are in crisis,” she said.
“It’s hard to be a young person growing up in New Mexico and you have to be your own advocate…. A prescription is not a solution.”
She has helped collect stories about the behavioral health system problems.
“I hold these stories in my heart,” she said. “I believe in storytelling as an agent of change.
“We can do better."
She said Generation Justice has a petition to seek change on its web site: BEHAVIORAL HEALTH PETITION.
- Dan Ritchey