How have cultural, social changes in Taos affected our youth?

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In a recent meeting, a teacher with 40 years of experience in Taos Municipal Schools described Taos as a "sweet village" when he first arrived. There are significant differences between then and now.

Most students were bilingual and while there were gangs and "each one had its name and corner in the hall," there were only about two fights a year. Students seemed to get along and families were organized and responsive to school concerns.

Forward to 2016 and listen to the Nonviolence Works clinician who leads the men's Nonviolence Awareness Class report that in a recent group, only two men had been raised with a father in the home. Models of positive parenting by a male and positive male/female cooperation were simply not learned. And children without fathers involved in parenting are more likely to live in poverty, have emotional and behavioral issues and perform poorly in school.

So, then, what happened? Local residents talk about the history of our village and its devastating invasions. First came the conquistadors, then the U.S. Army, then the European-trained artists, then the hippies, then the yuppies, then the Silicon Valley types. Each of these invaders had some measure of plundering or violence and confrontation with the existing cultures. At times, changes seemed benign, but over time, the need for protection of culture and tradition - including withdrawal and separation by the different cultural groups - seemed to be a wise self-protective action.

In the 1980s and '90s, the drug traffic between Denver, Colorado, and El Paso, Texas, invaded. Money could be made, highs could be shared, power was attached to access to illegal substances. Many social service workers began to see the village and its native families as "broken." Youth were living with families unable to give them appropriate support and education was often not a highly valued goal. The schools were asked to perform more nurturing and guidance than they had been prepared for.

The use of drugs - particularly prescription painkillers - became a national, state and county disaster. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death in Americans younger than 50. Ninety-five million Americans used some kind of painkillers in 2015, thus access to prescription drugs in a household with minimal supervision of youth became easy. Locally, adults report being approached by youth who knew they had recently had medical services and wondered if any of their pills were left.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 43 percent of New Mexico families are a married couple - other forms of families are multigenerational and often single parents. The demands of raising youth in a culture marked by easy access to alcohol and other drugs and the hypnotic pull of social media are tough for any family.

Newcomers have often been responsible for the increase in charter schools, a direct dismissal of "staying in the area" in the rich reality of multiple cultures. Echoing the national political pattern of rigidity and elimination of meaningful discourse across differences, we lack a shared public commitment to help youth learn to negotiate and respect the differences in our community.

Taos has organizations that are committed to working with these challenges, but it will take all of us. Nonviolence Works is serving families caught in the challenges of too little money, too much trauma and inadequate tools for coping. All these efforts need your support as we try to create a realistic version of "the sweet village." Stay tuned to learn more.

NVW has the largest staff of credentialed behavioral health professionals in Northern New Mexico. Call (575) 758-3197 or visit nonviolenceworks.us.

McPhail Gray is the board chair of NVW and can be reached at (575) 779-3126 or mcphailconsulting@gmail.com.

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