As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve finally turned 21 and have started attending Beat workshops in juvenile hall. The opportunity to work directly with incarcerated youth is one of the main reasons I chose this internship over the others that I was offered, so I was very excited to finally be able to attend. My only knowledge of juvenile hall comes from TV, movies, and my own research, but surprisingly, juvenile hall was exactly what I expected. Volunteers can’t bring anything into the hall, not even their phones, and are required to dress appropriately, which means no dresses, no tank tops, no scarves, and nothing red or blue, since those colors are frequently associated with gangs. We go through a metal detector and then a long series of doors and hallways before arriving in the space designated for the workshops, which is usually a classroom or a lounge area.
The youth are usually waiting for us already, so we quickly pass out paper, pencils, and the topic sheets for that week. We introduce ourselves and briefly explain what The Beat is and what we do in the workshops. Then, we ask for a volunteer to read each topic, and when they’re done, we discuss the topic as a group. Some topics naturally inspire more conversation than others, though we try to encourage youth to speak as much as possible. After we discuss all of the topics, we give them time to write, and the facilitators go around and help as needed. It’s very important to make sure we talk to every single participant so they know they’re valued and appreciated and have a chance to talk to someone who’s willing to listen. At the end of the workshop, we collect their writing and pass out the latest issue of The Beat.
It’s really interesting to see how the teens respond to the workshops. Some people start writing as soon as they receive a sheet of paper, not even bothering to read the topics. Some don’t write anything. Some won’t even look you in the eye when you come over to see how they’re doing, whereas others will talk your ear off if you let them. In many ways, they’re typical teenagers, but I am constantly surprised by the things they’ve been through and the things they talk about. We were talking about family in one of the workshops, and at least three young men, about fifteen or sixteen, mentioned that they had children. They talk about gang violence. They talk about drugs. They talk about solitary confinement. However, they also talk about love, and faith, and reincarnation, and quitting smoking, and all kinds of things which remind you that they are still young, that there is still hope for them.
The workshops are difficult, especially when teens don’t want to talk to you, or when they refuse to write a piece that’s not riddled with swear words, or when they tell you a story that breaks your heart. It’s an entirely new experience for me, but I think it’s a very valuable one. I’m being exposed to a group of people I would have otherwise never met, and I have the incredible privilege of listening to their stories, getting to know them, and hopefully beginning to understand them. I have already been changed, and I look forward to seeing how the rest of the summer will change me.