Showing love, grace and kindness to youth

An interview with Alex Jones, AFSC St. Louis Program Coordinator

By Jon Krieg

Alex Jones (they/them) was recently promoted from Organizing Fellow in St. Louis to Program Coordinator. “Alex has gone above and beyond in singlehandedly keeping the program afloat for the last several months, and we are fortunate that they agreed to step into this new role,” said Sharon Goens-Bradley, Regional Director of AFSC’s Midwest Region.

AFSC launched its retooled Peer Mediation project in two St. Louis high schools in October 2023. The work promotes nonviolent alternatives to conflict by strengthening young people’s networks and increasing their abilities to self-regulate. Youth hone skill sets that foster community resilience that mitigates punitive systemic force. The young people appreciate the space provided for them and the chance to learn useful de-escalation skills.

As a Program Coordinator, Alex will continue working in schools in St. Louis, incorporating work around AFSC’s Think Twice Before Calling the Police campaign and helping with some broader organizational goals. They recently shared more about their experiences.

Q: Please tell us about yourself, your work and your vision of healing justice.

I am originally from northern New Jersey and am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in African and African American studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

I'm running AFSC’s peer mediation program at two St. Louis public schools, Vashon and Gateway. The program at those schools is going well. But that is just a small part of the overall objective of healing justice and trying to intervene on punitive and disciplinary measures against Black and brown youth in schools.

Part of our work is also brokering these relationships and building coalitions with other organizations in the city that have similar objectives.

I have this vision of how I want to facilitate healing for the community. I am on the ground with people who are doing this coalition work, and I have these connections to the community. I think that's really important, because walking into a community and not having these intimate relationships and trying to insert yourself, especially as a nonprofit -- that’s a slippery slope.

I've been on the executive boards of multiple affinity organizations and I've done a lot of coalition building work. I've done a lot of organizing work during protests in St. Louis especially in 2020, but also continuing with recent protests against genocide in Palestine.

Q:  What’s your experience working with young people, particularly with a focus on organizing for change at a systemic level?

The premise of our peer mediation program is for students to be able to heal themselves within their own communities. I work with students during a facilitation advisory period and an open space.

Students in the St. Louis Public Schools system are heavily policed and monitored. AFSC provides students a space to come to deescalate, but also to empower them to heal and protect their own community without the intervention of authoritarian figures and punitive and disciplinary measures.

Our program addresses the students’ own social and emotional wellness and helps facilitate spaces for them to advocate for themselves and intervene on punitive processes in schools that are harming the communities.

St. Louis Public Schools are 81% Black, and they just got their accreditation back. There’s a generation of students between 2007 and 2017 whose degree meant nothing. It had no credit -- they couldn't submit it to a college, they couldn't submit it anywhere. That was punishment because the students were perceived as unruly, aggressive, and troublesome.

Q: How do you sustain trust with school leadership in order to advocate for the students?

At one school it was a lot easier because the assistant principal had wanted our program. They were looking for more restorative measures because the district was basically threatening to take the school’s accreditation. It was much easier for me to work with administration there because they genuinely wanted to have more restorative practices.

The school itself wasn't necessarily punitive, but the district was punitive. To the district, the school was considered a last-chance school. If you got kicked out of another school, they would just dump you in this school.

A lot of the kids were coming in in the middle of the semester, and the district would be dressing down the school. I was there one day when there was a fight, and they said, “We need metal door detectors at every door,” even though there's only one entrance and exit.

That just speaks to the district's attitude towards the students at that school, many of whom haven't been in school for a minute or have situations where this is their only option. They may have high support needs in regard to processing their trauma.

At that school, I think that the administration was much more understanding, willing and open-minded. So my relationship with them was very harmonious because they saw that need to intervene on punishment.

At the other school, that is more of an example of having to build trust because the administration didn't really want me there. It was much more teacher led. There were teachers who actively saw a need for this.

The principal has definitely become more agreeable, too. My showing up to their staff meetings has helped -- and also showing results, and creating connections with students, because the students also want this.

I feel their guard kind of got let down once we did our first facilitation. A situation had escalated, and so they sent it to peer mediation, and we were able to do deescalate it. Nothing went further.

I feel that just being in practice, being in space with students and showing that the ways that we're handling students are helpful and effective. This brought down the level of wariness or the sense among some that “this is a bunch of new-age garbage.”

It helps to see it in action, how peer mediation works, and being in relation to students without asserting power. Showing love, grace and kindness to the youth in the building and really just acknowledging and centering their feelings and experiences is effective.

Q: How do you take care of yourself amid such a busy life of work, school and activism?

I do my regular therapy appointments and I’m very intentional about the ways that I unwind when I come home after school, after my class, after a community event. I make sure my needs are met and my cat's needs are met.

It is challenging in reaching a balance with the wellness of your body and your mind and maintaining the spirit of showing up every day. Because that's also hard, being your full self while having a higher organizational standard. Being able to multitask and see all the things that are happening in a day.

I do a lot of coregulation with the people around me. I’ll invite friends over and I'll cook dinner with them. I’ll indulge in my hobbies. I tried knitting for a little bit. Making space for my hobbies and my interests outside of what is very emotionally intensive work. Making sure that I'm still pouring into myself, my interests, the things that I want out of life, the things that I love about life.

I love computers and anime. I like manga. Really just making time for those interests and those hobbies so that I retain my personhood -- and my personal desires along with my global and intrinsic desires for the world.