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Emerging questions via mentoring

Here are some questions that emerged for me after mentoring at Voices, an alternative to detention program, for eight months, through the YMEJ graduate seminar:

  • What does it mean to build a relationship not just with a person, but a group of people, and perhaps even a program?
  • How does this create/foster a multi-directional mentoring relationship?
  • What are the commitments that people make to each other, to themselves and perhaps to an ideal?
  • How does spending time analyzing and understanding these commitments allow me to develop a stance that is not only for my research but for my entire life?


This experience made me realize how much I want to privilege working with young people in my future research and in my life.

  • How do I maintain my role at Voices now that the seminar is ending—is it possible?
  • How do I recognize, understand and navigate large systems in which many of the people I care about are intertwined?
  • How do I keep this present in my writing and research in an authentic way?
  • How do I help to create sustainable mentoring opportunities?
  • How do I expand conceptualizations of mentoring?

More questions than answers, I hope to return to this post and annotate it as my thinking continues.

Being there

Being there is a term that came up a lot in our conversations in the YMEJ graduate seminar this year.  In discussing ways to re-imagine experiences for court involved youth, our conversations often circled back to the support networks people require in order to live.  Michel Bérubé (1996) makes a similar point in his book, Life as we Know It about his family and his son Jamie who has down syndrome. In his discussion of Jamie’s growth and development Bérubé notes that people with labeled disabilities are not the only ones who require a strong support network in order to survive and thrive.  In fact, everyone benefits from such a network.

Our conversations in YMEJ centered on how to “be there” for a court involved young person, and for each other. We discussed the importance for all people (and especially young people) of having at least one person in your life who is going to stand by you no matter what.  Beam (2013) has a similar theme when she quotes a participant’s phrase: “You gotta rock with a kid all the way”.

For me, the phrase “Being there” brings up memories of a movie with the same title starring Peter Sellars (the last movie released while he was alive).  The film is a comedy, but also poignant in conceptualizing the phrase being there.  The main arch of the film is that Chance (Sellar’s character), a gardener for a large estate has always been there.  For all intents he is a non-entity, yet when people meet him, they mistake him for the owner of the estate and begin projecting their own thoughts and ideas about him.  My point in bringing up the film (beyond the fact that it is fantastic and I highly recommend watching it) is that being there is itself a passive sentiment.  I do not mean this as a critique, but to point out the multitude of ways to support another person without infusing your own thoughts, ideas, actions etc. As the movie highlights, being there is a passive, yet powerful act.

It is especially powerful when you consider the complications that inundate the various systems for court-involved youth.  Being there for someone, rocking with them all the way, sounds somewhat simplistic.  Of course, people engaging in this work will tell you it is far from simple. In truth, sometimes being there is not enough.  But it is a place to start and something I believe, all people can decide to do.  I think it helps when you collaborate, if you are going to be there for a young person, you need to have someone who is there for you.

In the YMEJ seminar we created a community that is by no means perfect, but I do think it is comprised of people who are willing to be there for each other. Being there for each other and by extension the people in our lives, we begin to weave a powerful network.  It helps me sustain through the difficulties of this work.  It helps me imagine the possibilities for making small shifts in the larger systems.  This work cannot be done alone.  Being there for each other is an integral first step.

Becoming through our [future] work

The YMEJ graduate year-long seminar ended this week with an exhibition in Russell Library.  Each member of our course conducted a year-long inquiry through participation in the course and a mentoring experience.  Lalitha, one of the members of the teaching team, wrote a note to us on the course blog entitled, Becoming… which focused on our continued growth and development during the course and beyond. In the text, Arts, Media and Justice co-edited by Lalitha Vasudevan and Tiffany DeJaynes, Vasudevan quotes Maxine Greene “I am what I am not yet”. Though I am at the end of my experience in the YMEJ course, I do not see the work as finished and I look forward to building upon my experience as I continue my doctoral career.  Since I began my course work at TC I have begun to look more deeply and pay more attention, one area that YMEJ helped me hone was my attention to media and the different types of media that are produced, specifically around issues of court involved youth.

In my own work, I am sinking myself into disability studies in education and the possibilities this stance provides for thinking about teaching and learning for all young people.  Therefore, when I saw the recent print advertisement for New Alternatives for Children (NAC), I felt it was a perfect connection between the YMEJ course and my own interest in disability studies.  New Alternatives for Children is a “child welfare agency child welfare agency exclusively devoted to serving children with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses” (http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/1854796).

The recent ad campaign (both print and televised) is produced by Grey New York and is titled, “Rethinking Foster Care” and geared at educating (or perhaps re-educating) New Yorkers about foster care in the city and especially for those young people with labeled disabilities.  First, how do we as recent participants in YMEJ seminar ourselves involved (and for many committed to) in re-thinking or re-imagining space for court involved youth analyze a video spot, such as the one for NAC?  Their campaign is called, “Rethinking Foster Care” but based on the video, I do not think they are rethinking the experience of foster care for young people with labeled disabilities.  Instead, I would argue they are perpetuating deficit-based conceptualizations of the young people the organization aims to serve.   This is a difficulty and beauty of interdisciplinary work.  As terms or ideas stretch across different ideologies and philosophies, it is up to the people using them to make an attempt at conversation, collaboration and shared understanding. Difficult work and that is also messy.

My first viewing of the television spot brought me back to something Cris Beam (2013) writes about in To the End of June when she discusses the different reasons people adopt children.  One reason Beam discusses is altruism. Mary, a participant in her book states, “People should do it because the kids need. Otherwise, they are going to be disappointed” (p. 94).  I think advertisements like the one for NAC complicates this statement because of the way people with labeled disabilities are positioned throughout history.  Often seen as the neediest of the needy, in fact, sometimes this is referred to as narcissism (Siebers, 2008) and becomes an albatross for a person with a labeled disability who requires help and support.  But not due to vanity or self-love, as it is sometimes positioned in society.  And it is true, kids do need and the NAC commercial makes this clear.  It also has an underlying savior mission.

Since the disability rights movements in the 1960’s and 70’s and the development of the scholarly field of disability studies people have been analyzing and theorizing about the disability itself.  Many disability studies scholars view disability as a socially constructed and note that the environment in which a person with a disability lives is disabling.  This takes the concept of disability outside of the person, moving away from a medical model that maintains disability as a problem within a person that should/could be fixed.  While the NAC commercial does not position youth in foster care with disabilities as needing to be fixed, they do use the term special several times.  Making the claim that a special child needs a special parent.  Furthermore, the article states that many young people with disabilities live in hospitals or other long term care facilities because their parents are unable to care for them http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/1854796).

I wonder (as Beam discusses in her book) what types of supports and structures should be offered to birth families to support care for all children? Also, what do we learn from the distinction made between types of children and how they are positioned through foster care/adoption?  How does this support thinking about our own definition of re-thinking or re-imagining? Finally, as we (the YMEJ graduate seminar students) are becoming  how do we continue to use this class to inform our future teaching, research, and ways of being in the world?

Here is a link to the television spot:  http://vimeo.com/92176294

More information of New Alternatives for Children: https://www.nackidscan.org/what_we_do/index.php

Information on the advertising agency: http://grey.com/us

A promise from me to you

The Massachusetts Supreme Court Judicial court passed a judgment on Tuesday to create, “new constitutional sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of homicide crimes”.  The decision “struck down a law that allows juveniles to be setnecned to life in prision with no possibility of parole for crimes committed before they turned 18” (Boston Globe, 12/27/2013, Valencia and Ellement).   Read more of the article here.

It reminds me of a song that’s been going through my head since Christmas: If it Were Left up to Me by Sly and the Family Stone.   

The main refrain of the song, “If it were left up to me, I would try” and the last lines “I promise from me to you, I will try” resonate with me as I spend the holidays thinking about the YMEJ grad seminar and my own shifting lines of thinking.  In fact, I’ve been drafting a blog post in my head entitled, Rethinking my thinking, or perhaps even rethinking my rethinking.  But that sounds rather grandiose.  I notice a lot more in the news/media about court involved youth.  Am I more aware of the conversation because of my work in the grad seminar?

These conversations have been taking place over a many years and contexts.  Still, when I read about the Boston SJC decision I feel hope.  Hope that the YMEJ grad seminar is not an isolated moment/space.  Hope that a system (such as the courts) is able to rethinking their thinking.  And I do promise to try.

Honoring the simplicity of a moment

My fifth year working as a resource teacher I co-taught in a classroom with a Charles Mingus poster hanging at the back of the room.  The poster said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”.  At the time a large part of my job was modifying curriculum to support my students in accessing and participating in the instructional activities of a content area class.  I often felt undervalued, not by the young people I was working with, but the other teachers, and school staff at my site.  When I saw this poster something clicked for me.  I realized, I believed what my colleagues said to me: that I was dumbing down curriculum, or making things easier for the young people I was working with.  The poster helped me identify something I strong believed.  It was overwhelmingly awesome (in the true definition of the word) to support a student to access a new concept or idea.

I had a similar moment, that shifted my thinking, at the alternative to detention program (atdp) where I mentor.  In conjunction with the YMEJ grad seminar I have been mentoring with a group of women for the past six weeks.  My initial workshop I was shocked that my knee jerk teacher qualities came out.  I wanted students to learn, I wanted students to listen.  I was calling young people in the program students—even though the program is not affiliated with a school.  When I applied for the YMEJ seminar over the summer one question in my interview was about how I thought of mentorship, or defined a mentoring relationship.  My response was a traditional model of mentorship that is one on one, where one person is positioned as a knower, or mentor, and the other person holds the mentee or learner role.

Since that conversation I have come back to the idea of the fluidity of mentorship and how the roles of teacher and learner are interchangeable.  As a teacher, I often thought about how much I learned from my students, but I think it was in a trite way.  As in, “Wow, these kids have so much they can teach me.”  In this context I still positioned myself as the knower, and I while I was not shocked to learn from my students, I did treat the moments as a type of novelty.

As I continue my working with the young people and staff members at the alternative to detention center I hope to channel some Mingus and value the awesomeness of simplicity.  Going beyond making a concept simple but also honoring the moments of being human.  How can I come to a space and value each individual without imposing my own agenda?  How do I extend an authentic invitation that emphasizes a dualistic mentorship role with the young people at the ATDP?  To keep it simple, how do I be myself in a way the invites others (especially young people) to be themselves with me?  I hope to begin to think about answers to these questions but for now, here is some Mingus to enjoy.

Charles Mingus — Self Portrait in Three Colors


Possibilities of Virtual Dialogue

A recent op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, When Children are Traded, about the private re-homing of children who are adopted (often internationally) is a compelling addition to the larger sphere within which the YMEJ course contextualizes its work.  I came across the op-ed piece in a backwards way: I first found a link to a series of letters to the editor written in response to the piece.

Check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/opinion/when-an-adoption-doesnt-work-out.html

While I could use this post to disentangle the broad narratives Kristof infuses in his piece, I am more interested in the conversation the piece sparked, since I read the response first.  More specifically, it caused me to wonder about the dialogue surrounding foster care in mass media and the space certain medias create for people to speak back or engage in dialogue.  The opinion/response was posted by the New York Times and therefore, I am aware that many other responses may not have been shared on the website. Next, I looked at which letters had been chosen for inclusion in the paper. One came from Westchester Child and Family services — part of Kristof’s op-ed questioned American adoption agencies for being leery to accept foreign adoptions that were not working in the US.  Another response was from the Children’s Law Center and the final letter came from the Center for Adoption Policy.   I immediately noticed the absent voices: parents, children, teachers, social workers.  This lead me to Kristof’s original op-ed piece and the comments section at the bottom of the website.

What I find fascinating is in the opinion pages the New York Times makes a point to explain who is writing the opinion and whether or not they are affiliated with a group, agency etc.  In the comments section, anyone can leave a comment.  But the comments are divided into sections, NY Picks, Readers Picks and All comments.  The freedom to respond is still mediate and moderate, which causes me to question the role the New York Times website, itself, plays in constructing a response to the op-ed.

I call this into question because the conversation and comments that interact with the article demonstrate a wide range of responses and perspectives.  Though the comments include many more parent voices, I still had to search to find young peoples responses and even responses of people who were adopted or lived in foster care.  Which begs the question, whose story is Kristof telling?  What can those of us involved in the YMEJ graduate seminar do to get involved in these conversations? How can we generate our own conversations in the public sphere? I hope this blog is a starting point and look forward to the virtual dialogue that unfolds.

Who is Avonte Oquendo?

“Attempting to transform “our taken-for-granted frames of reference” into frames that are “more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8) is especially challenging when the transformation involves deeply held beliefs about one’s basic self-concept or identity” (European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, 2005, p. 121).

“The NYPD is looking in previously searched areas for Avonte. Police have scoured train stations and subway tunnels to find the mute, autistic teen because he is fascinated by trains.” (abcnews.com)

I need to write about Avonte.  No, I need to write for Avonte.

Not because Avonte Oquendo has been missing for three weeks, though it troubles me. I need to write for Avonte because when I google his name all that pops up are news articles about the what and when.  What happened?  He ran away.  When? During school.  I need to write about Avonte because very few articles talk about who he is, what he thinks, what he feels.  He is a subject we talk about, instead of a person who is a valued member of society.  Oh yes, he is autistic, and mute.  We need to find this child who “suffers from autism” as I keep hearing on the recorded subway message every day.  I need to write for Avonte, because for me, he has become a symbol of the youth who remain silent in our city.

Perhaps it is because he represents the silent, those who cannot defend themselves, that if we find Avonte, we can sleep at night.  We saved him!  But saved him from who?  There is an implicit message is: Avonte cannot save himself.  He is running away because he doesn’t know any better.  Forget that he might have run away because his school was boring.  In the media, he is presumed incompetent.  His story becomes irrelevant because it has already been constructed by the news outlets who so desperately call for his return.

Yes, Avonte is labelled autistic, and yes, he does not use oral communication.  Still, how should we conceive of knowing Avonte?  One mode that we privilege in our society, verbal communication, is not his chosen mode of participation.  Some articles refer to him as mute, others says he is non-verbal (an often used term in New York City’s special education discourse).  No one writes about him.  As a fourteen year old boy, one with a story to tell, with preferences, with thoughts and feelings.  Since they cannot be communicated through speaking, they remain unknown—at least in the mass media.  I imagine if you spoke to Avonte’s family they would tell you quickly, his favorite food, the shows he watches on TV, what subject he likes in school.  There are many other modes of participation, different modalities for telling ones story.

I worked for three years as a teacher in District 75, the special education district in New York City.  My first year we received a grant that gave us materials and resources (Teaching Artists) to support our students in writing a musical.  The youth at my school wrote the play, music, lyrics, made the sets, designed the costumes.  The opening song:  No one wants to be forgotten, no one wants to be left behind.  Sad, lost, mad, frustrated.  I want to hit something.  I never forgot those words because that was the first time I realized how I was constructing the identity of the youth I was working with.  I would argue the same type of identity constructions happens with court involved youth.  I think as the quote at the beginning states that it is only through examining our own beliefs and identity that we can begin to transform.  Why do we allow Avonte (and other youth) to be constructed as silent?  How do we stop treating youth as subjects and develop capacity oriented models by which to re-imagine and understand youth.

I hope that more people write for Avonte and I hope that he finds his way home.  Mostly, I hope at some point in the not so distant future we get to hear his story.

Avonte Oquendo left his school is Rego Park, Queens, three weeks ago.  For more information about Avonte Oquendo please read the following article:  http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2013/oct/17/find-missing-autistic-teen-avonte-oquendo/    (Amsterdam News: The new Black view).   


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