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Images of Mentoring

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.

On Empathy, Ethics, and Sharing Narratives

Empathy, both as a concept and as a practice, has been floating among my interactions and thoughts with an uncanny frequency these days. A few weeks ago, our YMEJ seminar watched a short animated video by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of empathy. She explains how empathy requires perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating these understandings.

Just a week or two after that, I was chatting with Sharieff, the coordinator of Enrichment Services at the ATD, where I have the privilege of doing my mentorship work. Sharieff had recently been talking about the links he saw between developing empathy and an understanding of ethics, and shared an anecdote in which he asked the young people at the ATD if they would take or return an iPhone that they saw a woman leave on a Subway platform. He shared how many students would respond with “No,” but when asked why they wouldn’t take the item, they would explain how they “Didn’t want to get in trouble” or end up with another alternative to detention sentence. I asked Sharieff how he might further the dialogue there; sure enough, he responded by saying: “Oh, I’ve found it’s all about building empathy.”

He explained how he might engage a young person in that conversation to imagine how the person who owned the phone might feel when she saw it was gone. He talked about how this principle of being able to imagine someone else’s feelings of experiences has guided some of the young people he works with to develop their own contextualized understandings of ethics, and of what they consider ethical behavior to look like.

Sharieff’s example has given me a lot to reflect upon. It’s both exciting and challenging to consider how sharing personal stories can develop our ability to empathize with others’ lived realities. But how do we do that sharing in a way that honors the diversity of perspectives, learning styles, and forms of expression with which people feel most comfortable? Certainly, celebrating and using multiple modalities (from printed and spoken word to visual and performing arts) seems one way of doing so. The next, and perhaps more perplexing, consideration is where to go from there. How do we engage with and share narratives in ways that develop empathy among both speakers and listeners? Is that even a responsible goal to have? Perhaps the better question is simply: What does the narrative’s owner hope to feel, understand, or share with others in doing that sharing? How can we, as adults working with youth, pursue this sharing in a dialogical way that allows students to own their narratives and engage with ours?

I invite you to read Dutro & Bien’s 2013 article Listening to the Speaking Wound to consider how we may share narratives with and among youth. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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