Voices of Youth: Listening to the issues facing Grand Rapids teens in 2024

Nationwide, students are navigating a bullying epidemic. 

A recent survey by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America found 40% of students polled said they were bullied on school campuses within the last year. Additionally, nearly half of U.S. teens have received online harassment from peers.

“My generation is lost, I feel like we are all lost,” says Loy Kashindi, a student with Rapid Growth’s Voices of Youth program. 

Photo by Tommy AllenMazonnah interviews Tricia Kremke to learn about how teachers work with students with learning disabilities.

Through Voices of Youth, Kent County teens explore modern issues that affect them through Rapid Growth's journalism workshops. Through solutions journalism, students are empowered to uncover and showcase challenges within their community and focus on the people and initiatives pushing for change. Past articles addressed gun violence in Grand Rapids, staff shortages in Michigan hospitals and the rise of homeschooling, for example.   

"In our commitment to media literacy, Voices of Youth helps young writers navigate today's content-saturated social media landscape," says Rapid Growth Publisher Tommy Allen, also a youth mentor in art. "After over 18 months of offering this program in Kent County, we've noticed a disturbingly high prevalence of bullying in our area schools being shared from students, raising concerns for parents but also our community."

During the 2024 spring cohort, students like Kashindi shared the challenges Kent County high schoolers currently navigate. Among the five participants, bullying in particular was a main concern, with a few sharing that they try hard not to stand out, potentially becoming a target. 

Photo by Tommy AllenA bonus aspect of the VOY program is the one-on-one time a student receives from their media mentor.

"Over our three cohorts, we've observed a consistent rise in students sharing how bullying shapes their educational journey,” Allen says. “It's a reminder for us all to engage in empathetic dialogue and follow it with proactive action because attending school is a foundational experience that ultimately shapes our society.”

Data from Pew Research shows a more acute view surrounding teens’ bullying experiences. According to a 2022 survey of 1,316 U.S. teens, nearly one in five teens had false rumors about them spread online by peers. The same survey found older teen girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to experience bullying.    

Photo by Tommy AllenThe "how" of solutions journalism is explained by VOY project lead Lindsay Patton.

“It’s hell being a teen because we are compared so much with everybody else,” Kashindi says. “It turns into hatred.”

Voices of Youth students Michelle Litteral and Kayla Parks got LGBTQ+ youth perspectives in their 2023 piece “When it comes to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, Michigan is a leader.” They interviewed two LGBTQ+ teens, Nova and Montserrat, who asked to withhold their last names.

“I came out as bisexual in sixth grade, I felt regret,” Montserrat says in the piece. “I was constantly asked questions about my sexuality and even questions by my own friends if I had liked them just because I came out as bisexual, and I started to be mistreated by others. I also had come out to my family, who were unsupportive and didn’t accept me for who I am. It really hurt me to the point that I had lied to them and said I was no longer bisexual. It also made me really depressed for a while.” 

Photo by Tommy AllenVOY project lead Lindsay Patton shares the power of youth voice in community storytelling.

Teen girls respond

Vanely Bastardo Guzman is a two-time Voices of Youth participant who recently explored her female peers’ attitudes toward teen dating. Referencing Michigan’s increasing intimate partner violence (IPV) statistics and her own experience with male peers, Bastardo Guzman shines a light on gendered bullying.

“After breakups, I’ve heard teenage boys engage in ‘boy talk’ and verbally disrespect women while doing so because they seem to have the idea that they can be as disrespectful as they want if they are no longer in that relationship,” she writes. 

And when young women stand up for themselves, they potentially subject themselves to more bullying, as Bastardo Guzman shares. 

“When these teenage girls get approached and catcalled, their initial reaction is to reject the disrespectful advancements, although this comes at a price—when rejected teenage boys start labeling these young women ‘b***h’ and w***e.’”

As a result, more young women choose themselves over dating. High school student Fabiola Andres, one of two students Bastardo Guzman interviewed, is an example. 

“You don’t have to stress yourself out worrying about other people's feelings and can focus on yourself,” Andres says. “You don’t have to spend your days worrying about what you did wrong and how you can improve yourself to meet your partner's expectations.” 

Photo by Tommy AllenVOY participants, like Solange Sifa, learn the power of interviewing as they create their stories.

A larger mental health crisis

Bullying is just a symptom of a larger mental health crisis affecting modern teens. 

Experts are discovering a connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and modern teenagers’ mental health. 

When the Center for Disease Control released its Youth Risk Behavior Survey, its details were alarming. Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s adolescent and school health division, says the data is unprecedented in the survey’s 30-year history. 

“.We’ve never seen this kind of devastating, consistent findings,” Ethier said in a statement. “There’s no question young people are telling us they are in crisis. The data really call on us to act.”

The Youth Right Now report points to a combination of COVID-19 isolation, increased smartphone use during mandated lockdowns, and virtual schooling. 

“Conversely, potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, like increased social media use, weakened interpersonal skills, and mental health struggles continue to create challenges for young people,” it says. 

Photo by Tommy AllenAlumni of VOY are returning to take on new projects like Vanely Bastardo Guzman.

Increased access to one another via smartphones and social media adds a complex layer to modern teenage life. 

“I feel like since cell phones and social media have come around, there’s more … cyberbullying in general,” says Serenity Reece, a Voices of Youth participant.  

Kashindi agrees, saying the quarantine limited entertainment options for teens.

“All you do is lay in your bed and scroll.”

Not everything about being a teen is bad, though. For Reece, it’s all about perspective. 

“I like being a teen, personally,” she says. “You don’t have to pay bills. … Being an adult is hard, so I don’t want to be an adult super fast.”

To learn more about Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here. This series is made possible via underwriting sponsorships from the Steelcase Foundation, Frey Foundation, PNC Foundation and Kent ISD.
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