This last question was crucial. It wasn’t
enough to know that our participants loved
the program – though that was encouraging
-- we wanted to know what would happen
when they left high school. Better yet, what
would happen when they left the program
that day and entered back into the “real”
world? This re-entry occurs every day when
young people go from the program space to
their homes, communities, schools, the justice system, and other environments that
might not mirror the values and approaches
to conflict we tried to instill.
That dilemma prompted my colleagues
and me to focus on including the other relationships or systems that young people
encounter, in the hopes that they could reinforce and not undermine the work we were
trying to do.
One thing we concentrated on was content.
As already mentioned, we overhauled our
curriculum with an eye toward changing our
examples and our topics for discussion — not
being afraid to address conflicts that might involve the criminal
justice system or educational and economic barriers to success. It was particularly challenging for me to acknowledge the
extensive privilege I had as a white person. Whatever training I
have had, I will never know what institutional racism feels like.
And, frankly, it can feel disingenuous to even talk to youth of
color about this topic, despite using all the right terms and references. But I tried to recognize that truth and work through it,
because that’s what’s required to do this work effectively and
It was also uncomfortable to explore these kinds of conflicts
because we have much less control over solving them. It is far
easier for a young person to develop skills for addressing conflict with their peers or siblings. But even though that is the
case, and even though our tools may not function as well, we still
have to consider those deeper structural conflicts -- because
they will be there, whether or not we talk about them. In fact, it
provides an added motivation for us to work harder to develop
tools that do hold up to those larger, system-level conflicts.
Another thing we learned is to include people besides our
youth participants. For instance, family engagement was a priority area, and that meant not only informing parents about what
their kids were doing in the program but actually doing elements
of the program with them through workshops, retreats, or conversations. We also focused on our partnerships with schools.
Many of the high schools our young people attend employed
overly punitive discipline that fed into the school-to-prison
pipeline. How can we expect a young person to use the non-violent communication they learned with us when, as soon as
they leave our program space, they may return to a school environment where violent communication is the norm?
We knew we couldn’t fix this completely, but we connected
with teachers, administrators and other staff as much as possible to try to create understanding and buy-in for our approach.
We highlighted and leaned on “Teacher Champions,” teachers
and staff who acted as advocates of the program and could
refer participants to us, but who also promoted our values and
approaches, ever so slightly shifting school climate. None of
these are fail-proof, but they are sincere attempts to expand
program efficacy and better situate young people for success in
the long term.
One of the most formative moments in this work came last
summer when we took over 40 young people on a week-long
retreat to Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. The trip emphasizes the beauty of the outdoors and environmental stewardship.
The menu was all vegetarian, and we tried to practice trauma
healing and non-violence through circles and dialogue. It’s an
inspiring and transformational opportunity for those who attend
– youth and adult staff included.
We had set aside a time for a conflict resolution “open space,”
because in previous years community conflict always had arisen.
During this space, one of our facilitators shared that he was
frustrated — we were providing all this delicious, healthy food
and the youth participants were complaining about it, refusing to eat it, and eating junk food from the city instead. He told
them they weren’t taking advantage of this opportunity. It was
Nate who responded; Nate, one of our program alumni, who had
come on our first retreat five years ago, and had joined us as a
volunteer and junior facilitator. He said that this was a ridiculous
expectation. “They’re only here for a week,” he said. “That’s not
gonna do it. They’re not suddenly gonna change everything in
their lifestyle all at once. This is a great opportunity but they’re
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