A lesson in empathy

I was blown away by the youth homelessness training program, The Ropes: Understanding and Engaging in Youth Homelessness. I expected a rigidly structured program that presented “scenario A” and then handed us “solution A.” Before even going, I resented what I assumed would be a simplified instruction manual on how to handle anything but simple situations. Reflecting on my own expectations, I feared an “us versus them” dichotomy would permeate the discussion.

Tristan Herman and Joseph Seia, the program leaders at New Horizons, knew better. They geared the three-hour conversation so that the fundamental question was not how can we handle youth homelessness, but how do we handle ourselves in the face of experiences we don’t understand. We could have spent the three hours combing through hyper-specific procedures for handling potential circumstances. Instead, Joe and Tristan compiled a list of effective strategies and spent the majority of the program developing one overarching tool – empathy.

We began the meeting with the important task of surfacing all societal and personal stereotypes. We shouted out the obvious misattributions of criminality and laziness that society unfairly imposes on homeless populations. Even though I recognize their fallacy on an intellectual level, I could feel my own prejudice gnaw at me as I voiced the stereotypes out loud. We deconstructed them. We found the kernel of truth in each stereotype and put it in the context of a system stained by internalized racism, self-fulfilling prophecies, and little upward mobility. I looked my own prejudice square in the face and saw how it distracted, how it dehumanized.

I come from a wealthy suburban town. I grew up in relatively stable family and living conditions. I’ve been afforded every opportunity in the world, and as consequence, I exude privilege. I don’t try to but it’s immediately obvious because it’s my reality – I’m lucky. So I carry a certain level of guilt in even trying to relate to individuals often defined by their misfortune. Tristan and Joe offered enormous insight in how they framed this dissonance.

First of all, youth experiencing homelessness develop a plethora of skills and character traits that demand my admiration:

  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience
  • Adaptability
  • An unmatched will to survive

I’m envious of how kids my age possess such self-reliance. That’s worth recognizing.

Furthermore, these youth exist in a vastly different culture than I do, however their decision-making rationale is quite similar. They have to keep warm in difficult weather conditions, stay awake in case of danger, and endure the monotony of the day. They develop coping mechanisms. I would too. They must quickly acclimate themselves with street power dynamics, sometimes choosing between survival and morality. I would make the same choice every time. They develop a routine and sense of normalcy that makes uprooting their life on the streets undesirable. I seek a similar comfort in my own normalcy. The skills they develop to survive on the streets translate poorly to a work environment, just as my writing skills would do nothing for me on the streets.

I left the training sessions feeling a little less removed from the struggles these youth face. I didn’t have any more understanding of their experiences, but a greater appreciation for their choices – their human choices. I could see why they were stuck. I would be stuck too.

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Sand Point Housing’s young artists

Eleven young artists discovered the Officer’s Club at the Magnuson Park Gallery. This former office of a naval commander became a worksite for young residents of Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing community. These teens now look out the window to see the fruition of their own leadership – 12 vibrant art panels breathing life back into a decrepit brick building.

IMG_3765

Eight finished panels installed on one side of the building.

The Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange (SPACE) has long sought a solution for the slowly deteriorating building across from the gallery. With the City of Seattle investing funds to stabilize it, and future development projects expected, installing art panels on the exterior walls provides an immediate solution for threading cultural value into the building. The Department of Neighborhoods’ substantial contribution and the Seattle Parks and Recreation staff and financial help made hiring a contractor and art teacher feasible. The 11 teens infused the spirit of their community into the artwork.

Abdi

Sand Point youth paints the corner of a panel.

The teaching artist, Angela Larsen, implemented a process that promised a professional product while staying true to the young artists’ vision and work. The teens began their project by exploring color palettes, and learning how to adjust color shades by mixing paint. They then walked through the park, finding inspiration in plant textures and nature’s own artwork. Angela combined the feedback from the kids, and her own Scandinavian design ethic, and created a design outline that exclusively used three shades of green and three shades of red. In the coming four Saturdays, the young artists put paint to panel and brought the design plan to fruition.

As all good work deserves, the young artists will be paid a $150 stipend at a celebratory barbecue in the near future. However, that paycheck does not fully represent the value the panel project provides to the community and the participants. The Executive Director of SPACE, Julianna Ross, observed “how their skills improved from the first session to the last session. They knew how to load the brush, and make the lines… they gained some skills!” She commented on the warranted pride many of the teens felt for the panels. Working so many hours on the panels familiarized the resident teens with the gallery building and other areas they had not known existed. Showcasing their artwork on a main street bridges a comfort gap between the families living in the park and the community park buildings.

The young artists look up at the paintings and recognize that it’s their work, that they made it for the community. If you can afford their rate, enlist them in another mural project. Their paint brushes are ready.

Digging deep (at the Danny Woo Garden)

This post was contributed by Lauren Wong and originally appeared on the Apple Corps blog.magill_dannywoo_image-59

Hello! I’m Lauren, one of two Apple Corps members positioned at the Danny Woo Garden in the Chinatown-International District. We provide garden classes to youth in the neighborhood in the hopes that they’ll learn more about where their food comes from, have a positive outdoor experience, and form connections between culture and food. Also incorporated in our program is a healthy cooking component, where we use vegetables harvested from the garden to create delicious salads and snacks.

This spring, I had magill_dannywoo_image-65the pleasure of working with a class of fifteen 5th graders from a local after-school program. Since many of them were already acquainted with the garden – either through a previous garden class or a simple meander through the neighborhood – we were able to delve a little deeper into the heart of the garden and what exactly makes it tick.

We planted microgreen seeds in our own plots and watched them grow, carefully watering and removing weeds each week to gain a sense of the time and effort required to grow our own food. We went on a scavenger hunt to discover the regional origins of different vegetables and dug around in a worm bin looking for critters. We made comfrey compost tea, a great source of nitrogen, and observed it become brown and pungent over time.

We prepared an Asian greens salad, a crunchy bok choy slaw, and a sweet and savory dressing that goes well on everything:

  • 1 T soy sauce
  • 1 T rice vinegar
  • 1 T honey
  • 2 T sesame oil

We harvested garden strawberries and compared them to supermarket strawberries, noticing the differences in taste, color, size, and shape. We investigated seed pods on a mature kale plant, sparking a discussion about the importance of seed saving. And to cap off our time together, we even had an “older kids teach younger kids” tour, where my class of 5th graders brought a class of first graders to the garden and showed them what they learned.

All in all, it was a lovely six weeks of sunshine, food, and joy. Want to learn more about what we do? Visit our blog at dannywookids.blogspot.com.

COMPARED TO WHAT?

Poetry zine gives voice to Sand Point Housing youthCover of Compared to What? A publication of Solid Ground's Sand Point Young Artist Workshop

The youth who live at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus do not see themselves as a continuation of their parents’ lives. “I get super annoyed when I am compared,” one girl says. “It’s just irritating because that is just saying that you don’t really know who I am if I am being compared.”

Thus the title COMPARED TO WHAT? was born for the zine that developed out of a writing and arts workshop series Solid Ground held last fall for the older teens living with their families at Sand Point, a neighborhood of 175 households at the old Naval Station of Puget Sound in Magnuson Park.

The workshops were based in the principle that everyone’s voice should be heard. Starting with writing sessions led by Seattle storyteller and educator Kathya Alexander, they continued with photography and design sessions led by Solid Ground staff. Through it all, young people found their voices. “Their growth was beautiful to see,” says Christina Shimizu, Annual Giving Officer at Solid Ground and one of the staff supporters of this youth-driven project.

Creative prompts helped unleash the power of the pen

Starting out with writing prompts and progressing to original poems helped the participants feel comfortable, not only with writing, but also with one another. Within this supportive group setting, the youth quickly gained confidence and began to share their personal experiences – an important outlet for previously homeless youth who have not had many opportunities to express themselves creatively.

One of the teens comments about the project, “This is the first time we are actually getting heard, with a different point of view. Our point of view. We think differently from the way adults think. We can also teach adults how we think, because our generation is so different than your guys’ generation. I feel like we know so much more.”

I am a rare solar eclipse
Gray and overlooked
A tough cactus
Midnight, calm and relaxing
I am needed like air
A glistening diamond
The illusion that the sky is blue”

Teen photographer After a few writing sessions, Sand Point Case Manager and experienced photographer, Bellen Drake, led a photography workshop focused on visual aspects of the storytelling process. She spent a day with the youth taking photos and teaching them to use their cameras to capture the essence of their experiences, which for most is shaped by poverty-induced instability. Although most of the poets moved into long-term housing years ago and no longer identify as being homeless, Bellen notes that “it was a valuable opportunity to reflect on a time that impacted them as children, and they have now grown out of. It was a time in their past; homelessness is not their current situation.”

There were multiple leaders within the group and it was an entirely collaborative effort to put the zine together and publish it in January. The poems and images bring to mind the vividness of young romance and deep angst, mixed with materialistic egos and happy innocence. The young artists reveal their dreams and aspirations of growing up, as well as their multidimensional approach to discovering the answers to “What is Justice?”

COMPARED TO WHAT? showcases this unique community and amplifies voices that too often go unheard.

Our published writers & artists are: Ayanle Abdikadir (Abdi), Mohamed Abdikadir, Nya Rambang, Marie, Sahvannah Glenn, Maar Rambang, Heaven, Ryahnna, Geo, Chris Gainey, Ben Dessalegne, Jen Matapula, Andrea R, Deiosha Sparks.

To get your copy of Compared to What? or learn more about how you can support the youth at Sand Point Housing, contact Christina Shimizu at christinas@solid-ground.org.

Skool Haze: Part 2

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just how does a white teacher communicate identity and belonging to a black child or teen? Is their legitimate concern enough? Are a set of classroom guidelines and good intent enough to fill in the chasm of “who am I in relation to what you are?” Is the fact that they’re there enough? If a child doesn’t understand the power and pain of their skin color, how will a white teacher assist with this? How can a white teacher provide a young black male with the tools to survive when that teacher has no concept of the child’s reality and/or destiny?

See where I’m going with these questions? White people can’t teach identity to black people regardless of what their intent is. Nope, can’t be done. So it isn’t a question of is harm being done to our kids, it’s more a question of how do we mitigate the damage? What do those white eyes see when they look at our black children? Are they peering across the great divide of privilege and looking at blacks like they think they will never amount to anything?

I can say from the truth of my own life that white teachers give up on black kids, and they do it routinely. Sometimes it’s because they are unable to recognize intellect in any other population other than their own, and sometimes it’s because they can’t comprehend the import of being entrusted with black children. They look at their students and quietly categorize them and then funnel them to whatever they believe their potential to be. Simply because one chooses to teach or feels they have the aptitude doesn’t mean they have the skill to work with populations other than their own.

Mr. Hagen was a good white teacher, for good white kids. But for his black students, he was sorely lacking in empathy and understanding. These traits can only be cultivated in a teacher who is intellectually curious and courageous enough to step outside of their whiteness to see the true challenges of all of their students. It’s clear there will never be enough black teachers, but there is no end to bad white teachers. This is a sad and inexcusable deficit, and the response to this should be in keeping with the need. The fact is white teachers have a hard time understanding their kids of color, and this is a lack of knowledge and experience we can’t afford. These teachers should be exposed to as many aspects of the student’s life as possible.

I’ve met many people who were well-meaning, but who were singularly unqualified to do the jobs that were gifted to them through privilege. Teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and politicians – all horrendously bad at their jobs but are well protected by their skin color – ensconced in a strata of unearned benefits. This is the sad mirage of social good: People get so caught up in helping, they forget that working with these populations takes training and the willingness to be introspective. To teach and to help, one must be absolutely ready to learn.

Immersing young black kids in a white cultural experience they will never have full access to is an unavoidable and abusive act. It sets these kids up to think they will never be good enough because they aren’t white. America’s prisons are filled with men who thought that they weren’t good enough either. They were systematically taught to live up to no expectations.

But in the end, you know what scares me more than white teachers? White social workers who work in tandem with them and who collectively think that the key to balancing a social ill is a program or a guilt-laden vocabulary that will have no effect on anyone who doesn’t innately care anyway. The unconscious analyses of whites scare me, because privilege is so easy to forget if it’s the sea you swim in.

There’s nothing more dangerous than people who think they know what they’re doing simply because they care.

Upower: Combining physical fitness & confidence for youth

Growing up, there was never any question about whether or not I would be able to play softball for my high school. I played co-ed tee ball when I was 8, then graduated to slow-pitch for a community center team in middle school, and finally moved on to fast-pitch at Roosevelt High School. I had my very own uniform with a bright green “22” on the back of my gold-and black-striped jersey and stretchy Kelly green pants.

Sure, I didn’t have the nicest mitt in the outfield and sometimes getting to and from practice or games was difficult with two working parents and no car to transport myself. But I never questioned that playing sports was something that would ever be out of reach for me or anybody else. That it was a privilege within itself. Until I heard about Upower.

Andrea & Deiosha

Andrea & Deiosha

Upower is a nonprofit organization that brings fitness activities, specifically CrossFit, to high school teens in underserved communities. For families living on low incomes, opportunities for physical activity can be few and far between. Not all teens can afford participation in club or varsity sports, so Upower partners agencies that serve youth and local schools with fitness outlets to offer this free afterschool program that focuses on improving physical fitness in a safe environment for youth.

This year, a guidance counselor at Roosevelt High School looking to recruit more teens for the program put Jill Beck, co-founder and coach at Upower, in contact with Joanna Tarr, Children’s Advocate for the youth living on our Sand Point Housing Campus. “Being able to work with someone who knows these kids as much as Joanna does enables us to make sure the kids are successful. That’s why the partnership is important,” says Jill.

Attendance is mandatory for students and coaches. The experienced fitness coaches – in which there are at least two in every class – act as mentors for the teens, so they’re expected to have a “90% attendance rate, which is the same as the students. When you can’t come to work, you don’t just NOT show up! We’ve established that with our kids. They want to be accountable,” says Jill.

When it comes to the instructors, “We expect them to develop those relationships with these kids. When they develop a relationship, talk a little bit of trash back and forth, then that’s great.” Jill earned her spot as a crowd favorite. “Jill was there, always on top of things, making sure you had a goal in the first place. I bonded a lot with Jill,” says Andrea Rodriguez Fabian, 16, one of the Roosevelt students living at Sand Point who participated in the program.

Another participant, Deiosha Sparks, 15, says of the coaches, “They don’t let you slack or anything. They make sure you have done something new each day. They let you do what you do best. And you’ll be coming home sore and sweaty but after that day you’ll be like, ‘Wow, did I just do that?’ You feel really good about yourself!” Even Joanna noticed the positive effects of the workouts. “They would come home every day a little sweaty, looking a little tired, but with big smiles on their faces.” Even though school is out for summer, those smiles were still present.

Deiosha showing off her fave move: chest-to-bar pull-ups!

Deiosha showing off her fave move: chest to bar pull-ups!

“They push you hard to reach your goals, and they try to make it fun, too. I had some trouble with the pull-ups but I managed to try it out and put myself out there,” says Andrea. Andrea started the program stepping onto a 12-inch box, but by the end of the program was jumping onto an 18-inch box! Deiosha says, “It made me reach higher for my goals. Because I’m very active, but I didn’t have a lot of upper body strength, so it made me push harder to try something new.” Like chest to bar pull-ups. “I had never gotten my chest all the way up so one day I did it and I was really excited.” Deiosha says excitedly, reliving the moment as she speaks.

The classes are designed to help kids maintain a healthy weight and develop healthy habits – lifting their physical confidence – which can positively affect their academic performance. Beyond the goals of physical fitness, the UPower classes use an inclusive approach: the belief that anyone can be an athlete, as long as they believe in themselves. And this belief can also have an impact on the mental health of teens. “It’s about cheering on other people,” says Jill. Obviously, it works. “My confidence,” Andrea smiles when I ask her what she gained from the program. Andrea also recognizes the intensity of the classes, but encourages others to participate if they have the opportunity. “At first it might seem hard, but by the end it’s all worth it for your own benefit,” she says. Deiosha nods in agreement. “It’s very positive because it makes you think you can do things you never thought you could do.”

In order to create that positive attitude in class, instructors focus on creating activities that are inclusive of all levels of fitness and socioeconomic backgrounds. “For example, we held a Nutrition Challenge in the spring. Our nutritionist didn’t make it about shopping at Whole Foods, because not everybody can afford that. The first week of our challenge was to substitute water for sugary beverages. That doesn’t cost you anything; that actually saves you money!” Jill explained.

Inclusion seems to be a common theme at Upower. Every new student is interviewed in order to get to know them and their ambitions, as well as any existing obstacles such as lack of workout attire, which is graciously donated to UPower by members of Northwest Crossfit (NWCF).“They feel normal when they’re not wearing ‘kind-of, sort-of’ workout clothes,” says Jill. The space is also donated by Jake Platt, NWCF owner.

Moving forward, Jill tells me that, “We look forward to expanding the partnership for the upcoming school year. We’re there to provide a positive place for these kids. We don’t know what’s going on with them or what challenges they have, but we reward good attitude and effort and pushing yourself to be better than what you were an hour earlier. We hope to act as a stepping stone that can help the kids break the cycle of poverty.”

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Olympic Hills Elementary School’s ‘Walking School Bus’ route gets a makeover

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, volunteers and members of Feet First – an agency dedicated to creating walkable cities and neighborhoods – set out to clean up a path frequently taken by students on their way school.  Drew Devitis, Feet First’s Volunteer Coordinator and a Solid Ground Apple Corps Member, led the project along with Apple Corps Member Zoe Harris. We would like to share the following article Drew wrote describing the project and experience.

Before & after image of Walking School Bus stair route

Before & after image of Walking School Bus stair route (photo by Feet First)

On a cool, crisp January morning, twenty volunteers gathered at Seattle’s Olympic Hills Elementary School to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and serve the greater community at large. Several compassionate volunteers from Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Radiology, along with some independent volunteers, joined Feet First in cleaning up the route of a Walking School Bus, a parent-led walking group that leads students to school on “Two Feet Tuesdays.” The passion and commitment from these volunteers definitely fit the character of the day as well as the creative altruism that MLK, Jr. espoused.

The focus of the volunteer project was on cleaning up a staircase and walkway within yards of Olympic Hills Elementary, which is one of four Seattle schools currently participating in a Safe Routes to School initiative supported by Feet First. This walkway had fallen into disarray over the past several years. Thorny blackberry bushes and wild entanglements of English ivy had been steadily encroaching upon the stairs, making it feel like an uninviting place for kids walking to school. Moreover, rain soaked leaves, slippery pine needles, and other debris littered the walkway, making it potentially hazardous for children and adults alike.

Before and after bramble cleanup (photo from Feet First)

Before & after bramble cleanup (photo by Feet First)

In order to approach the task at hand, volunteers formed two separate work groups. One set of volunteers, armed with rakes, brooms and clippers, tended to cleaning the walkway and trimming the vegetative growth that was encroaching the stairs. The other group, equipped with loppers and shovels, concentrated on removing a thick patch of blackberry bushes, which had overtaken the bottom of the staircase and made the path feel like a rather uninviting place. After a few hours of hard work, the staircase and walkway became a much more appealing place to walk.

By the end of the day, volunteers had impressively filled up an entire dumpster with invasive species and assorted yard waste. The stairs, which had been obscured by the thicket of blackberries, are now clearly visible from the street. Additionally, mulch was spread throughout the site where the blackberry bushes had once been, creating a warm, pleasing feel.  A neighbor driving by in her car even stopped to get out and thank the volunteers for all their hard work in transforming this public walkway into a more pleasant, welcoming space.

“You would be surprised how much of a difference a clean, inviting walkway can make to enrich the experience for kids walking to school,” says Jen Cole, Safe Routes to School Program Director. “The effort to clean this once untidy walkway, combined with the installation of safety flag buckets in the nearby area, will really go a long way to make the Olympic Hills neighborhood safer for walking.”

This project was made possible by volunteers from Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Radiology through the United Way of King County, and the community of Olympic Hills Elementary School. We’re also thankful for the support of Public Space Management Program, Development Lead Jennifer Wieland and the Seattle Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Division, which generously provided the materials used for this project.

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