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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.
In the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out digital publications produced by first group of YMEJ grad students, culminating in a digital anthology — all of the pieces were shared as part of an exhibition called “Let’s Start Something: Reframing Perspectives on Youth, Justice, and Education” and early this autumn we’ll publish the complete anthology online.
As a preview, here are a few pieces from the collection:
1. “anak ng new york” — by Alexandra Thomas
Click on panels to reveal more layers of information, context, facts, and resources
From the author:
Anak ng New York is a project designed to give alternate views on care and young people in the Foster Care System in New York City. “Anak ng” means “children of,” or colloquially, “son or daughter of” in Tagalog. The homepage of this website provides a single, and perhaps the most stark, view of foster care in NYC. There is a tick mark for each of the 13,000 young people currently in the system. However, behind each panel is another view. There are resources, narratives, poetry, and artwork, which exemplify the diverse and complicated ways in which we can understand foster care and the lives of the young people within the system.
1a. Click on the 4th panel on the 1st row for a compilation of responses from adults who work at various points along the foster care landscape in support and in service of foster youth: “Top Ten Questions And Answers for Future Involvement with Foster Care Youth” — produced by David Gajer.
2. Those Unspoken Truths — by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Ellen Chan
From the authors:
Those Unspoken Truths is a collaborative project that merges poetry and photography and explores ways youth would like to be known. We see the exploration of photography, the asking of the question “who am I?”, as well as the responses, as initial steps toward creating a platform for discussion and inquiry around the ways we come to know youth and the ways in which youth let themselves be known.
If you’ve read a bit about us, you know that we are engaged in a project with a lot of moving parts, one of which involves a collaborative mentoring approach that we have been developing over the past year. There will be lots more on this to come… but for now, I wanted to tell you about another great mentoring effort happening in Harlem — a joint effort between Harlem CARES Mentoring Movement and Total Equity Now (TEN) (read what we wrote last week about the great work that TEN is involved in).
Next Tuesday, August 13th, 6:30-8:30pm — Harlem CARES and TEN are sponsoring a mentoring fair at the Minisink Townhouse (at Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street). From an article published in DNAInfo New York:
“More than 3 million children are being mentored in the United States today but another 15 million are waiting to be mentored. Many grassroots organizations simply don’t have the resources to recruit enough adults.”
“The fair hopes to eliminate the disconnect between adults who might be interested in mentoring young people and the many organizations that facilitate such relationships by putting them together in the same room.”
In our work with court-involved youth over the past two decades, we’re learned that not every young person will want a mentor, some won’t want to participate if the experience is called mentoring, and some may not realize that a mentor is exactly what they need in their corner. But one thing is certain: young people need caring adults in their lives. Young people flourish in unexpected ways when they know they have someone (and hopefully a few someones) in their corner. And it is here where we see the richness of mentoring to exist and it is in the liminal spaces of a caring ethos that unimagined possibilities may begin to thrive.
These aren’t mere platitudes. They are words written by someone who has been fortunate to have had mentors throughout her life; for their wisdom, gentle guidance, occasional admonishments, and constant strength, I will be forever grateful.
So, if you’re a “committed adult” who can imagine “building another positive, strong relationship with someone who can mirror to young people what is possible in their lives,” then head on over to the Mentoring Fair on August 13th.