Student Voices: The Art of Disenfranchised Youth A Semi-Failed Service Learning Experiment by Mathew and Jeff
One that uses the voices of teens who feel that school, or home, or society, is a place not for them?
Why aren’t you helping me? Whatever.
Part 1: The Initial Plan
“Because there is this blatant structure of school, there is no real influence to do something creative, for people to notice and pick that out… --Center School Student
OUR IDEA Work with marginalized youth to foster a sense of self importance in their community, by allowing them the opportunity to create and implement a project that relates to youth incarceration and youth homelessness and provides a voice to those marginalized communities.
THE GOALS OF THE PROJECT • Social personal skills to improve the community • Real results • Experience success • Deeper understanding of selves thru process • Leadership thru helping
OUR PLAN 1. Seek out high school students who have been labeled as “difficult” by their teachers and staff. Students who: • Don’t do their homework. • Don’t show up to class. • Disrupt class. • Argue with their teachers. • Fail tests. • Are on the road to dropping out or being expelled. BUT! These students, like ALL students, have the potential for amazing artistic talents that aren’t being used...
2. Seek out and speak with homeless adolescents and youth that have been or currently are incarcerated. Youth that are: • marginalized or disenfranchised • at a high risk for destructive or disruptive behavior • are in danger of being developmentally stunted in adolescence • lack a sense of space that can be considered safe, or home BUT! These youth, like ALL youth, have the potential for amazing artistic talents that aren’t being emphasized or regarded...
3. We then help to foster those talents: • Poetry • Photography • Memoirs • Fiction • Visual Arts (graffiti, painting, etc.) and let our community see that these kids, of which so many have been written off, have contributions to make; that their talents are assets to be utilized for personal expression and to help others become aware of, and find, their own voice, and those unheard in their community.
STEP 1: SPEAK WITH STUDENTS Have one-on-one interviews with students where we detail the big picture goal. Explain why we need their help and their role of a teen advisory board member. Make it clear that their voice is one that is valued and is a necessary element to ensure our project’s success.
STEP 2: GO TO THE HUGO HOUSE & OTHER CREATIVE PROGRAMS “Young writers have myriad opportunities to launch, explore, consume, and create great writing at Hugo House. Our conservatory-model instruction encourages students to read as writers, to critique established work and the new work of their peers, and to take risks with their writing while exploring voice and language. In our open writing circles, mentorship program, open mics, writing camps, and literary events, we strive to create an innovative creative-writing space for all youth.” - Hugo House “Zine Project Seattle is a blog dedicated to writing by homeless youth.Our posts consist of youth entries by youth and by dedicated staff...The Zine Project is an eight week prevocational creative writing program serving homeless youth ages 15-22. Ziners (Zine interns) get paid to make zines (pronounced zeen, short for magazine). Zines are personal publications consisting of original writing and artwork.” - Zine Project Seattle
STEP 3: GO TO THE ORION CENTER Stop by The Orion Center* and speak with teenagers who are experiencing being homeless first hand. Discover their thoughts on the project and determine their interest levels in becoming involved. *The Orion Center builds confidence and self-sufficiency for homeless youth by providing a continuum of care that includes outreach, basic services, emergency shelter, housing, counseling, education, and employment training.
STEP 4: WRITING WORKSHOP AT THE JUVENILE DETENTION FACILITY Determine what sort of access we will have to Stephanie Guerra and her creative writing workshop at the facility. If possible, solicit some writing from youth volunteers to have workshopped, or previewed, by our Center School and Orion students.
STEP 5: DETERMINE A CREATIVE OUTLET Work with youth to figure out a concrete product of our work. Should this become a Zine? Should we create a Showcase event? Benefit reading?
STEP 6: WORKSHOP! MIT students work with the disenfranchised youth to assist with writing skills, visual art implementation and editing, and to empower them to teach others. Bring disenfranchised youth to homeless center to provide time for both groups to work in a collaborative environment to generate and create poetry, stories, drawings, and other works of art.
STEP 7: RESULTS! Display (and sell!) the work of these students in order to help spread the word that all youth, not just those who fit the mold of bright and attentive, are deserving of a voice. Put on a benefit reading at Zeitgeist Coffee down Pioneer Square way; proceeds and donations go to benefit the Orion Center for further writing workshops. Use art produced by youth to propel a grant proposal for further investment in creative outlets (co-written by students).
Part 2: What Actually Happened (aka What Went Wrong)
WE PLANNED. It took time (a lot of time) to figure out why we wanted to do this project (our goal), who we wanted to talk to, and to determine what we wanted (and needed) to know.
WE GOT GREAT INTERVIEWS!!! We spent hours just sitting with the kids that teachers didn’t want in their class just talking about the project, about youth incarceration, and about youth homelessness. We received great information.
Student Questionnaire • Why are youth in prison or homeless? What are some of the reasons behind that? • How responsible are the parents of these youth? • What are the effects of incarceration on youth? Does it help them? Hurt? • What about being homeless? The detrimental effects? The positive? • How can we best allow youth to tell their stories? What type of artwork? Paintings, drawings, photography, poetry? • Is art the best format for fostering awareness? Are there other steps to take? • Should we be advocating for these voices? Do they want to be heard? Does that matter? • How do we create a safe space to talk about this stuff? What does that look like? • How are youth who are in prison or who are homeless treated by society? • What is your experience like? Do you know or have you had any issues that help you understand what homeless or incarcerated teens are going through?
“I tend to see a lot more of kids lashing out against their parents, and think that they will be free, and then can’t deal with how the world works… I think a lot of them don’t think they will be really homeless, that they will hook up with friends, but that runs out and then you can’t get a job, kids get strung out…”
“Society overall pushes people into these situations…people are automatically going to end up there (prison). Society has a lot of fault in kids going to prison or being homeless.”
“With the homeless thing, I have been for short periods of time, recycling dumpsters, about a week and a half… Known other people, same situation, incarceration aspect, the majority of people I used to run with are dead or in jail or overdosed. The only two who made it out are me and Carlos.”
“They say its all about rehab, but it really isn’t. It’s about separating. You take the issues you can’t deal with and lock them away.”
… time was not our friend. What we wanted to do would take weeks, if not months, to put together.
Research indicated and supported our initial worry: this was heavy stuff. • Youth most often cite family conflict as the major reason for their homelessness or episodes of running away. • A youth’s relationship with a step-parent, sexual activity, sexual orientations, pregnancy, school problems, and alcohol and drug use are strong predictors of family discord. • Estimates of homeless youth exceed 1 million. Estimates of runaway youth – including “thrownaway” youth – are between 1 and 1.7 million in a given year. • 5% of youth ages 12 to 17 have experienced homelessness. • GLBTQ youth appear to be overrepresented in the homeless youth population, due often to experiencing negative reactions from their parents when they come out about their sexuality. In five studies of unaccompanied youth in mid-size and large cities, between 20% and 40% of respondents identified as gay or lesbian. In addition, a nationwide survey of 354 organizations serving homeless youth in 2011 and 2012 found GLBTQ youth make up about 40% of their clients. • Homeless youth tend to have higher rates of mental disorders (especially depression), and significantly higher rates of disruptive behavior disorders. Homeless youth are also particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation, and are at high risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases; in order to survive, homeless youth frequently resort to illegal activity, including being sold for sex. • The juvenile justice system handles more than 1.6 million delinquency cases each year; annually, approximately 72,000 - 100,000 youth are incarcerated in the US • Challenges and stresses of incarceration would tax the faculties of even those the most adept at dealing with adversity; imagine the adolescent offenders dealing with their immaturity as well • They are separated from their families as they are developing and acquiring coping skills; their increased perception of the significance of friends is destroyed, as they are placed in an environment where their only peer group is composed of other antisocial youth; all at a time in their development when temperance, perspective, and responsibility should be fostere.d
“So it's not just telling a story, it's like telling a secret. Some of these kids have been sexually abused and assaulted, and that in particular is often an unspeakable trauma…If you've held on to something forever, it just festers and you don't heal. But once you tell the story, then you let it go. By sharing stories, you also hear that there are other people in the room who have had similar experiences. This is strengthening and empowering.” “The act of reconnecting with that knowledge and sense of ownership through [art] creates a powerful strategy for grounding individual lives in time and space, weaving threads of interconnectedness through events in the artists personal histories, and constructing a sense of belonging and community through the [artwork] that is created and shared…” We are attempting to open a dialogue with these particular youth in order to replace silence, avoidance, and embarrassment with conversations focused on vision, perspective, experience, and possibility. But, in doing so, we also understand that it is an emotional undertaking for all parties involved; an undertaking that requires the utmost authenticity and transparency of goals and safety, as wounds of pain and vulnerability will often act as conduits for our discussions and artistic endeavors. It takes a lot to properly prepare for this.
Stunted Access to our Creative Sources • The Hugo House was not incredibly punctual in their responses, though without having clear guidelines and ambitions, we couldn’t blame them • This, in fact, was a recurring theme for our endeavor; seemingly caught in some cyclical, catch-22 kind of action, it was difficult to move forward (in order to do one thing, we needed another in place; but for that to be in place, we needed the other thing done first)
It was impossible to get access to the Orion Center in the time we had for the project. Either they had projects going on or we were in class... ...and The Center School was just as difficult. As the year was winding down, it was difficult to get student buy-in, as well as any teacher participation.
Did we mention it would take months, if possible at all, to have direct access to incarcerated youth? Unlikely.
Part 3: What We Learned
Here’s what we found out: • There is a huge need for these kids to know that there are adults out there who care. They know all too well who the adults are who don’t. • It might be difficult to find youth who want to participate when faced with the fact that there are responsibilities involved. • We learned that not all youth homelessness is because of bad parenting. • It’s not needed to do these projects with a lot of people, but TIME is key. You cannot do something of this magnitude in less than a month.
Students May Not Care Several of the youth interviewees commented that it is difficult to get people to care about the problems of people they don’t care for, or are particularly aware of. “This is a good idea, for sure, I would read an article, I would click it, I would read a zine, but the majority of teenagers don’t really care about this stuff…”
“I know a lot of people who do their art thru graffiti, through rhymes… but the majority don’t do anything artistic at all…” “There will always be some who are interested, but the majority would say they don’t have time for that. I’ve got too much to deal with.”
Keep moving forward! We now have the structure in place to create a format where disenfranchised teen voices can be heard. We can take this information and use it to build the project in the future. Just because TEED 540 is over doesn’t mean that this idea is too.
Works Cited Biddle, Tabby. "Empowering Incarcerated Teens: An Interview With Meade Palidofsky." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 May 2010. Web. 05 June 2014. Dmitrieva, Julia, Kathryn C. Monahan, Elizabeth Cauffman, and Laurence Steinberg. "Arrested Development: The Effects of Incarceration on the Development of Psychosocial Maturity." Development and Psychopathology 24.03 (2012): 1073-090. Web. Fulmer, Mara Jevera. "The Creative Process and Artistic Intersections with Social Research: Narrative Portraits of Recovery from Homelessness." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 29.1 (2008): 85-120. Web. Guerra, Stephanie F. "Using Urban Fiction to Engage At-Risk and Incarcerated Youths in Literacy Instruction." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy55.5 (2012): 385-94. Web Miller, Cynthia J. "Images from the Streets: Art for Social Change." Social Justice 33.2 (2006): 122-34. Web. United States. Cong. Runaway and Homeless Youth: Demographics and Programs. By Adrienne L. Fernandes-Alcantara. Cong. Bill. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print