Youth build community to combat the chaos
The summer of 2010, the Youth Empowerment through Conflict Resolution Program expanded its conflict resolution and mediation training to middle school students at the Higher Achievement Program’s 6 week summer learning program. Mediation helped resolve conflicts not only between scholars, but between scholars and staff. In 7/8 of the mediations, the situation was resolved. None of the disputants needed further mediation.
Higher Achievement’s summer program ends with a college field trip. I decided to accompany the group on a side trip to play mini golf. During the trip a group of boys began to harass a group of our boys. The boys of Higher Achievement tried hard to ignore it but as the others harassment increased, so did Higher Achievement student’s frustration. I spent much of the trip talking to the boys I consider to have the greatest influence on the rest of the group. I knew as long as the leaders stayed calm, the entire group would stay calm.
This was working, more or less, until one of the harassing kids said “your mother” to one of the Higher Achievement boys. This boy’s mother just so happened to be suffering from cancer, and so he burst into tears. Because he is also one of the smaller seventh graders, the rest of the Higher Achievement boys and some girls, ran to his rescue, beginning to both comfort him, and verbally attack the harassers. Things escalated as words and violent body language began to flare between the two groups. Staff began to slowly move the scholar onto the busses to go back to the college. Unfortunately, some of the Higher Achievement boys decided to approach the other group of boys as if to fight them. I had to physically block many of them and pull them back on the bus. We finally were able to get all of them on the bus as the other boys were throwing rocks at the bus and swinging a bat around.
After settling the boys down on the bus, Tony, a young man I had picked out as a leader, began to pour out his emotions. He began to talk about his home situation, and how he acts out as school to mask his feelings, saying “No one knows what I go through at home.” He also talked about how, as a member of Higher Achievement, he sometimes feels he has to prove himself with violent actions because outsiders see him as a “punk” or “corny.” As the other boys on the bus supported him by telling their own stories, they talked about how they were building a family and that they were like brothers to each other. “When they hurt, I hurt” many of them said as they saw others cry. Tony asked to have a larger group discussion once the group returned to the college.
Upon returning, the boys facilitated a discussion with the rest of the group as the staff surrounded them to watch. Scholars stood up one by one, telling their own stories and giving words of encouragement. Shawnteale, a member of my conflict resolution class, stood up and said, “it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you wear, I Iove all of you, even if I don’t know you that well, we need to stop talking down about one another.” In that statement, she summed up what the students needed to hear to wrap up a hard summer as they continue to transition into young adulthood.
That night was not only a reminder of what these children face every day, but a reaffirmation of what they are capable of, and the importance of providing a safe space where youths can talk about issues. With the exception of my voice to highlight the points that connected them all, this conversation was for and by the students themselves.