(Originally posted on peggysimmons.net, May 11, 2009. I still volunteer weekly with The Beat Within. I've learned a lot and keep on learning.)
I volunteer with The Beat Within once a week, helping to facilitate their writing workshops in Alameda County's juvenile hall. I love it. I am inspired by the youth, the facilitators and many of the hall's staff. Experiences like this are an important reality check for me - reminding me of how much I don't know and don't understand and giving me opportunities to learn.
Two things have especially struck me in recent weeks from workshops in the hall. Firstly, in a discussion about what life on the streets costs (for issue 14.21) one young man said something like, "Everyone tells us to get off the streets. Get off the streets and go where?" The next week another young man wrote a great rap about being stuck in the "hood life" in which he mentions boys who have no socks to wear. (Marky Bo, page 26 of issue 14.22)
I haven't been able to follow up with the young man who said, "Get off the streets and go where?" So I don't know exactly what he meant. He might have meant, "with five kids in a 1 bedroom apartment, where else could we hang out but on the street?" And/or he could have meant that he and his peers see no other future for themselves, no other way of life but hustling on the streets. Because they have no example of other choices? Because they've been brought to believe it's all they are good for? Because the harsh circumstances of their childhood - home, health, education, violence, family - meant that nothing was built upon what was already a weak foundation? Like the shame and discomfort of going to school without socks. All or none or parts of these things might be true. But it doesn't matter what is true or what is not true, what is right or not right. If he believes there is no other life for him, how do we show him otherwise? How to we make it otherwise?
And how can I better understand what choices these youth think they have and actually have? How can I see better from their point of view? And how can I share what I learn with others who think of those kids as just criminals who stupidly make bad choices and should be punished accordingly, period?
Hearing and reading the writing of these youth, while reading and listening to lots of mainstream journalism too, reminds me of how most of us go through our days looking at the world from inside our own little bubbles. And judging from within them. We interpret what we see completely differently than other people from their own bubbles. And most of us, if not all, just can't see widely enough to judge others fairly. My work and my life are all about trying to find ways to pop, or at least widen, these bubbles. At least my own. I thank The Beat Within and the youth in the hall for helping me try.
by Meg Claudel
Lift my chin to the clouds, the heavens, the clouds
And wish or pray to wish for rain
To wash out the silence, the silence
He left me, behind the noise of highways
And trains at the intersection of 40th and Telegraph.
Dirty foot walks the broken streets
Dirty street breaks the feet of boys without socks
Boys without socks or gone to jail:
Boys without sunsets.
Boys with sunsets on the other side of the wall.
Broken sidewalks. Broken hearts.
Sunsets are free, he says
Once again outside my paid-for window
Sunsets are free
Behind the lines, a steeple, the lines
Once again paid for, this view
This view all the better on the hill
Outside the walls where children know death
More death than I
Walls between free sunsets and children not free
Children already gone
Past my share of grieving
Your sunset's free, he says.
("Meg Claudel" is the pen name used by Peggy Simmons.)
(This poem is in the mural on 40th St and Opal St, Oakland CA and was first drafted on June 22, 2009.)
(These pieces are excerpts from the manuscript What I Want My Words to Do to You, a collection from seven years of Peggy's writing about facilitating workshops in juvenile hall plus writing from incarcerated youth from the same period.)
We asked Lucy Flattery-Vickness, Oakland's 2017 Youth Poet Laureate to tell us about her creative process and Green Windows' role within it. Lucy first wrote in a Green Windows workshop when she was 14, part of a series of free workshops run for the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program at the Oakland Public Library. She's included a gorgeous poem, too. Thank you, Lucy!
How I String Words
It usually starts with a few words strung together, tightrope thin, and a mother-load of procrastination. This line, or assortment of words, will stew in the deepest, dankest parts of me, and it will stew and stew and stew. Then, maybe, I will find a moment with silence, and the sun will be out, and my room will be still and warm and clean. Something may have just happened that requires processing through an emotional sieve. When this happens, then I may find some success in writing a piece.
Creating a piece that walks smooth and balanced on those first tightrope words is always challenging. I never start with a plan, or a beginning, middle, or end. I start with my ear, who tells me that combining my tightrope words will create a heartbeat. I am then left with the task of creating a poem backbone around that heartbeat. I guess you could say I write in reverse.
Green Windows revolutionized my writing process. I stumbled across the workshops and quickly fell in love. I realized that in the space of five minutes, I could create something I was proud of. It was momentous for me to discover that if I just kept the pen moving a whole body could come out — backbone, heartbeat, and all. I also learned something very important for my own well-being. I discovered that I could write about whatever was on my mind and people would listen, and that the process of being received was healing. Although Green Windows is by no means the only program that has helped me develop as a writer, it has always been an intimate space that has allowed me to find even more reasons to love writing.
- Lucy Flattery-Vickness
by Lucy Flattery-Vickness
Like bodies of women
Like waves folding in on themselves
Like bodies of women
Crescents be powerful
Be holders of wisdom
As ancient as the sun
Be tops of hills
That forever hide the other
Sides of things
The tipping point
If you turned the half moon on its side
Would it balance there?
If you tip a woman’s body
Can you see her inner balance take over
We start in diaphragms
In slow breath
That render us fierce
Whisper laugh wisps of ghost stories amongst ourselves
Weave mythology and moonbeams
Together on looms at midnight
Knit strength between fingertips
And name ourselves luna, and crescent, and conquerer
In out tongue, round back is for bearing
For soft landings
Stories into existence
Stories of warriors
With full breasts
And children too
Draped in silver from head to toe
Warriors who moved waters
Who screamed into oceans and heard tides echo back
Who charmed waves, new just
How to make them shake their hips
In this woman
Half moon is company in midnight window
Bertrell Smith is an amazingly talented artist who practices in different media: painting, writing, music, video and more. He has been writing in Green Windows workshops for several years. We asked him to share some of his art as well as a few words about his artistic process. Thank you, Bertrell!
When I create a work of art a lot of things happen or don't happen. If I'm painting I might make a thumbnail drawing while listening to random recordings. I usually find an error, a dot or something, in the canvass and adjust to it.
When writing a rap I jot down a few ideas about the direction for the rap in general and hope I finish it one day. In general this is how I do what I do or what I'm trying to do in the creative realm.
I often question why on earth am I doing these things. Then I remember why and I proceed with caution. It's a way to travel without checking my baggage, I tell myself. I usually put all my materials in one area and plan to spend from a hour to a week or more discussing my problems with them be it the canvas, a musical recording, a piece of paper or video etc.
When I waltz into Green Windows to write, I do something similar. I ask, "Why am I here?" I eventually remember why, eat some pastries and unleash a tension on the page that I've been storing for such an occasion. Green Windows writing workshop in many ways mirrors my creative process. I wish I could find a workshop that helps me in the other areas with the same level of consistency.
- Bertrell Smith
By Bertrell Smith
(Written in a Green Windows workshop, January 2014)
Shut up don't listen to your sorry selfishness. The version of you at this moment of time will be thrown away. I am not playing with you. Ball it up and let the smell from it take you away. Don't talk back to me in predictable anger it will do you no good. I'm happy you are here with me in a dark sadistic way. Now leave all that you know quickly and sweep up the floors. The floor covered with images of your self you placed there in haste, Make a noise, A new one. Not joyful not bitter. Something mechanical and happy. It's not a request you can ignore. I'm commanding you to be a subject of little insight and much pity. You shall grow as I say you will. The descriptions of you will fade and be forgotten as has been stated in the writings on the floor. You will mop after you sweep. I will let you take time to feel horror or hunger, Only one. There is no out at this only in at this. It is not a riddle only a lapse of a memory you wish to forget. Slow down let the pressure inside. To go in .
The Alameda County juvenile hall has an amazing pilot program for incarcerated youth who have graduated from high school, called SEEP (Student Extended Education Program). Traditionally, and apparently in most juvenile halls, there isn’t much for the graduates to do while their peers are in class.
In the Alameda County hall, a small program was started in partnership with Merritt College to give some students college courses. This program runs on love and volunteers thanks to dedicated people like Amy Cheney (who Green Windows is honored to have on our Advisory Board and who used to be the Librarian in the hall) and Louise Anderson (Alameda County Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commissioner [JJDPC]).
Besides this small college program involving a few youth and a few volunteers, there was nothing for the graduates until some JIOs (Juvenile Institution Officers, the Alameda County Probation staff who work with the youth in the hall) decided to create a program. Officer Nicole Perales and Officer Brian Bingham (who also honors Green Windows on our Advisory Board) started SEEP, with no funding, engaging other JIOs to teach classes on life skills, debate, cooking, gardening, whatever skills they could share. They needed to rely on people who had clearance to enter the hall, a proven track record to work with the young people and who wouldn’t require funding. This fabulous, desperately needed program, was also born out of love and runs on dedication.
Perales and Bingham have seen and supported my work in the juvenile hall over the years, running different kinds of writing workshops with Green Windows, for The Beat Within and with the Oakland Public Library for the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program. They knew my love, dedication and clearance and asked me to run a series of creative writing workshops with the SEEP students. Thanks to generous individual donations to Green Windows, I was able to run this workshop for five weeks this past Spring.
The creativity of these brilliant and charming young people impressed me, as did their desire to engage themselves while locked up, despite facing uncertain futures or futures certain to contain a lot of time inside and while dealing with all levels of sorrows. Their writing shows they do not easily lose hopes and dreams and loves.
I hope to continue to offer creative writing workshops with these young people, in addition to volunteering weekly to run workshops with The Beat Within. Green Windows needs funding to offer them, though, please consider donating.
This whole post was written to introduce this one piece of writing, written in the last SEEP workshop. Writing like this implores us to offer these young people as many opportunities as possible to authentically express themselves. Our society has much to learn and gain if they do.
- Peggy Simmons
We were all born with the power of
changing the world, emotionally, mentally,
spiritually and maybe of course verbally.
I stand tall on this lovely morning
with my hands bruised from protecting
myself from the haters, eyes red & puffy
from praying and crying, my body slim but
using the bit of strength within my female body. Nobody should
be Judged from a record or a misunderstanding
mistake. We are human beings, please look at
us as one. If nobody wasn't born in different
countries then what is a world? Different
skin tones matter or what would be the real
definition of a human being including their tone
that comes out of their mouth? What’s coming out
of mine are the last words I am ever going to
preach for. They say, “what you do & say will
be used against you”. In the system some
can control themselves & get away, start over
until never again. It is another day that
can be brighter but Hey! What about the
others “maybe”? Can you at least feed us real food
here & there, take us to field trips in the “real life”?
Or cook what I enjoy, for I
think I still remember how to
use my hands. Stress really eats up our
cells and DNA including techniques, that nobody made him or me learn.
Again they say “get it together this is real life”.
Can I be loved one more time? Because that’s
the “real life” not the system.
17 years young now. 5 years pass -
I am free I could have spent the rest of
my life in there, but I did not go down like no
SUKKA, fight! Let your voice be heard
& the victim get on the stand! I am loved,
I started my own restaurant, I travel now.
One day when I am 50, miniature me’s will
be changing the world Amen.
After college, I started journaling. Everyday. I would write as a process of understanding myself better and as a way of saving my impressions of the world around me. I was living in Argentina at the time and there was so much I wanted to capture, to remember, as if writing letters to be opened by another version of myself in another time.
When I moved back to the States, my writing became infrequent for a time. I pursued other means of understanding myself, specifically studying plant medicine, movement and massage. At the time that I found Green Windows, I was six months into my studies in becoming a massage therapist with a focus on Eastern modalities. My teachers were training us to look for harmonies in the body, the things that were working well in our clients, instead of focusing on the seemingly hurt or broken pieces that were our clients’ major complaint. The belief is that by finding what is working well, and supporting that function, the body has more resources to heal itself.
When I found Peggy and the AWA method, I realized right away the natural pairing of what I was learning in school with one of the guiding principles of the AWA method: look for what is working well. I noticed that, in bodywork as in writing, this type of listening creates a safe place where one can reconnect. From here, we can go into the world a little stronger, more ready to adapt to life’s changes.
One of the first things I noticed about Peggy was her ability to reach into the depths of each person in a writing group and spark a match igniting a fury of inspiration, drawing out stories and characters and poetry that set free the writer in every person. The second thing I noticed was the diversity of the group. How rare that such an array of people could come together to create and share. And who was this woman who could speak to all of us? I had to learn more.
Building upon the common ground between my bodywork and writing practice, I direct a person’s attention towards harmony and what works to facilitate an environment that invites our most authentic selves to show up. In tuning our awareness in this way, we nourish ourselves and evoke what we wish to create. When we employ this way of looking for what is strong in a group setting, we begin to understand how Peggy can bring together people from such different backgrounds.
Still Peggy’s magic lies beyond the trust she has in the AWA method, or efficacy in facilitating it, but rests in her belief in and dedication to making this work accessible to each unique voice as fuel for radical conversations. Expanding upon Peggy’s example, I see that the unique voice can take many forms. I witness how the human body’s movement, like words, is a language expressing a unique story. And from my own experience of the creative flood after being in Peggy’s workshop, I realize that freedom of expression holds the greatest potential to liberate the human spirit, and it is precisely this liberation that drives me in all of my work.
- Jenna Frisch, Green Windows Facilitator, former Green Windows Apprentice.
Please submit a post about your experience in a Green Windows workshop or about social justice and artistic expression.