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As part of our course work, and an overall course objective of fostering experiences in working in multiple modalities, we were asked to to create a film in which we revealed our ideas about one of the largest components of the YMEJ experience: mentorship of youth. In watching my classmate’s films, and constructing my own film, many of the reoccurring images were ones of sharing stories. To share our story and to be receptive to hearing the stories of others is a powerful, connecting experience. As I read a poem today, many of the images that it evoked for me made me realize that it metaphorically embodied my hopes for both my mentoring experience and my own personal journey through this course. Therefore, in the spirit of multiple modalities, I offer poetry to complement the films on mentorship that we created in class…
“Wild Geese” Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
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 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.
Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.
* * *
Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,
It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.
Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.
To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.
What we have done.
Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.
Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.
…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;
…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.
What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?
She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.
What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…
How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?
What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.
Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?
I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”
And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.
And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.
And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.
I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.
I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.
And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.
My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.
I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.
We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.
I stand up.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”
She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.
That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.
…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…
But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?
I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.
In love and gratitude,
home for the holidays.
there are songs about it. hallmark makes a fortune selling cards either affirming the practice or lamenting ones ability to get there. its something i look forward to with great anticipation. however, this year, while i was sitting in my dad’s recliner that he never actually sits in when i’m home, eating a dinner lovingly and deliciously prepared by my mother, while enjoying silly conversation with my 6.5 year old niece and nephew, i thought back to the youth we have had the chance to talk about over the last semester.
what does it feel like to experience the holidays without a home? something i always take for granted. something that seems to me to be as special a time in the year as any, that i have, for the first time stopped to think, that many do not enjoy. learning too early that santa only brings presents to some people (perhaps not in the foster home or group home, certainly not in prison or juvenile detention centers). or perhaps of being in a foster home, away from siblings, extended family and parents. wishing you had such a luxury to go “home to the holidays”. perhaps not even able to comprehend what that might look like.
and i enjoyed my time even more. but with a hint of guilt, or sadness. at the experiences, holidays being just one, that i have always known and take for granted which i am now keenly aware is not the case. and i wonder what it is like to not be home for the holidays. not have a home to go to, or even if you do, not be able to get there.
soon after the joy of christmas we welcome the new year. hallmark sells more cards filling us with the rhetoric that it is a time of new chances, new opportunities, where anything we dream can be true. yet, once again, that rhetoric is only true for a select few. those who perhaps didn’t have many struggles in the previous year, or even if they did, were surrounded by the warmth of home, support and family needed to overcome. but to add salt to a fresh wound, we celebrate new opportunities and new chances with people who have little to no control over their outcome. who rely on other adults to make their future better and brighter. and while the world celebrates opportunities and fresh starts, they are left with the same slate, the same past, the same obstacles as they had at 11:59.
happy new year.
full of promise and opportunities and new beginnings.
We started blogging late this summer and over the course of the past several months, the YMEJ Project Team has been joined by some members of the current cohort of YMEJ graduate students in contributing to this blog. They are:
- Emily Bailin
- Nicole Blandford
- Emeline Brylinski
- Katie Newhouse
- Laura Vernikoff
- Kelly Gavin Zuckerman
Click on their avatars (to the right, over there…) to read additional posts by them and stay tuned for more from us in 2014.
Collectively, we are educators, researchers, community members, adults in the lives of youth, and committed to the wellbeing of young people across multiple institutions; what has brought us together through the YMEJ Seminar, in particular, is our shared interest in better understanding the various contours and nuances of the lives, institutional navigations, challenges, possibilities, educational trajectories, dreams, and desires of young people involved with the foster care and/or juvenile justice system.
Below is a list of posts that seemed to catch your attention over the past several months. Check them out, pass them on, and feel free to suggest additional topics and resources for us to learn and blog about.
- Engaging Youth as Active Participants In/For Social Change: a teaser for YMEJ Member Tara Conley’s presentation for the Racial Literacy Roundtable Series at Teachers College, Columbia University on the creative and socially engaged approach to participatory design in justice-focused work with youth.
- Youth speaking about Stop and Frisk — Views from the reluctant experts: 2013 saw significant attention being given to the NYPD’s policy of “stop and frisk,” intended as a public safety measure but having serious consequences for the mostly Black and Latino male inhabitants of NYC who were disproportionately the focus of this practice. In a related post, Emeline depicts similar challenges that are ongoing in her native France surrounding racial profiling.
- The treatment of children is the focus of this next post, titled Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani, that builds from Andrea Elliot’s widely read 5-part series in the New York Times last month and presents a series of additional resources and connections. We — meaning the YMEJ team — are continuing to ponder this narrative and all the author was able to reveal about child welfare, city policies, and the persistent challenges of poverty through her in-depth profile of this young, 11-year-old girl. We hope to have more to say in the coming weeks and months.
- Another view of our nation’s treatment of children was profiled in the post focusing on child hunger: “Hunger hurts everyone” – A Place at the Table. We include information about the recent cuts to SNAP, links to a PBS special about child hunger and a related documentary, and highlight a university-community partnership headed by Mariana Chilton in an effort to interrupt the effects of poverty and hunger while also aiming to provide research that may catalyze changes to the policies that govern funding decisions at the local, state, and federal levels.
- In addition to Dasani, our imaginations were captured by two young men who were in the news: Avonte Oquendo and Davion Navar Henry Only. In their respective posts, Katie and Nicole raise important questions about how we see and understand the stories of youth enmeshed into large, impersonal bureaucratic systems, and about the ways in which their lives are represented and mediated. Of Avonte, we continued to hear that he was an autistic child who had gone missing and about Davion, we continued to read about the public plea he made in search of a family. Check out both of these posts to learn more about the young men and the institutional structures their situations call into question:
- We were grateful for a collaboration that sprung out of a twitter connection with @PrisonCulture, who, back in August, tweeted a series of youth-led change-making efforts going on nationwide. We compiled these resources into a handy list, and received additional recommendations via the blog and twitter that were also added: Youth Making Change Across the Country. This is just a drop in the bucket, and in 2014 we plan to profile several more organizations and groups who are working tirelessly to “be the change [they] wish to see in the world.”
- In addition to the above list of youth-led efforts, we also learned of institutional and community-based efforts to strengthen the lives of youth across settings, in the form of mentoring, higher education, and arts-infused activism. Learn more about these efforts in these posts:
- Finally, our attention was captivated by a book released earlier this year by author Cris Beam, who details the experiences of children and families ensnared in the child welfare and foster care system in her book “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care.” Reading her book took our own inquiries about care, family, home, and institutions to a variety of places and resources, which we have gathered in our post: Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care
There you have it — our top 10 (ok, if you were really counting, I snuck in a few more than 10…) posts from 2013. Thanks for being a great audience and we look forward to sharing more thoughts and dialogue with you in the year to come.
Wishing you a healthy, safe, and inspired 2014!
The YMEJ Team.