By Monona Wali
Juveniles who have been found guilty of crimes may be sentenced to one of the camps operated by the LA County Probation Department. These camps offer youth specialized assessments and programs to reunify them with family and reintegrate them back into our communities.
Since October 2010, IOW has partnered with New Roads for New Visions to lead a 10-week series of classes at Camp David Gonzales in Calabasas. The reflection that follows is from IOW teacher Monona Wali, who has led the classes at Camp Gonzales since April 2011.
Change is the mantra of our work with incarcerated youth, but it’s challenging to talk and write about change without falling into the same abstract clichés of good vs. bad choices.
I experimented with a sequential exercise, borrowed from a motivational speaker. I asked the students to write down their strengths. Jose* said he didn’t know what his strengths were. I whispered to him, “You’re calm, you’re respectful, you have a nice smile.” Then he came up with his own: “I’m not mean and I’m not mad at the world.” Jared’s list was a double-edged sword – he was a good planner, but he only planned crime. Richard wrote that he learned something new every day, Dennis stated he was strong writer. I asked them to identify strengths they saw in each other. Jared told Jose he was his own man – he observed most other Latino kids had their heads shaved close, but he kept a full head of hair. Jose smiled; he was pleased. What a great moment.
Next, I asked them to list people to be on their “Personal Board of Directors.” They looked at me like I was crazy. I explained every organization has a Board of Directors who look out for it – and we as individuals can have that too. They struggled to come up with names; then discovered there were more people than they thought. Jared’s mother topped his list; Jose remembered a supportive teacher; Dennis, a neighbor. Finally, the boys wrote a letter inviting these people to be on their board.
It was an effective exercise to make the talk of change real. If they knew their own strengths, communicated these characteristics to those who knew them best and asked for help, it could be a good first step down a different path – a path based, not on what others thought was right for them, but on their own inner knowledge.
Monona has been teaching with IOW for six months and finds working with incarcerated kids to be intensely rewarding and challenging. She currently teaches creative writing at Santa Monica College. She is a published short story writer and has a novel making the rounds of publishers. She was born in Benares, India.
*All names have been changed to protect identities.