Meeting Incarcerated Youth Where They’re At
Sarah Diamond, Lead Prevention & Community Engagement Specialist at the Center for Community Solutions
During my interview to work at the Center for Community Solutions (CCS), my to-be-supervisor shared that they worked with youth in detention and asked if that was something I’d be interested in doing if I was hired on. At first, it felt somewhat daunting to think that I’d be going into a juvenile hall. I don’t think I held negative views of youth in detention, but I also was unsure of what to expect from them. It ultimately sold me on the position. The first time I was in a detention center, it was to observe my coworker, and I knew from then on that I was invested in making sure these youth had access to violence prevention education. The way my coworker was able to have real conversations with them was inspiring, and it made me realize how truly important it is to meet youth where they are at.
I have several students I can think of, but one in particular stands out. John* was incredibly resistant to this idea of not being tough in the real world. That to be a man meant to be “masculine”, to stand up for yourself, to disrespect people who disrespected you. He came from the hood and was adamant that life on the outs wasn’t like the movies. In his own words, he stressed the importance of survival. I had to pause to gather my thoughts, because until that point I don’t know if I’d thought about how sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia were essentially survival tactics. I didn’t want to praise him for using those things per se, but I wanted to hold space for that fact that living in his hood meant doing things to survive. I think part of working with youth in detention is creating space for them to be honest and to acknowledge that they are at the cross sections of having done harm and having been harmed. So I said to him and the class, “Can you be hard in the streets, but soft with your partner? Not soft because she is some delicate flower, but soft because you can show that you are a caring, loving partner?” They all said, including John, “Hell yeah.”
That conversation shifted my way of thinking and working with this population. Together, we worked on how to show compassion towards our partners and how to still be a man without compromising masculinity. This is an ongoing theme in my classes. I have accepted their need to survive in this world and I hold them accountable when appropriate, but I also find they are more open to these conversations when they see they can take the mask off, so to speak, with their partners and show a different side of themselves. I never know how that really unfolds once they’re out, but I will say that students have told me over the years that my class makes them think—and they have conversations with each other outside of class. I’d like to think it’s planting seeds. Sometimes it’s a small change, other times it’s larger, but I can see that it impacts them in some way.
*Name has been changed.