Doug Glover was good enough to publish this account of our work and my own uncertainties in the February 2014 issue of Numero Cinq. Which you can read here.
Imagine working in an office where as people enter they hug and kiss all their co-workers every morning. You start the day with about a dozen hugs and kisses and of course more each time you leave and return. Here we might call it sexual harassment. But I loved these gestures of affection and solidarity while I was collaborating with Educar es fiesta, [www.educaresfiesta.org] a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, serving young people living in difficult circumstances and families in crisis.
Edson Quezada, known to all as "Queso" -- Cheese (from his last name, not because he's the Big Cheese) founded the organization believing that training in the arts is also training for life, that children have an intrinsic natural right to joy, and learning must go hand-in-hand with happiness.
Educar es fiesta draws young people into the program by offering theatre and circus arts--trapeze, aerial dance, juggling, unicycles, gymnastics, even some tightrope-walking, to develop self-expression, self-confidence, and perseverance. The kids learn that to develop a new skill, they may fail many times till they achieve success. The traditional schoolroom is too often a site
of frustration, failure, and disrespect for Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the rural zones and for the poor, so Educar
es fiestateaches in environments as different from the classroom as possible--like with kids sprawled out on the floor of the circus tent. The team also offers workshops on health, sexual health, nutrition, nonviolence, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, tutoring, and more. And as children arrive for their workshops, every child gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
By contrast, when I worked with kids in Los Angeles, I had to sign a document agreeing I wouldn't allow any game--even tag, that required touch. If a child asked to be hugged, I was to acquiesce, squat down and allow the child to hold my side.
Of course I am cognizant of the realities of sexual abuse. In Bolivia, the children who are hugged also receive training in the campaign "My body is my territory: no one touches it without my permission." But touch is primary to human beings.
The baby knows touch before it can interpret visual signals or understand words. If children aren't hugged and held in healthy ways by responsible adults, surely that makes them prime targets for predators who will exploit their need. For children who've been abused or abandoned, hugs can heal.
Back in Los Angeles, I watch the local news and see that a prohibition against touching would not have prevented the abuse that recently came to light of an elementary school teacher allegedly feeding his bodily fluids to children in his class.
In the Andean nations, educators like Queso now talk about what Peruvian Alejandro Cussiánovich has termed La pedagogía de la ternura -- the Pedagogy of Tenderness. In Peru and Bolivia, with past histories of military dictatorship and violent repression, and Colombia with its elected civilian government and an ongoing armed conflict, the idea is that school needs to be a place of nurture,
not discipline, for people who've been silenced, hardened and traumatized by years of violence. Tenderness does not mean sheltering kids or being overprotective: the point of this education is not to indoctrinate, but to nurture children so they can become the protagonists of their own lives.
Tenderness. It's what I wish for American children who are growing up in some of our inner city neighborhoods where due to crime and gang violence kids show a higher rate of PTSD than their counterparts in Baghdad during the worst days of war there.
The Educar es fiesta staff also offers workshops to public school teachers to share the techniques of "buen trato"--techniques of classroom management based on mutual respect rather than the more military model of discipline and punishment. This
reminded me of a friend here in California who was so disgusted with her teaching job in an inner city elementary school, she talked about quitting. But when I visited the school a couple of years ago, the children seemed happy, bright, and eager to learn.
"Oh yes," said my friend. "We have a new principal and she's turned everything around." What did the miracle-worker do? "She called a meeting and told the teachers they could no longer yell at the children or insult them."
The children of Educar es fiesta know what it is to be disrespected. In its first year, a little more than ten years ago, Queso reached out to the kids who waited at the cemetery for mourners who might give them a tip for cleaning windshields. The
children were often abused by the cemetery guards. It was a great joke to take a little boy and throw him into a newly dug grave from which he would not be able to climb out. But when these same kids performed their plays in public, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Their status changed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the larger community.
Poverty has led to the disintegration of many families as parents migrate in search of work to Argentina, Chile, Spain, and--most recently, Japan. The kids get left behind. There's Laura. She lives with her grandmother who can put a roof over the girl's head but has little to offer in the way of food or affection.
Laura goes to school in the morning. Then she goes to "work"--standing outside a modest restaurant where she'll guard cars for people as they eat in exchange for tips. Few people arrive in cars. Without tips, she goes hungry. While we in the US worry about
"boundaries," in Cochabamba, if Jimena Ari, teacher and facilitator with Educar es fiesta, is going home for lunch, she takes Laura along for a meal with her family--and to take chess lessons from niece Ceci who's already obsessed with the game.
In the afternoon, Laura's at the circus tent, eager to learn.
When the other kids have left, Laura hangs around the office. Until it's time to lock the doors, no one chases her away. If there's a project that can use an extra pair of willing hands, she helps out. Otherwise, she experiments with the computer. Maybe she'll get a glass of milk and some bread. She'll definitely be hugged. And someone will tell her how intelligent she is, and how beautiful, and that she is loved.
Memories of Bogota, Colombia - that's Natalie (Naty) Vesga.
Hello, Chicago! (and Stephanie Friedman, Carol Anshaw, Natalie Vesga)
So one of the joys of getting to Chicago was being reconnected with two friends, Carol Anshaw (author and painter) and Natalie
Vesga (my roommate from my first trip to Colombia).
Met Carol for lunch and heard her good news, all the exciting pre-pub buzz for her new novel, Carry the One. I mean, Carol’s
earlier novels, three of them, got great reviews and enthusiastic readers, but without drawing real attention to her work or, how shall I say?, lifting her. This time around, her publisher has her traveling the country before the book comes out. Her book is the Indie Next List #1 pick for March, but this time around Simon & Schuster isn’t relying on bookstores alone. The publishing business model keeps changing. So besides the before-the-fact tour, they sent out hundreds of copies to bloggers and to people who post frequently on Goodreads and seem to have the right sensibility. It seems to be working and I am so happy for Carol!
(Carol, however, was somewhat disapproving of the fact I’d been invited to speak at Or Chadash, the LGBT synagogue. “Why
did they invite a straight woman to speak? Couldn’t they find a lesbian?” I was supposed to be there to read the section of The Blessing Next to the Wound about Hector Aristizábal’s youngest brother, who was gay, and to give an update on the status of gay rights in Latin America. But Carol had her way: the Friday snowstorm blocked the route and I never made it to the shul!)
Back to Stephanie Friedman’s office at the University of Chicago where I stashed my luggage and made a general nuisance of
myself. Check out Steph’s blog, The Winding Stitch. Writer, poet, teacher, wife, mother, associate director of the writers studio and summer session in continuing ed. She bakes pies and keeps kosher — the woman has enough to do without organizing several days’ worth of events for me and Hector, getting almost a dozen different organizations on the campus to cooperate when I suspect they usually don’t even recognize each other’s existence.
Naty and I finally reached each other by phone and she came to the office to pick me up and we were squealing in the street with
excitement like the kind of teenage girl I never was. We went back to her place where we talked nonstop for hours and I got to meet the “babies” – the dogs that figured in her Lariam-induced delirium in Bogotá when she awoke in terror (and woke me in a rage) believing we were on a bus being attacked by paramilitaries and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, that I had called her dogs
“hillbillies.” She gradually calmed down that night when I assured her that I knew her dogs were wonderful. I also got to meet her husband, Giano Cromley, who gave up a career in politics to do something honorable and meaningful. He got his MFA and writes fiction (Check out a sample story on-line here and teaches at King-Kennedy alongside poet Martha Vertreace– small world — who I know from Vermont College.
Naty is getting her Masters in Social Work and she told me about the project she’s getting off the ground. I will share it because
if you like it and steal it and implement it elsewhere, she’ll be thrilled. So much the better! Programs already exist where troubled youth work with animals to learn responsibility and caring for others. But she wants to connect at-risk and gang-involved youth specifically with organizations that do pit bull rehabilitation. She thinks the dogs and young people have a lot in common, both groups have been stigmatized as dangerous and face banning, lock-up, extermination; they’ve been molded to be aggressive and violent (whether by humans or by their environment). The youth already know pit bulls and know them as marvelously dangerous. They can identify with them, and as they work to socialize them and teach them gentleness, Naty believes dogs will transform youth at the same time that youth transform dogs. More effectively than when kids who’ve been traumatized by violence work with, say, golden retrievers, or other dogs who are mellow to begin with. Great idea, no? I love it. I want to connect her to Micaela Myers
at Stubby Dog which works to improve the reputation and lives of pit bulls. Naty wants to meet Cesar Millan!
My article in today's LA Progressive:
To LA’s New Probation Chief: Condolences on Your Appointment
Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice welcomed new Probation Department chief Donald Blevins to LA Monday night by offering him thanks–and condolences. After all, why would anyone take on the challenge of cleaning up a department long known for abusing rather than helping the kids in its custody, losing track of money and ID badges, punishing whistleblowers and protecting wrongdoers?
At a meeting with the Empowerment Congress at the Exposition office of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas whose Second District includes much of LA south of the 10 including Watts, Compton, Inglewood, and Culver City as well as some points north including parts of Hollywood, Wilshire Center, and Koreatown, Chief Blevins asked for the community’s help not just in turning the department around but in actively working on behalf of youth. He was greeted enthusiastically by members of the Probation Department who have waited a long time to see leadership that would put kids first.
The new chief who was sworn in three months ago began his 34-year career in San Diego and most recently served as Chief in Alameda County which is smaller than LA but with similar demographics and problems.
A little more than a year ago I visited the Alameda County Juvenile Hall in the Bay Area and was impressed by the clean, new, modern facility with classrooms, a health clinic, and mental health services, all built on his watch. Make no mistake, however: lockup is lockup. The only windows in the cells look out on the control desk and when you walk by it hurts to see in each square pane the little faces of kids as eager to be let out as puppies in the pound.
But as Chief Blevins explained on Monday night, in Alameda he worked to change the culture of the officers. They’d been trained with the “care, custody, control mantra,” he said. He wanted them to see themselves as counselors and role models instead. What I saw on the unit for teenage girls was a counselor who chatted easily with the kids, sharing girltalk. Instead of a uniform, another wore a T-shirt featuring a smiling Obama family. Still, the counselors were not pushovers: I saw them turn on a dime from warm and friendly to instantly stern as soon as, in their parlance, “the tone was getting too high.”
In the Bay Area, I saw failures, but also saw the system sometimes works. A young man who since his release found a corporate job and a wife told me, “Juvie was one of the happiest times in my teenage life. When I was on the street, I was so busy hustling, getting into trouble and fights, trying to make a name for myself I never had time to sit down and play checkers or play chess. I’m sorry to say that’s where I had a real childhood–in Juvie.”
What will Chief Blevins do in LA?
He is proud that Central Juvenile Hall now offers parenting classes to the mothers and fathers before their kids go home. The number of kids held in custody is at a 30-year low as the department is doing a better job of assessing which kids will do best if kept out of juvenile hall and instead receive supportive services in the community. Options such as electronic monitoring are also keeping young people out of lockup. “I need programs in the community the kids come from,” he said, “so they don’t have to take a bus crosstown.”
We heard from a 17-year-old whose probation officer gave him one week to enroll in school after his release if he didn’t wanted to go back to Juvie, but he couldn’t find a school that would take him. Blevins said he understood “the school district doesn’t always want our kids back. What they hope is that a kid will go away and just not come back.” In cases like this, he says his staff will help. “We pay taxes for our schools and they have an obligation to teach.”
In Alameda County, Blevins explained, before a kid is released, the parents come in and receive orientation. The kid has a classroom waiting in the community. If kids take psychotropic medications, the meds go home with them and appointments are scheduled in the community before they even leave Juvenile Hall. Sounds reasonable. But in LA? “We’re not doing that here yet,” he said. If he has his way, we will.
He acknowledged that DMC (Disproportionate Minority Contact) remains a problem, but Probation alone can’t resolve the disparate treatment accorded to youth of color. There are other “decision points. We don’t control who law enforcement brings. Or that some kids get released to their parents at the police station and others get taken to juvenile hall,” but he pledged cultural sensitivity on the part of his department and that a kid who has committed a minor offense won’t be locked up for giving attitude to the officer and that all mitigating factors will be considered.
“Locking kids up doesn’t change behavior. If you don’t provide treatment, it doesn’t work.” What he believes does work is cognitive-based therapy and evidence-based practices that have shown results rather than once-touted ideas such as boot camp that became popular with law enforcement and the public while having the wrong effects. “Boot camp stresses physical fitness and the military culture,” he explained, training that meshes perfectly with gang culture. Kids left boot camp well equipped to lead a gang.
A young member of the Youth Justice Coalition asked if the Chief would support State Senator Leland Yee‘s bill, SB 399, which would give a small number of prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles at least a chance at eventual release. “I’m a father, so I have mixed feelings,” Blevins admitted, saying he understood why a parent would want to lock away for good anyone who hurt his child. But he said he also understood that when you make a mistake at fifteen, you might be very different at 35. He concluded he is now leaning towards supporting the bill.
Another YJC member asked if the chief would support their 1% campaign to divert that much of the county’s criminal justice funding to intervention and youth development programs. Alone among criminal justice professionals I’ve heard answer that question so far, Blevins said, “That sounds like a good idea.” Still, he feared with his $36.8 million budget “how we fund it is a bit of a challenge.” But he added, “We have some grants,” and he agreed, “If you have a good strong prevention network keeping kids out of the probation system, that’s a good model.” He admitted when it comes to prevention there’s currently a gap and that should be remedied.
My own concern was even if he does the miraculous and turns LA County Probation into a model department, that won’t help the kids in Juvenile Hall who are never going home given that the D.A. files cases involving juveniles directly into adult court and seeks extreme sentences: 25-to-life, 35-to-life, 80-to-life even in cases in which no one is hurt or in which no one is killed.
I asked if he’d had any meetings with the District Attorney’s Office to share his own philosophy. “I’m willing to have this conversation with the District Attorney,” Blevins said but his further answer cast the problem in a whole new light. “The D.A.s have lost faith in the juvenile justice system.”
Given the problems in the Probation Department, that made sense. Can we be surprised that prosecutors want to send kids to adult prison if the alternative is a few years in a youth facility with inadequate education, no job training, no therapy, and possible abuse followed by release? Blevins thinks the D.A.’s practices may change “if I can build the faith that if a kid is in our system he’ll be handled appropriately.”He did add, “But in those really egregious cases I think we all agree that the kid has to be sent away for a while.”
OK, I guess, though people may not agree on whether “a while” should mean a life sentence. Or what constitutes “egregious.” (I just learned of a boy from Sacramento who was sent to Juvie for stealing hubcaps. Someone thought that was egregious: the kid just turned 18 and was transferred to adult prison to serve a 5-year sentence for his crime.)
There was also disagreement as to whether the Department of Justice should intervene. Connie Rice and many community members say yes. Blevins objects that DOJ already looked into the abuses in the juvenile camps and nothing there changed. Now he believes he can turn things around faster and more efficiently. “By the time the federal government gets here and figures out what needs to be done, we’ll be well down the road.”
I think he means it. And another glutton for punishment, the Interim Chief Cal Remington (who I wrote about on March 19) will stay on to help for the next several months. So, we’ll see.
What I can’t get out of my head is the story Connie Rice told at the start of the meeting about a boy in a juvenile camp who, while in county custody, was jumped in by a neighborhood gang. When he got out, no one warned his parents. No one checked on him. “We let this kid leave camp and the gang greets him. That was his re-entry.” The gang wanted him to complete his initiation. He refused. They asked again. He said no. After he said no the third time, they sent him a message, “putting a bullet in his baby brother’s head.”
In the meantime, Donald Blevins has a mountain to move.
“Let me throw the first stones at my own glass house,” Rice said Monday night, arguing that we have all of us failed the kids. “We have high school diplomas awarded to kids who can’t read. We need real rehabilitation. Real education. We have got to make these kids our kids.”
“Hold me accountable,” said the Chief.
I'm off to the Awaken Your Imagination workshop (to the dismay of the cat who wishes I were around more these days) but first saw this in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/06/opinion/06herbert.html?hpw
The city gets sued (and loses) over the way school safety officers and cops treat kids in school. This is the second article I've linked to in a week or two. The NY times is doing its job. Why isn't the Los Angeles Times covering the abuse of our kids? It's not a New York City problem. It's here too, big time.
"In a better world..." Yeah, the kids thought adding that to their stories was too corny. (see post of 2/15)
One comment: "We're writing for Teletubbies?"
But at the same time, one boy changed the ending of his story and decided to send the main character to rehab.
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker