I love working with teenagers because I learn from them. And it's fun!
I started working with teens in 1995, with the ATD Fourth World Movement in a vacation house for poor families outside of London. Teens said, "No one is working with us. Will you work with us?" I said, "Sure!" having no idea that I was making a career choice. One of those teens, Bea, and I continued to work together for several years within the youth branch of ATD Fourth World and she continued to work with teenagers well after she no longer was a teen herself. Bea and her mother, Moraene, both work as anti-poverty activists, as experts with first-hand experience of poverty. When I recently saw Moraene, at a conference in France, she introduced me to one of her colleagues: "Bea might have gone down a dangerous path if she hadn't met Peggy when she did." Youth workers often don't know the effect we really have, so that was wonderful to hear. But what was remarkable for me is that it's thanks to Bea that I've been working with teenagers, and loving it, for 24 years. Bea and I changed each other's lives, and those are my favorite stories.
Teenaged Bea showed me around her Hackney neighborhood, told me stories about her life, introduced me to her friends, answered my questions and helped me figure out how to work with teens. She began my understanding of the struggles many teens face that I never had to face, but also of the strength, creativity and profound sense of justice that teens can bring to that struggle.
After London, I spent four years working at the international center of the ATD Fourth World Youth Movement, outside of Paris. The Youth Movement brings young people from very different backgrounds together, as equals, in social justice, anti-poverty projects. I was working with young people from different countries, with different first languages, with widely varying formal education and literacy levels and facing very different kinds of challenges. There was Richard who lived with his Roma ("gypsy" or "traveller") community in a camp with no running water outside of Paris; Luke, who was going to University in Berlin who had had family on both sides of the wall; Marie who was learning circus arts to entertain children in hospitals in Brussels; and so many more. We brought them together very carefully and intentionally with a methodology that has been developed over decades and is now called Merging Knowledge. But even with this methodology and other techniques such as Theater of the Oppressed, and our purposeful facilitation, much of which I recognized later in "Restorative Justice" practices, I was consistently impressed with the capacity of these very, very different young people to overcome the barriers between them to fight for justice for all youth. That capacity gets dimmed as we grow older and I knew I had a lot to learn from it. This knowledge, of how much there is to learn from bringing very different youth together, was solidified after a group of Slovakian, French and Belgian youth I was leading on study trip in Bratislava was attacked by skinheads on a public bus. This is a story for another time, and one I have written over and over without ever being satisfied [we all have those stories]. But the most important part of the story, for me, was the incredible way the young people, who had not had an easy week, came together and supported each other in the days after the attack.
In 2002, I moved back to the States, very much motivated by the desire to learn from young people in my own country like I had been learning from youth in Europe. While waiting in France for visas to come through for my French husband whom I had met in the Youth Movement, I put together a data base of youth-serving organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. When we finally settled in San Francisco, we both found very interesting jobs in youth organizations and we were both shocked by how youth from "disadvantaged" backgrounds were being treated. The bar was consistently being lowered for them. Staff were condescending and preachy. And no one seemed interested in learning from the youth themselves. We had been trained to keep the bar high for all youth, knowing every youth would need different kinds of support to get there. We'd learned to be patient and persistent, creative and team-focused. Most importantly, we'd learned to listen to the youth themselves, as the experts on their own lives. My (now-ex) husband (and still best friend) eventually gave up on American non-profits which are overly guided by grant cycles and which put so much financial investment into executives who, especially at that time, seemed so far away from the lives of the youth they were meant to be serving.
Eventually I found two organizations and one new methodology that would allow me to work with youth in a way I believed in outside ATD Fourth World: The Beat Within, The Oakland Public Library, and the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) writing workshop method. I've been volunteering with The Beat for eleven years in the local juvenile hall, and for the last year in San Quentin State Prison. The purpose of The Beat is to get the experience, thoughts and creativity of youth, especially incarcerated youth, out into the world through writing workshops and a magazine. The public library, for which I've worked, mostly part-time, for over ten years, is all about seeing the full complete person in front of you, finding answers to their questions, and being a gateway to knowledge sources and community they might not find elsewhere. The AWA method sees every person as a creative person and sees brilliance as being rooted in one being true to oneself. I've been using AWA in Green Windows workshops since 2008.
Through all these jobs, bits and pieces of work cobbled together to almost make a living in the Bay Area, I have learned a lot from young people in my community. The boys killed on the street in the "bad" parts of my town (parts I live and work in, happily) aren't just boys, they are our boys. I know the shooters and the shot and know choices they face and choices they do not have. Thanks to The Beat, I know a lot of their hopes and loves and dreams and I've seen those turn to despair when their future is no longer imaginable. I bring these hopes and these despairs into everything I do and they make up one basis of my understanding of my community. I am not the same person when, for example, on the same day, I hear news that a 24 year old I've known since he was 15 got his sentenced reduced from 84-years-to-life to 2 more years in the state juvenile facility and news that another, age 19, a youth worker himself, was shot and killed sitting in his car with his girlfriend. I don't want to not know this. I want to know these young people and I want all my decisions to be affected by these events, these youth, these victories and these losses.
Thanks to working with the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program for the library, I get to listen to youth speak out on race, gender and justice in ways that my generation cannot manage with such articulation and honesty and respect. And being able to witness teen writers support each other in Green Windows workshops has taught me about listening, about imagination, and about what being true to oneself means today in ways that deepen my trust in the future of our society, if these youth can continue to be themselves and be safe.
Today's youth give me hope. Not because they are simply the future, nor because of their own hope. Youth give me hope because they are brilliant, because I can see social progress made within them, because I have so much to learn from them, which means my own life is still evolving. We need to support them, trust them, believe in them, but not step back, not give over. As an adult, I want to continue to listen, to learn and to then see how I, with the wisdom and skills I've gained over fifty years, can help. Let me know if you, too, want to help.
And I truly do simply enjoy the company of teenagers. And I am deeply grateful to be doing work I love.
- Peggy Simmons
PS -if the skills and experience I've gained working with teens over the years could be of use to your group - of adult or youth - please let me know!
Catherine Mencher, Administrative and Operations Consultant, has been writing in Green Windows workshops for years. She has recently begun using her admin and operations skills a few hours per week to help Green Windows through this period of transition and growth. She's immediately become indispensable. Thank you, Cat! We asked her to share a little about her relationship with Green Windows as well as the powerful piece she wrote in the June Uniquely Yours workshop.
Why do I support Green Windows: Art of Interchange?
I hope to provide the Green Windows: Art of Interchange community with a drop of what it has given me – deep connections to folks with whom the daily rhythms of my life would not otherwise come into unison, a reconnection to how I cast myself as a child (as a writer) and a model for how to comprehend the world. Spaces like Green Windows are elusive in our face-in-screen society. How we participants write in Green Windows reveals and validates how we live. Some follow prompts with extreme fidelity, some throw them aside. By accepting the diversity in writing approach that others take, we see and honor their uniqueness, and in turn our own innate uniqueness. Green Windows inspires an authentic day-to-day curiosity, a wondering what each person we come into contact with would say if given a pen and paper and brought to our circle.
In my new role, what will I do for Green Windows: Art of Interchange?
I hope to increase the chances that someone comes into contact with the various offerings of Green Windows. The social media world can be a scary one, but I want to ensure Green Windows has a presence that increases the connections and long-term viability for its important work. I want to push the wheels on the grinding details, like data-keeping and grant-satisfying, so that Peggy can move the integral product, authentic connection and community-building, forward.
by Catherine Mencher
I didn’t like the aftermath. Jaw like sandpaper had scratched the bones and bases of the teeth. Memory of the lack of control, the learning that one tab of one finely hewed chemical could drop my inhibitions so totally.
I didn’t like looking back at standing jittery in the line at Walgreens buying bottles of lotion. I kept that knock off lotion for almost a decade. Finally throwing it away before I finished it. One bottle of aloe still haunts my toiletry drawer. Knowing how thin our line of control is.
I didn’t like what the chemicals in my mind had gotten me into the night before.
I do love hearing you in the morning. I so never want it to end. As I sit today I want to keep making babies so I can always hear MOM in the morning. I’m grateful I don’t have a six am shift. How easy it would be for our disconnect to build if I couldn’t hold you every morning, couldn’t be in a privileged group who know what you look like when you fall back to sleep: the adorably adult way you reach your arms up to yawn, trying to push yourself back under that cloak of sleep when the light’s teasing the outside.
I learned that I love strawberry cake when Jacob and Newton married. At some point the cake splat onto the grill at the wedding park. Erich, I love that you and a couple named Elizabeth and Maegan ate grill cake together and that we bonded about it in the bathroom line later.
I don’t like the word usurp. It seems like a word describing something that I tend to support happening, but it has a sneaky, gnarly feel to it, like something done the less ingenuous way.
I don’t like a lot of things anymore. I don’t like what it feels like when a baby throws rice all over the floor, which sticks flatly to your feet, requiring a peel off. I don’t like that caring for my child has made me bad at modeling austerity. How do I keep him hungry enough so he doesn’t waste food is not a question I ask myself much.
I do like the concept of personal change. I’m frustrated by the litmus test put on people in power. Why are they held accountable to not changing? Isn’t changing what makes a human?
How can I combine my passion for the issues of education equity, prison abolition and youth solidarity in one poem written in one thirteen-minute sitting? If you had asked me before 7pm Sunday night I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but as the sky changed hues we all straggled into a warehouse in North Oakland and sat down in semi-comfortable chairs for the Uniquely Yours workshop. We opened our notebooks and Peggy started feeding us prompts. A few new folks but most of us veterans of this workshop, coming almost every month and forming close-knit bonds around shared expression. I had something on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t taste it, couldn’t form it into the words that I wanted. My muse felt like an astronaut suspended in deep space with nothing to hold on to.
Then Peggy read the poem “Purple” by Alex Rotella and gave us the prompt, “Write about a moment when you were discouraged, or encouraged, or when you discouraged or encouraged somebody.” In this workshop it is assumed that everything we’re writing is fiction, even if it’s not. This gives us the freedom to write the truth while maintaining anonymity in our own experience. In other writing workshops I will write a piece and people will ask me about it as if the narrator is really me, Alec West, in real life, and the story I wrote was something that happened to me. Outside of Green Windows, I have to stop people and say, “This story is not about me.”
I don’t want what I say in a story or a poem to affect the relationships I have with my friends, my family, my readers, or the community at large. Outside of Green Windows, this happens whether I like it or not, but within the safe space that we all create together, I can write whatever I want, plumbing the pits of my soul for something I would never admit to my closest friend. When I share those secrets with the people around me through my writing, they nod and listen and tell me what they liked about it, then we move on. It never has to enter the relationships I form with those people outside of the workshop and it never leaves the room. With the safety afforded by Green Windows I can write freely and do the kind of self-exploratory work I need to do among others in my community who are doing the same thing.
I wrote this piece that night, based on that prompt. I thought about how discouraging it is for a teacher to have one of your students, someone much younger than you, die. I’m not revealing whether I’ve had that experience or not, but you can judge whether my writing resonates with you, and you can feel it if it is authentic.
To Be Judged
by Alec West
At twenty-four I was young to be a teacher whose student had died. Ricardo had what you would call a magnetic personality. He was tall and solid with long hair that descended to his shoulders like the coned branches of a pine tree. He wore the jail uniform like any piece of clothing you would wear. He seemed to have an air of acceptance of where he was and hope for where he was going. Both of these combined with patience, faith that he would get there, that took confidence. I only remember him really writing one piece in all of the writing workshops we had. He attended a lot of them, as he was in jail for six months after I got there and I don’t know how long he was in before.
Press play. Three months after he got out, a car crash. Ricardo was a passenger and he was dead. I’m not sure if he was 18 yet or not. I wrote in his obituary: “Almost as sad as his young death was how long he had to spend in jail.” Overall, Ricardo spent two and a half years in jail after he skipped out on probation to get a job so that he could support his family. A vast number of the people you will meet in jail are not there for their original crime, but for a violation such as staying out too late, or not checking in with their PO, things that are not illegal but could wind them back up in the system. Often these people are leading positive, productive lives and trying their best, but one misstep led them off track.
How many people are lost to parole violations, not even real crimes? How many are trapped behind walls when they could be connecting or creating with us? What if you were judged and your whole life was determined by what you did or what happened on your worst day?
There is a scene in the movie, “The Mustang” when a therapist asks a group of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes,
“How long from the idea of the crime to the committing of the crime?”
30 seconds. Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Less than half a second. The men answer with certainty as though a game show is asking them what they had for breakfast.
Can you judge the entire character of a person for an action committed without making a decision?
Do you feel safe?
I’m young in my teaching and I’ve only had one student die. I’ve known teachers who have lived through the deaths of several of their students. The loss we feel is mixed with blinding injustice as the world becomes a little less colorful, a little less vibrant, and we all become a little less powerful, despite the efforts we as teachers put out every day to keep the fire burning in our students’ hearts. Our students get snuffed out. We put our dreams into these children, and these children give hope back to us. Then, the system takes these children, takes them away from the rest of us. I am a teacher and I am in my twenties and I’ve had a student die. You can judge whether I am too young or whether this is too much, but this is the world we live in. I’m not ready to make a judgment about the world, and Ricardo will always remain perfect in my memory.
Do you feel safe?
Alec West is a teacher, activist, and author of What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV, his first book, available on Amazon. He lives in Oakland, but is moving to Richmond, and was born and raised in the East Bay. You can find him on Facebook: on instagram @alecwestwriter510, or writing in a local cafe.
Please submit a post about your experience in a Green Windows workshop or about social justice and artistic expression.