An Animoto on Mentoring


Words (can) Hurt…

“The old story sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you—words will get you killed.”

-Ameena Matthews (Violence Interrupter)

To my babies,

I am sorry that I have failed you. Day after day I taught you lessons on turning the other cheek; that words can’t hurt you. Unfortunately, I lied. Words have the ability to crush spirits and tear apart families. Words can erase friendships and stomp out pride. The reality is that words hurt, a lot.

I wish I had taught you that words can hurt but words can also heal. I should have shown you the two sides to this double-edged sword that our tongues have the power to unleash. As your very first school teacher I should have been the person to acknowledge that I, too, have been hurt by malicious words and have hurt others. In wanting to protect you, to shield you from the realities of violence that plague our communities, I left large gaps in teaching you about how to cope, how to deal with true emotions that accompany harsh words. Please forgive me.

If I could have a chance to do this over, to reteach lessons that I’ve had time to reflect on; I would share with you how to use words to empower and uplift each other. We could learn together about how to make our communities stronger, had I not silenced your voices and discredited the power of words. I would read you Martin’s Big Words over and over again, until the pages ripped from callous fingers flipping though pages. We would sit on the carpet and share moments of when we’ve been hurt, in an attempt to prepare us for a world that at times, could care less about our bruised feelings.

I wouldn’t teach you to merely turn the other cheek, because I understand the complexities of doing so. I would teach you that it’s ok to feel hurt and upset, but its what we do with those emotions that can be life changing. I never want evils to drive you to make life-changing decisions. Your lives are too precious. You are too precious. Your value is immeasurable.

I would try to help you understand that in your hurting (a valid emotion) there are times when you have to choose your battles and choose them wisely. I read what the media has to say about Black boys and it pains me. I know about the kind, loving spirits that enter my class each year— boys who just want hugs and positive attention from teachers. I know what how it feels to love Black boys with every ounce of energy in my body. I know how three simple words “I love you” can change lives.

Hear my words. You are loved, you are valued and you are appreciated. When others use vicious words to make you believe otherwise, please know that words do hurt, but the hurt doesn’t last always.

With love,

Nicole (Ms. McGowan)

YMEJ @ Justice Teaching Roundtable (with Center for Justice at Columbia)

This week, Prof. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and I will be representing the teaching team and talking about our YMEJ work — including the seminar, the emerging research, and our public pedagogy efforts (including this blog) — as part of the Justice Teaching Roundtable Series. We are thrilled and humbled to be participating in this dialogue with our colleagues from across the university, and as part of our presentation we will be sharing excerpts from the past years of work with the YMEJ graduate seminar, the collaborative mentoring experiences, and we’ll be engaging the audience in some YMEJ-style inquiry through media-making.

If you’re near the Columbia campus, stop by and check it out. We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.


Tuesday November 18th, 2014 – 3–5pm
Teachers College, Russell Hall Rm 305

The Bridge for Quality Education

Jessica and I (Isaac) met at the Education is Transformation Symposium. We expressed similar ideas and thought it would be very informative and enlightening if we collaborated for the purpose of this blog post.

Preventative Ideas:

Starting in junior high, children should be asked what they are interested in, and develop an educational plan around what they are passionate about and try to have those type of programs available. Being bored in school is counterproductive and plays a major role in whether a child stays in school. When a young person feels bored, questions such as, “How am I supposed to apply what I learned?” arise and thoughts like, “None of this has to do with what I like to do after school.” Therefore a lack of motivation to attend school is prevalent. Learning should be fun.

In high school I was bored to death due to the fact I did not find what I was learning to be interesting or fun at all. I was not given a reason to look at school as fun or that learning should be fun. School was boring, teachers were not saying or creating an environment for successful learning. It was like cemetery learning. After I was released in 2002 I attended Taylor Business Institute. It was really fun doing computer work. I did very well because it was inspiring, engaging and insightful. So it is important to ask young people what they like to do so they can start thinking about this early.

When a person is working towards their basic education and maintaining a given GPA, they should be allowed to participate in preferred activities. These activities are linked directly to individual passions. Young people between the ages 11-15 are within a very critical and influential time in their lives. Building relationships between teachers and students, through understanding individual preferences and interests creates the opportunity for learning “together”, rather than “you-against-me.”


For 11-15 year olds, this time is the biggest developmental part of young adulthood. Poor behavior, maybe because of lack of attention, issues at home effect school behavior. Young people need someone that is going to listen to them, someone that won’t judge them, someone that won’t run back and tell their mother. Someone they can talk to and trust, a good person for them to be talking to. Someone they feel that they can relate to, a person who has been where you have been, so it is not as embarrassing to talk to them. I know first hand that mentorship is effective. Throughout my years in incarceration, I was held back from negative situations and led in the positive direction because of a mentor that I may have had at a particular time.

Education After Incarceration:

A lot of people are not aware of their educational options after coming out of prison. Immediately before a person is released from prison is a very vulnerable place. At that moment, individuals are starting to decide what they are going to do once they get home. Are they going to go back to doing what they were doing or take advantage of their educational or other gainful options. When these options are not visible or made known, it increases the probability of a person returning to prison and/or never receiving a relevant education. People should be made privy to the school choices during the pre-release (Phase 3) period so they know what options are available and what assistance is available to them. It is important that not only program information is accessible, but detailed so people, upon returning home, know what is needed to participate in the vocational or educational opportunities.


My educational experience was transformative for me. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by a number of talented artists who, by keeping me close, helped me to realize my passion. It should be noted that one may have little to no experience operating inside the skill-set of their passion. The passion alone will serve as the catalyst for productivity and progress.


When Reality Isn’t Good Enough: Addressing Real Race Issues

By Nicole McGowan

I became conscious that I was Black when I was 5 years old.

 Surrounded by pink bodies, I was ashamed of my brown skin. All the dolls in school were White along with the children in our textbooks—laughing, happy, smiling faces that didn’t look like me.

This is how I begin my personal statement, which explores my identity, self-worth, passion for education and ultimately my future contributions to society. It’s safe to say I’ve been thinking about race for a very long time.

Today I received an email from a professor sharing an article on Huff Post that again forced me to take a critical stance on race and its implications for achievement within the United States. The Difference We Haven’t Overcome: Why the Color Line Endures in America introduced me to the perspective of viewing race as the “different difference”. Robert T. Carter points out “Other historically oppressed groups in the United States have seen dramatic improvement in their circumstances”. In an attempt to not undermine his argument, I strongly suggest reading the entire article.

What I would like to point out is his attention on the inferior status of the services provided to people who are oppressed due their skin color and how these services are not improving. The reality is that people of color in the United States suffer and the injustices aren’t making marked improvements. The hands of institutionalized racism are killing black men and women. And as Carter points out these aren’t “isolated events”.

As an educator, it’s difficult to comprehend what this means for my Black and Brown babies I encounter in the classroom. How can I trust this world to support, uplift and foster my kindergarteners’ education when I can’t trust that they are being treated fairly based on their character rather than their color? I don’t worry about myself. I worry about my babies. I am overwhelmed with a sense of guilt— wishing I could protect them from the evils and dangers that attack and vilify children of color.

My wishing and hoping won’t change the fact that race plays a very important role in shaping the lives of my young learners. Until we can get everyone on board with this understanding and proactively working to change this heinous reality, I will continue to be plagued with fear.

New year, new possibilities

The third year of our YMEJ seminar has begun! This year, we are focusing more explicitly on multiliteracies (the “M” in YMEJ), while still engaged in ample media production and media analysis in our journey to explore the ways in which the stories, lives, and institutional experiences of court-involved young people are represented and mediated.

Once again, we have an exciting new group of graduate students from several different departments at Teachers College who are taking this journey with us. You will be hearing from them soon.

Last week we were visited by the inimitable Prof. Suzanne Carothers who reminded us that we must look inward before we can move forward with our desires to “help” — in her invitation are echoes of those wise words from Australian Aboriginal artist and elder, Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

As in years past, we are fortunate to have built a strong circle of critical friends who join us as guest speakers and share their insights and pose invitations to us to look and look again differently at that which we are in the pursuit of trying to understand. In this seminar, all of us are always students and teachers; we all learn with and from each other and of course with and from the young people with whom we continue to work and in service of whose educational wellbeing we are committed.

Join us as we embark on this next leg of our journey and as new bloggers share their perspectives with you. And in the meantime, don’t forget to follow us on twitter: @YMediaJustice

Planning for this year’s YMEJ Seminar

First class (photo by Melissa Wade – @honeybee22274)

Who are you?

“Who are you?
Please, tell me anything you would like to.”


This narrative is the story of an encounter. It is her narrative, it is mine, it is ours, it is the present. How could we represent it?

            “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” (Morrison, 1993)

How do I connect with someone at a first encounter? What is the meaning of our experiences? How could the narrative be voiced without being manipulated by the producer?

  “Perceiving something from two different angles creates a split in awareness” (Anzaldua, 2003, p.549).

The process of making this video was the whole purpose. The final production simply engages the audience to listen, listen, and listen again.

What narrative(s) are you hearing? Are you certain? At which moment, do you connect with the voice? What does listening means? What does understanding means? How do multimodal artistic pieces impact your life? How do you build from it?

If a space for possibilities is created, youth will take the opportunity.

“We have the power because we are together in speech and action, and because possibility spreads before us, and because there are boundaries to break through.” (Maxine Greene, 1982, p.9)

Now, plug your headphone, click on the link, and listen.


Anzaldua, G.A. (2003). now let us shift. This bridge we call home.  (p. 540-579).
Greene, M. (1982). Public Education and the Public space. In Educational Researcher.
Morisson, T. (1993). The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. Retrieved from:

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” (

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

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:

More information of New Alternatives for Children:

Information on the advertising agency:

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