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Reaching People in Big City Schools

The first snow fell in New York City last weekend. Gerry Pechie and I were leading a family workshop about one-and-a-half hours north of the city, and we had plenty of weather. We all enjoyed sliding down a hill on big inner tubes, having a snowball fight, and building snow creatures. There were five young people there, ages ten to thirteen. I am smarter now about this age group because of my job in the last year as the project coordinator of the pregnancy prevention program at a junior high school in the South Bronx.

The job has been a good experience for me. I am in charge of an interesting group of people working on behalf of adolescents, and I get to do lots of naturalized RC. The project, funded by the New York State Department of Health, almost failed the year before due to another lead agency's mismanagement. The person I replaced only stayed about six months. Fortunately she had organized the office and got some of the programming off the ground.

When I started, my supervisor was on maternity leave for six weeks and my co-worker was out sick. There I was in a junior high where the teachers stood by and did nothing while the young people threw each other against the metal lockers-the teachers didn't want to be involved or get hurt. I was in the "frontlines" of a school in the South Bronx where families have been "targeted for destruction" for the last two to three decades.

I had plenty of sessions and quickly thawed a patch of racism that I attribute to simply being a white person in the U.S. I could also tell that being working-class had numbed me to the lives of people raised poor. In other words, some isolation of mine had to dissolve fast in order for me to build relationships in this chaotic and frenzied environment.

The first thing I did was start "special time" lunch groups, designed to give three to four young people the chance to hang out with me and play on my fancy computer. The groups were immediately sought after, but only by the boys-who flocked to see me. Since I was new, I let that happen and began to build my base of support with the boys from the special education classes.

The next thing I did was try to organize the parents. This had never happened successfully in the two years prior to my coming. I could offer stipends, which of course helped. I decided to organize the parents around a simple art project: silkscreening. I figured that this way we could build relationships "through the back door" and talk informally about their young people and issues of sex, etc.

I sent 450 flyers home with the eighth graders. I received fourteen flyers back and had eight parents attend the group for two-and-a-half months. This was, apparently, an excellent response. They designed and silkscreened a banner that said, "School First, Babies Later." (Most of these parents had given birth before they were eighteen years old and wanted their children to have other options.) We also provided t-shirts, and they designed and silkscreened their own for themselves. The group was very successful.

After this silkscreening project we had a parent/teen pizza party. I wanted to assist these parents to be with their teens while playing games and moving in the direction of connection and enjoying each other. It had a slow and quiet start but moved into vitality and cooperation. One parent took the initiative and designed a group game, supplied the winners' prizes, and did an excellent job of bringing the group together. At the end of the pizza party the parents presented me with numerous gifts and a card thanking me for being a caring and good teacher. I was deeply moved by their outward pouring of affection towards me and each other.

I also started, according to contract, Teacher/Paraprofessional Forums, in which people hung out during lunch and got to know each other. Mostly it was good for them to have a place to relax with each other during school and laugh and talk about what was going on. These short groups served a good purpose for me. I got to have these folks around me and find out who was in the school.

The month before school ended, I organized an in-school event for about a hundred young people. Another organization performed a play on pregnancy prevention, and a panel of teen parents talked about their lives. One of the scenes in the play was a condom demonstration designed for a high school audience. It was performed without my prior knowledge. However, the real "problem" was a school board member in the front row. To make a long story short, within twenty-four hours we were in danger of being kicked out of the school. (I knew that if we did a good job and became effective we would be attacked.)

I was a lot less restimulated than I expected I would be-I think because of the attention we've been putting on protecting and correcting leadership and handling attacks here in the New York RC Community. The rug did not feel like it was pulled out from under me. It wasn't easy, but it was actually very interesting. The viciousness of the oppression, internalized in this case in a poor, Latina woman, came out vicious at us. She was trying to destroy a $350,000 project that was giving immediate assistance to the people in her own community! I learned how much we were wanted by the school. I think the entire school of 1,300 youths and adults would have fought for us to stay.

My supervisor did an excellent job of dealing with the school board. I was her nearby quiet supporter. After a few months, they said we could stay in the school. Weathering the attack made us even stronger. It demonstrated our smarts and the support we had.

Last week we received $30,000 to do whatever we want by July 1st at this junior high. We also received a $125,000 expansion grant to work at another junior high, a fifteen-minute walk away. I will be in charge of this new junior high program as well. Who knew I would be managing a nearly half-million-dollar project this year?

I am becoming more confident and bolder about sharing RC insights and formats. I just started a new parents-of-sixth-graders support group. Nine moms and one dad showed up. I am using Patty Wipfler's Supporting Adolescents as the centerpiece. I gave them reading assignments, and one mom said her daughter was teasing her and checking in on her to make sure she did her homework. The mom looked very pleased.

I do an opening circle, "mini-talks," and a theory presentation, answer questions, and have a closing circle. Yesterday the topic was affection. We had a lively and interesting discussion. One mom is really sharp. She said that after reading about affection she realized that if she isn't openly loving and affectionate with her son, he will look for that in being sexual. Another mom, who is very tense and heads towards violence as a solution, told us how she came to the school and beat up her daughter in front of lots of people in order to humiliate her into good behavior. When she left yesterday, in a light and joking voice I said, "R-, don't beat up anyone this week!"

I introduced the idea of a half-hour of special time each week with their sixth-grade children. They all took it. We can use the group to support their efforts.

I am pleased with my more and more relaxed confidence, being at ease with people, and handling patterns better. I love the young people and parents in this community. There is nothing better, in my mind, than the opportunity to work in a community which, despite great adversity, understands the need to care and fight. Their willingness to try things, their warmth, and their tons of humor make this job a gift to me.

Caryn Davis
New York, New York, USA

(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00