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Exploring Youth Identity

During the month of November, Safe Passage always does a Summer Camp with our youth. Summer Camp is usually organized by the Sports Department. The activities are broken up by week: one week at martial arts, one at science, etc. The entire camp is organized around a unifying theme. This year’s theme was picked in order to connect with International Year of Youth (which I talked about in my post here [add link]). The theme was “Juventud” simply meaning “Youth.”

English is usually in charge of one of the areas. This year, we were fortunate to be teamed up with the Art program to run our area. We took to heart the theme, and wanted to be sure our activities corroborated the message of celebrating youth. Our youth are faced with difficult situations and tough choices every day. Luckily for our students, we have social workers and psychologists dedicated to them, but they don’t have a channel to talk about and process a lot of what is going on, especially not as a group. Therefore, we thought there was no better way to honor youth than to give them an artistic outlet to talk about some of the things they otherwise have to keep bottled up. We also wanted to give the students choice. Art, or any type of self-expression, can be a very high-pressure ordeal if not done in the right way. We wanted them to feel it was as comfortable and low-pressure of an experience as possible. We decided to divide up into four areas: visual arts, music, poetry and theater. Students chose two of the four areas. They would be in each area for two days, and the last day was a collective exhibition of what they’d done over the week.

The camp was amazing. Each week we had a different grade level. Although I’ve been in the project for over a half a year (which is a long time in volunteer years, kind of like dog years), I’m in an administrative role, so I don’t get to be with the kids very often. Although I have a friendly relationship with them (I live for the cries of “Shanno” and the clutching of my hand by little fingers as I walk through the hallways), I have been able to build a deep relationship with precious few. Therefore, this month was incredibly important for me as a vehicle for connecting more deeply with the youth.

Our four areas were pretty amazing, if I do say so myself (although I can’t take credit – the art program and English teachers did the majority of the planning). Music was run by our guitar teacher, Mike, who led the students through writing their own original songs. Poetry was headed up by Malte, the Library Program Coordinator. Students in poetry wrote individual pieces addressing adults and questioning the way they chose to interact with youth.

Next was visual arts, led by the Art program founder, Nellie. This project was called The Talking Wall. Each student got a box and paints. Students were asked to pick a word or phrase that they felt identified their experience in being a youth in Guatemala. Students then painted their box according to what they wanted to express. The finished boxes were then strung together and hung up to create the wall. Standing next to it seeing their messages and artistry was incredibly powerful.

Last, but not least, was theater. I partnered with our outside workshoppers Mike and Huesos from an organization called GuateBuena to run a workshop on the Theater of the Oppressed methodology. We had the students investigate both positive and negative aspects of youth identity. They then created two skits depicting scenes from Guatemalan life they wanted to explore. The students acted out the negative aspect. We then invited the audience to ask questions of the characters about why they acted or reacted in a certain way. Audience members then suggested ways to give the scene a more positive resolution. Some of the vignettes also included image theater, where audience members were actually invited to alter the scene.

All of the workshops were designed for students to explore the positive and negative aspects of Guatemalan youth identity.Before we could ask the students to delve deeply and share openly with us, we had to build trust and break down barriers. Each of our areas designed our activities so that the students’ products were arrived at after carefully planned workshops on trust building and self-expression. The theater workshops were the portion that I had a hand in, so I’ll use those as an example.

Our first activity was a simple partner introduction, asking relatively benign questions and debriefing about what we learned and anything that surprised us. Next, we gave the students their first real acting lesson by having them take on the persona of a fish or a bird. This activity not only taught the youth how to get out of their own skins, but had the dual aim of building a sense of vulnerability and pushing limits. Third was a blind trust run, where either Mike or Huesos caught the students as they ran across the room as fast as they could. The first few attempts were always a bit rough, but after the other students saw they would be caught, they were willing to give it a shot. The first few to go invariably wanted to try again. I think it was a big moment for them, as I’m not sure how many people come into their lives that they can put their trust in, especially right away. But they did with us.

The next activity was the most fun. We partnered the students up, appointing one the car and the other the driver. After coming up with their own code for direction words, we put them on opposite sides of the room. All at once, the conductors had to direct their cars across the room, as we added chairs and such as obstacles. The final pair always suffered through everyone else screaming words trying to confuse the poor car. It was an absolute riot; there was often more laughter than directing. We closed out the first day having the students lie on the floor and do a relaxation and visualization exercise and a closing reflection circle. Day two was dedicated to them creating and practicing their skits.

The whole month of Summer Camp was, in a word, awesome. I got to have so many amazing conversations with the students. I saw their insights on domestic violence, gang violence, robbery, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and a host of other issues that they face in their everyday lives. Of course, they are incredibly aware of everything going on in their community because they see it up close and personal every day. But, the really amazing fact is how astute they are in their assessments of how to change negative behaviors and attitudes. The easy part is actually changing people’s responses. The hard part is changing the structures that allow damaging cycles to be proliferated. It’s actually easier than you might think to get someone to put down the glue they’re huffing. The problem is, the issues that drove that person to huffing glue are still there. The students get that. Their responses weren’t surface assessments; they actually addressed root causes, like lack of jobs and education, as ways to create change. I’m really proud of them for thinking so critically, and I’m really grateful to them for opening up so freely.

What this experience really illustrated for me is the difference that Safe Passage is able to make in these families’ lives, and, increasingly, the community as a whole. Unfortunately, we don’t have opportunities to converse with non-affiliated members of the community. However, I would bet that most not involved in Safe Passage would have a pretty hard time making the kinds of constructive criticisms that our teenagers made. Not only are we helping them learn subject matter, we’re helping them learn to think critically and challenge the commonly accepted notions of what life should be like. I think many members of this community accept the violence, poverty and negativity because they don’t see a way toward anything else; indeed, they might not even realize what other options might exist. However, our youth and families are introduced to new realms of possibility every day. They are challenged to want to transform their lives and their community. I firmly believe that our students today will be the ones that start to make real transformation from within in the future. I can’t wait for that day to come.

This week, I saw peace in challenging oppression.

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