The other day in my teen club we spent the hour and a half discussing what I see as the most important issue in America right now----race, stereotypes, and identity. The teens in my club are diverse. They come from different backgrounds but are all people of color and thus experience a myriad of stereotypes everyday—whether acted on them or their family or their friends. Our teen programs are based on curriculum—literally 5 books of lesson plans that we more or less have to follow and have fidelity towards. The books have some decent lessons on stuff like values, sexual health, but I believe they fall very short in terms of providing interesting and engaging activities for teenagers. Focused on life skills like communication, decision-making, and relationship building, these lessons would go over well in suburban white communities but aren't always relevant for low-income kids in the cities. The lessons are speech-heavy and consist of a lot of sitting and listening to an adult facilitator talk at them. Besides a lesson on gender roles, they barely touch on self identity, marginalization, or racism/stereotyping. The curriculum is highly acclaimed and widely spread throughout the country. I think it's one example of something that happens all the time in youth development work...when the funders/granters/curriculum developers and overseers/PHDs and experts in the field totally lose touch with what's happening on the ground and what does or doesn't work in the field of youth work.
My goal since entering my role as a teen group facilitator has been to breathe some life and relevance into this curriculum and into how I spend my time with my group each week. These kids don't need me to tell them what friendship means and define word after word as they sit and stare blankly at the wall...they need to be actively engaged in pertinent issues in their lives—both through candid conversations and in experiences.
I'm not a great youth worker. I love working with teens but more in a one-on-one capacity and I'm almost always uncomfortable with being energetic and leading groups in a coherent, fun way. So, my goal with my teen groups is for my role to be nearly irrelevant and to shift the focus more and more each week onto the teen participants. I want them to be the ones talking and asking questions and challenging themselves.
Anyway, last week I knew I wanted to focus on racial/cultural stereotypes and identities and I also knew that I wanted it to be experiential. Frantic last minute planning on the day of the club led me to the idea of breaking the teens into three smaller groups and having three different 'stations' that took different angles on race and identity. The first station, led by my extremely personable colleague Mike, focused on the closer examination of stereotypes that the teens experience in daily life and how they are personally affected by these. The second station led by Paulyetta (another colleague at Neighborhood House) started with viewing a short clip on racial and cultural identities made by students of color at Ivy League Colleges and then continuing into a discussion on how racial and cultural identities have a huge part in forming one's sense of self. The final station led by Yer and myself focused on combating stereotypes by forming a positive sense of self through artistic expression. The teens each traced their hand and then on the outside of the hand wrote all of the stereotypes that people used to label them, and then inside their hands wrote all the words that they see themselves as. Then, we read examples of “Just Because” poems where the writers started each stanza with a stereotype they encounter and then use the rest of the stanza to combat and disprove this stereotype. An example:
Just because I'm Mexican
Doesn't mean I eat tacos
Doesn't mean I'm illegal
I am bilingual.
Just because I'm a woman
doesn't mean I cry easily
doesn't mean I'm weak
And so on. One of my kids who usually doesn't take club very seriously wrote a really awesome poem something like,
'Just because I get kicked out of class a lot,
doesn't mean I'm a bad boy
I'm a fighter and a good boy. '
Anyway, it was really cool to see these kids examine the racism and classism and other things they endure in their lives, and also work towards building meaningful identities.
At the end of the stations, we all gathered as a group into a large circle to find a sense of community. I would read a statement like, “I am _________ (african american, lesbian, minnesotan, soccer player, sister, brother, gay, latino, low-income, middle class, teenager, st. paulian, etc etc) and if you either identified with the word or were an ally/supported it, you would show it by moving to somewhere else in the circle. It was a fun activity and I was really surprised to see how many people moved each time.
Like most successful groups that I run, I owe most of it to the other adults who volunteered like Yer, Mike, and Paulyetta who brought unique perspectives, energy, and experiences to the table. I know barely nothing about youth work but I do know that the more engaging and relevant you can make a program, the better.
Listen: teens are vulnerable. Listen again: teens of color are even more vulnerable. To be misunderstood and marginalized twice over; once because of a certain 8-year period of age/brain development that we have all gone through, and twice because of your race or background, is something that I'm sure most of us don't understand at all. Tip of the iceberg, I'm talking, especially for white adults. They talk about leaving your middle-class values at the door in youth work. I understand that sentiment but also just leave your judgments at the door. Every time you leave your house and wander out into the world. But that's not enough either. Have these discussions. If you work with youth in schools or in the community, talk about these things. Whether they are suburban kids or students at Humboldt high school. Talk to your children about this so that they either understand their privilege or so they understand the webs of racism in which we are all ensnared and often complicit in in our culture. There is deafening silence on something that affects youth and people of color every day and it affects every interaction and opportunity they have. Talk about this.