Ongoing Work with Young People


With the support of the Re-evaluation Foundation, we are doing some exciting work in inner-city Boston. Six years ago, in the informal support groups I was doing with young people in the neighborhood where I live and work, I began to experiment with teaching Co-Counseling directly. These groups have now blossomed into four distinct Co-Counseling classes and are a component of a project I've named the Resource Center for Youth and Their Allies.

In this article, I will describe how this project works: recruiting, building allies, getting funding from the Re-evaluation Foundation and other community-based funders, assisting people in their lives outside of class (with their parents, staying in school, trouble with the police, relationships, etc.), and the details of what we do in class. We have been learning a lot from this project. It is exciting work and is having a positive effect on the general counseling Community in this area.


I have been working and/or living in the South End of Boston on and off for the past nine years. When I first began to work with young people in the South End, I taught "naturalized" RC. I often set up support groups without calling them RC. I ran a youth center in one of the housing projects where people would drop in. I would start conversations about racism, relationships, or substance abuse. Within a half-hour, there would be a group of five to ten people involved in a serious debate about the topic. I tried to keep the conversation interesting by asking questions, and I would make sure that everyone got a chance to talk. This worked well; people would catch on and start to help me get the quieter people involved. I wasn't explaining Co-Counseling beyond saying that crying was a good thing or encouraging them to listen without interrupting. Even though this process worked well and people often got a chance to discharge, they didn't have enough information to use the resource if I wasn't there to make it work.

I decided to choose the six or seven people who seemed most skilled at facilitation in these discussions/support groups and teach them Co-Counseling. I invited Sunniva Odunkwe, a young person who grew up with Co-Counseling, to assist me. At times our class meetings didn't look all that different from our old conversations at the youth center. If I tried to "teach" too much, people got very quiet. We did, however, talk about listening as a skill, and I brought in RC articles which we debated and discussed. Over the years, this group has grown and changed and people have come and gone, but this is where my current projects really got their start.

About two and a half years ago, I realized it was time for me to start taking myself seriously as a young adult, to notice that Boston really was my home and that I could commit to being connected to this neighborhood, in some way, forever. As I started to teach young people and young adults Co-Counseling and build an Area, many people became interested in and excited about my projects with teens. I began to bring them into these projects. We have continued to learn a lot about teaching Co-Counseling to young people and backing young people to be in charge, and we have continued to change, grow, and move forward.


Currently, we have four different classes which have grown out of the original format. One class is to support youth workers; they learn RC and discharge on their work with young people. There is also a disabled young people's class. Another class is with young people and young adults, for young people who want a little less play and a little more direct theory. In this article, I will focus on the original, core young people's class, which might not seem like a "typical" Co-Counseling class.


Recruiting and Maintaining a Class

Recruiting can happen in different ways. Our original class was recruited through my youth work in the South End by hanging out on basketball courts, going to the health clinics when young womenI worked with were pregnant, etc. Now that we have a solid base in the class, most of the recruiting happens through people bringing friends. I try to make connections with new people right away. It's important to call all of the young people a day or two before class. It's not just a reminder about the class though, because most of them know that class is happening. It's more to remind them that someone cares about them and that they are important.

One of the key things in getting people to join, stay, and be committed is for the adult allies to really understand what's going on in the lives of the young people. It's complicated being a teenager. They are trying to figure out about relationships, their families, and how to live more independently. On top of that, most of the young people in this class are poor young people of color, so there is an additional level of complications in their lives. They have to figure out how to stay alive, how to stay out of gangs, how to get jobs to help their parents with rent so they don't get evicted, how to deal with schools in which classes are taught in English while they have a different first language. With all of this going on in their lives, we can't just expect them to show up in class. We have to get in there with them and give them a hand, and assist them to give each other a hand. Recently, six young people from the class were all involved in major life crises in the same week. There are enough people participating now who care about each other that I wasn't the only one helping people through these situations.

Class Meetings

We meet every other week. Usually we have between eight and twelve young people and two or three adult allies. We usually start the class with a good pillow fight or running around outside. I get people laughing and chasing each other and just playing hard. During this play time we check in with people and try to show caring, usually in a light way. Sometimes someone will come into class having had a really rough day. We watch for clues, grab people, "tackle" them, and get them to talk a little during play time. This can be a great time for people to have sessions. They know that they can come to class after having a big fight with their mother or brother or boyfriend, and it will be a safe place to talk about it.

After we've played and run around and spit at each other for a while, we gather for a "news and goods" circle. We've re-named this "news and goods and news and bads." Often people feel like there's nothing good happening. I encourage them to try and find something good to share, but it's also okay if they want to share a difficulty. When "news and bads" come up, we do some coach-counseling right then and there, with the person to the right taking the role of counselor and the "client" having a chance to discharge. Consequently, this circle can take up most of the time we have.

I generally explain counseling by saying that if you have a chance to get your feelings out, you'll be able to think better and be able to handle situations in new and creative ways. Sometimes we go places together and look at what feelings come up. We often go out for pizza and sit around and laugh. We encourage a class member to go ask someone out on a date, or we fix each other's hair and laugh about how silly we feel or look. We compare breast sizes and laugh about sexual experiences. The allies look for opportunities to encourage discharge when the feelings are up. Now the young people do that with each other, too. Recently we've been choosing a topic, and one or two people present some theory to the class. Then we discuss it and discharge in small groups. We adults continue to find that our role is to assist young people to assist each other.


We get involved in the young peoples' lives-finding jobs, dealing with trouble with the police, practicing driving for a license test-in a way that probably doesn't look like what happens in other Co-Counseling classes. Several young people from our class would not have gone to college if the allies had not stayed up with them all night working on applications and helping them discharge fear. This kind of outside assistance is key for the class. Having their lives go well helps the young people remember that they want to come to class. This creates a cycle geared towards the elimination of distress patterns.


For a while, I did all of these classes myself. Then two people, Phil Clawson and Deb Grohe, got involved. I realized that I needed to build a group of allies, that they would be as excited to be part of the project as I was, that it would change their lives to play a lot and to build relationships with younger people. I began to invite people into the class and to train them more systematically. Allies needed to learn how to play, how to give young people sessions, and how to be light with them. They also needed to discharge feelings that came up for them around young people. This is extremely important. At first we didn't do enough of this. It was correct to have our attention on the young people, but we needed to put some attention on our own feelings, too. Eventually we had enough allies at class so that they could do sessions together, as well as with the young people. Sometimes we would forget but were often reminded that allies are much more effective when they discharge their way through. Now we have an allies' support group which meets separately from the class for people who are allies to young people in this class and in the other young people's Co-Counseling classes in the Area.

The allies' role in these young people's classes is very similar to the allies' role in family work, except that the young people in these classes have decided to take on Co-Counseling for themselves in a different way. Therefore, the allies also have the job of assisting the young people to have sessions with each other and with allies, to lead class, and so forth.


After the class had been going on for a while, the young people were ready to go to some RC workshops and needed money to do so. We also needed to pay rent for the space we were using for class, and I was spending lots of my own money on pizza, bowling, and other group activities. In addition, none of us were getting paid for teaching any of the classes. I tried to get money from Area Outreach Funds and also tried to get some small donations. Then I found out that I could apply for money from the Re-evaluation Foundation. When we got a grant from the Foundation, I decided to arrange for a local non-profit 501(c)(3) agency to handle our bookkeeping and to be our fiscal agent, so that I would not have to have sole personal responsibility for the money. Having a fiscal agent also allowed us to apply for and receive other non-RC grants for our work with leadership training. We've used these grants for workshop scholarships, incidental expenses, rent, food, tutoring, transportation, and paying young people to be on panels at conferences.

We realized that we could package our work in a way that made us eligible for grants. We now call ourselves The Resource Center for Youth and Their Allies (RCYA). When we ask for money, we talk about teaching listening skills, supporting youth leadership, and giving young people a safe place to hang out and talk about their lives. We do excellent work with young people, and foundations are interested in supporting this kind of work. We just need to explain it in language that makes sense to them.


When young people from the class went to RC workshops, we found that they had to struggle with racism and classism. They tended to be at the edge of what was going on at the workshop. We therefore decided to plan a young-people-of-color workshop, at which these young people would be at the center. We have now had three such workshops-two day-long events and a weekend.

At these workshops we limit the number of allies. We have a certain number of spaces for white allies, for allies of color, and for white young people. We try to get as many young people of color to the workshop as possible. At the workshop, the four groups have parallel agendas, spending much of the time with the other people in their same group, with some meetings of the entire workshop for play and "special time." Most important, the young people of color are in charge. The allies assist them to run the workshop and to be at the center of everything that happens there. We stay up late at night (this is when most of the sessions seem to happen). Instead of having an early breakfast, we have brunch at 10:30 am, because that is how the young people want it set up. Having the young people be in charge doesn't mean giving up our judgment as allies or putting them in situations they aren't ready to handle. It means giving them lots of room to show who they are and to be in control.

On Saturday night, the young people of color do all of the demonstrations. At the most recent workshop they did demonstrations with a white ally, a young person of color, and an adult of color. The demonstrations were incredible. At that workshop the allies of color began to take a more active role. Just as it is important for the young people of color to be at the center, it is important for the adults of color to take the lead as allies. The young people had been asking for them to do so for a while, but most of the allies signing up for the workshop were white until we started doing a better job of making the workshop more accessible to allies of color. Having young people of color in charge and allies of color taking the lead also gives white people at the workshop a great opportunity to work on racism.


Sometimes this work feels hopeless and we don't seem to be getting anywhere. We have discovered, though, as allies, that most of the hopelessness is just left over from the effects of our having been oppressed as young people. As adults, we need to keep discharging. This is wonderful, exciting work. We keep learning, making messes, and pushing forward.

Jenny Sazama
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00