August 3, 2020
For the past several months two issues have dominated the headlines: the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence in the wake George Floyd’s murder. Both of these issues are directly related to the work of youthSpark and underscore the important lessons that can be learned from youthSpark’s responsive model during these unprecedented times.
The COVID-19 pandemic -- a once in century phenomena -- has revealed the fissures in our society. As schools transitioned to online learning in the Spring, many worried about the risks that children outside of school would face. They were right to be concerned. The movement restrictions justifiably put in place to control COVID-19 spread also placed those living in violent or unsafe environments at risk. UN Women has even gone so far as to call the violence being experienced at home by women and girls a “shadow pandemic.” Online predators have also taken advantage of the presence of so many children in the virtual space. But they weren’t the only ones. At the onset of the pandemic youthSpark rapidly transitioned its services to an online format providing safe virtual spaces and programming to girls in Fulton County who have experienced or are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.
COVID has demonstrated who is truly essential in our society: grocery store workers, laborers in the food supply chain, and delivery drivers; these are the people on who we are all now depending upon, yet they are under paid and often uninsured. These workers, who are disproportionately people of color are also in direct risk of COVID exposure. Black people are more likely to become infected and to die of COVID yet again demonstrating the health disparities experienced by Black and other people of color in the US.
The murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks here in Georgia make plain that COVID is not the only threat to health of Black people. Violence – including commercial sexual exploitation -- disproportionately affects Black people. youthSpark directly meets this need by focusing on Black and Brown girls. At the start of 2020, youthSpark in partnership with Covenant House Georgia, the International Human Trafficking Institute, the LGBTQ Institute, the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and the Rollins School of Public Health embarked on a new multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary project to support systems-based solutions to ending commercial sexual exploitation in Fulton County. The program will address the immediate needs of those at risk for or experiencing commercial sexual exploitation in Fulton County through youthSpark, while transforming systems to prevent it.
None of us could have predicted the challenges that 2020 would bring. Yet, youthSpark through its timely and responsive programming has been well situated to meet the immediate challenges posed by COVID; as always it will continue to serve the girls at risk on our community supporting them in their journey towards healing and a safe and just future during COVID and beyond.