Mentors of Youth Offer Insights into the Worlds of Young People

Mentors of Youth Offer Insights into the Worlds of Young People

Marilyn Hunter is a former teacher and education advocate. She was active in city-wide parent organizing during the 1980s when her children attended Baltimore City Schools, and she worked for 17 years as an organizer for the Maryland State Teachers Association. She recently retired from that position, but not from the fight for a better world. The following interviews represent a collection of phone conversations, face-to-face meetings, and written correspondence between Marilyn Hunter and mentors of young people around the city. They are based loosely on a prompt composed of three questions: 1) How do the young people you work with see themselves and their place in society in these very turbulent times? 2) What hopes do they have for the future – both in terms of their own individual life paths and for the kind of society and community they hope to grow up into? 3) In your role as teacher, mentor, and friend to many young people in Baltimore, what kind of adults do you hope they will be and what knowledge and values are you working to share with them to prepare them for (to make) their future? Sharayna Christmas-Rose is Executive Director of Muse 360 and Artistic Director and Instructor of its Raynfall Dance Studio. Muse 360 offers students esteem programming through choreography, dance history, language, and geography via exploration workshops and field trips. SCR: Their hopes? I don’t know if you can say if they have real “hopes” without knowing them better. They’re not saying things like, "I’m going to become an engineer." When you ask them what they want, they might say they want to be a doctor. They may think about their future, but they are under such pressure in the here and now. They’ve got to piece it together – and there are a lot of conflicts. But in the way they treat each other, I see a lot of disrespectful behavior. That may be the way their world is, but that’s not how you are going to be able to get anywhere. They’ll say things are just fine or that other people are just ignorant. But then they act in the same way. We want them to be successful. But to do that, they have to have a true sense of who they are. If we expect youth to take over, we’ve got to educate them beyond the classroom. They are watching BET and that seems like those people have it, the way it should be. But, really, to make a conscious living, that’s how it should be. Even when I look at my own life I see that a lot of us have false hopes for the future. If you don’t understand your place in society, you pursue a path and you get to the place where you say, "Hey, I’m 30. What’s going on?" Our objective is that the students will be able to answer who they are. We start with them. There is so much turmoil in their lives. It’s not a case of “us” against “them.” Thirty years ago African-Americans faced a situation where it was like, "I have dark skin so people won’t deal with me at all." But now, for these young people, we’re dealing with a color complex where lighter skin, straighter hair - where the concept of beauty that’s pushed - is a European concept. We have to talk about what is our concept of beauty. We have to look in the mirror and love who we are. When they look in the mirror they’re asking, "Do I like what I see?" Too many have learned to hate the things that are originally theirs. It’s not about cosmetics or wavy hair, but what is originally ours. Of course, everyone is not the same and doesn’t have the same taste, but we have to love who we are. How can you make a difference? It’s a sad conversation when you have to talk about the way you look. You see the pictures of naked celebrities on magazine covers and you understand that young people look up to that. They feel that’s power and success. It brings us to talk about history. We have to go back to centuries ago to understand these things. During one of our sessions we read a letter from Adwa . The reaction of the kids was shock: "They fought back!" They hear the history of slavery and all they think about is the oppression. We re-enacted the battle so they could learn about it. We talked about Nat Turner. For one young man from DC, that was what resonated. He felt empowered to know that people fought back. We talked about how severe the repercussions were, but this is just another reality check. We are trying to bring all these things together. I think affects a lot of youth, to see a person of color in that position. For people who haven’t been through the 60s, it’s really empowering. The community changes with us – we can’t expect Barack Obama to get in there and just take care of everything. He’s going to have a lot on his plate. We can’t expect people not to be disillusioned if they think he can do it alone. But with Barack Obama, it’s an opportunity to take a look at where we are in society. But they need to be able to talk with us about that. We’re trying to build an army of intellectuals. If we can reach only ten, that’s important. When they go home, they are talking with their friends, and they read. * * * * * Robin Bingham is a high-school English teacher in the Baltimore Public School System. She teaches youth in East Baltimore who are between 14 and 17 years old. RB: Our young people take what we give them; they take their values from us. In general kids are very materialistic, and often their dreams are of having more money and more stuff. But then, what are we giving them? We are giving them inadequate schools with very few resources and few afterschool activities. We are giving them very little opportunity to dream and try out their own talents or believe they have a voice in the world. At the same time, we give them beautiful television sets with fantastic commercials. Some of them get beautiful clothes and all the others see these clothes. Some of them get Playstations and motor bikes and all the others see these things, too. That is what we are giving them. School has become a place where you learn how to take a test, and school is no longer seen by anyone (teachers, parents, society in general) as a place where you learn your own strengths and learn a trade that takes advantage of those strengths with which you will make a living and contribute to society. Since there is little beauty in this version of school, it is natural that kids would turn to where the beauty is - in the television commercials and in the things their friends bring home from the stores. Of course, hopes are different for different kids. Often they hope for a lot of unattainable things like being a football player or a big rap star. I do an activity at the beginning of the year in which I have them express a goal. I tell them you can’t make the goal about school. You have to make it long-term. They say things like I want to be a nurse, have a house, a nice car. They are really simple goals. It’s nice. Having a house, having kids, taking care of their mothers, these sweet aspirations are things that they all want. I’m sometimes surprised by how mature they are. They want things that are very comfortable to want. Do they have a realistic grasp of how difficult the path is in front of them? I think they do. The kids I work with are inner city kids who have had a rough time up to now. Their aspirations can sometimes be very low. But they do know how tough it is. They know that college will cost so much money and they don’t have that money. Their dreams are either so out there and big – or they’re even more realistic than they should be! Someone will talk about being on the basketball team, but then doesn’t try out. Is this purposefully delusional because it is such a steep climb? Another student’s goal might be to get his CDL license . That’s a good basic goal. He can do that without going through all sorts of crazy stuff. But does that limit him? They’re young. I think their goals should be a lot more “dreamy” than they actually are. I’ve struggled a lot with what knowledge and values I’m working to share with them to prepare them for the future. As an English teacher, the most practical thing I’m teaching young people is how to read and encouraging practice. Is this going to be useful to them? It’s not a trade. I’m big on hands-on experience and there’s not much of that at school. The thing I like is the deeper ethical conversations you can have through literature. Everyone can participate and get something from conversations like that, no matter what your goal is. The deeper issue is will they be able to think about the bigger questions that everyone thinks about and have these outside voices to reflect on? I’ve only recently come to that and I think that’s what school is about. Of course, half the time I’m struggling with the kids who can’t read, are bored to death or who are turned off on school because they don’t see the point. This is my answer. All of us can talk about this. It does work, but it does take a lot of thought. It’s what I hold on to when I ask myself, “What am I doing?” * * * * * Mama Kay Lawal-Muhammad, artistic director, and Mama Rashida Foreman-Bey, program director, of Wombwork Productions, a lead production company that works with students in efforts to preserve and re-empower families and communities through creative art, dance, and theater expression. Wombworks works with young people from all over the city. The main ages of the youth range from 14-21, but some start a little earlier and some come back and participate as members through their 20s. MK: (Commenting on young people’s materialism) That’s America! That’s the glitter and gold. It touches everyone, it doesn’t matter what your socio-economic or ethnic background is. Some schools are better than others, though. Some are like college; some don’t have toilet paper. It’s such a divide! It’s difficult to talk about my own perspective and how I view the young people we work with because we are about helping them have their own voice and I’d rather they speak for themselves. We have a new group of kids who have been with us less than a year, who are learning to find themselves. They are working to internalize the idea of community. The young people we’ve been working with for a long time have been working in the community and many of them see themselves as almost like workers or ambassadors of change. MR: Young people come and grow and then a new generation comes and the first generation mentors them. What we learn and do affects the next generation down to the seventh generation. MK: They realize that they do have a voice and that what they say is powerful, because they are being sincere. They’ve internalized the idea that one person can make a difference. Through what they say to community in the production, they change lives. They see themselves as making the community better. MR: We teach them to open their mind to racism, to the horror of society, the beauty of society, the beauty of the all and the many. We’ve survived, tackled HIV, gang violence, suicide prevention. They’re invested and have personally experienced it in a spiritual manner. Everything they touch raises their level of spirituality. MK: We’re now working on the marriage of art and science. We wouldn’t be able to do this without the work we’ve already done. They are quite capable, saying “Bring it on. Let us try. Let us take it on. Let us think about it and regurgitate it and share it with others.” The unknown isn’t something they fear. They are looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly and sharing it with the community. MR: We’re all learning. We talk with the young people about never being satisfied. They work with their minds and hearts and open them up. It’s such a high to work with them. It heals our souls to help them - to open them up to believe that they can be anything. MK: They’ve experienced horrors. One helps to restore the others. There are young people with negative ideas of their body image. They learn and grow and then those who’ve never liked to move, or thought they had a voice, are using their bodies and working with their voices. MK: Because we research the topics we use in our productions – from history to HIV/AIDS – this helps to give them a historical perspective. You can’t give young people a future without giving them a perspective of what’s happened here in this country and the world. MR: In terms of their hopes for themselves and the community, one thing I know is I personally am hopeful. It’s hard to speak for how the young people feel. I believe that we are living in times that are going to force people to bring up their level of love. People are going to have to depend on each other. People are choosing between food, medicine, and paying the electric bill. There are a lot more people feeling that. It is going to cause people to come together in a very different way. MK: The majority of our young people are African-American. Times have been tough for them and now universally we are looking at a little more even ground. Barack Obama has elevated the hearts and minds of many young people. Never have I heard them talk so much about what is happening today. Ambivalent? Yes, I am. It’s frightening. We’re watching the fall of America. But these young people are lifted in a way I have never seen. MR: Whatever they face in the future, it’s the same work they are going to be doing in the community. They will keep going. MK: Right now we don’t have a dime. But we’re working harder, we have a dream. And you know, struggle purifies. We believe in the struggle – many are going to be elevated and I think a more universal vision is upon us.