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Earlier in the academic year, I was asked to ponder the following question as part of my coursework for the Youth Media and Educational Justice seminar:
What do educators need to consider when court-involved youth – reentry, on probation, in foster care — are in their classrooms and schools (and programs)?
In response, I offered the following:
In thinking about this question, I was reminded of Virginia Shabatay’s (1991) piece “The Stranger’s Story” Who Calls and Who Answers?” in which she poignantly asks, “How do those of us in the helping professions discover the strangers among us? How can we develop sensitive caring relationships with those who feel set apart?” (p. 137). In her eloquent treatise, she posits, “We bring certain attitudes to those whom we don’t know: suspicion, mistrust, caution, and bias, or trust, openness, and welcome” (p. 137). Accordingly, she urges readers to use stories as ways to discover what strangers have to teach. She explains, “Stories allow us to break through barriers and to share in another’s experience; they warm us. Like a rap on the window, they call us to attention” (p. 137). Shabatay’s insights resonate with me as ways in which entering into dialogue and exchanging stories can combat strangehood in our classrooms, schools, programs, and research.
Since the time of this assignment, I have had the opportunity to begin volunteering work every Thursday as a mentor at an alternative to detention site in New York City. During each visit, I have the privilege of witnessing and participating in the embodiment of Shabatay’s words— the sharing of stories that allow space for possible connection between participants, staff, and volunteers. Around the small conference table, youth who because of their current situation often feel “set apart,” are approached not with “suspicion, mistrust, caution, or bias” but with “trust, openness, and welcome.” Through dialogue and narrative, a community is formed that is mindful of and active in recognizing and then disabling the human tendency to judge, to categorize, and to stereotype. Through human exchange, we no longer are strangers. We are companions. It truly is a remarkable place and each visit pushes me to consider ways in which more spaces and places can be created for court-involved youth and others to “break through the barriers and to share in another’s experience.”