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Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

Students can help alleviate problems in their communities, but they must take care of themselves, too

by Deborah L. Johnson
My name is Deborah L. Johnson and I have lived in the city of Hartford, Connecticut, all my life. I'm a single parent who has dealt with the issues faced by many of the students I teach and counsel. It is important for them to know that, like me, they can turn their obstacles into opportunities, and that they too can have an impact on their communities.

I teach life skills classes for adult basic education, pre-GED and GED students. One Saturday I attended a conference sponsored by the Voter Education, Registration, and Action (VERA) project in Massachusetts. The topic of the conference was how to get students involved in their communities. Afterwards, I decided to do a project with my pre GED class. I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to really see what is or is not happening in their neighborhoods as they worked on their social and literacy skills.

My class of 19 was made up of a lot of different personalities, cultures, and beliefs. The students were immigrants and native-born Americans from many backgrounds: African Americans, Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Jamaicans, Africans Guyanese, Italians, Haitians, and Anglo Americans. Their ages ranged from 16 to 78. Establishing common ground was a project in itself.

Defining Community

Our first step was to discuss and write about what a community was. We talked about the issues that affected the students' communities. At the beginning, the students felt that their neighborhoods differed, but as they talked they started to realize that they all faced many of the same issues. I asked "How would you go about changing your community?" A lot of students felt that they couldn't, blaming other people, systems, and lack of power. After more discussions, the students decided they did want to try to make a difference in their communities around the issues that affected them most. We went around the room, taking turns stating problems we thought were affecting the community, and why we thought they were happening. The list of issues included teen pregnancy, drugs, gang violence, education, homelessness, respect, self esteem, racism, law, unity, child abuse, domestic violence, peer mediation, kids killing kids, addiction, careers, family unity, and police brutality. The list of reasons was also long.

We needed to narrow down the list to the most serious problems. After more discussion, they came up with teen pregnancy, drugs and gang violence, respect, and homelessness. The class decided to put together a survey to get input from the community on these topics. The class broke into groups, one group per topic, according to interest. We also appointed one facilitator per group. The groups came up with ve questions for each topic. Some of the questions were: What is an ideal community? Why do you think people are homeless? What ways is respect demonstrated in the community? What ways is it not? How is your community affected by drugs? This group work helped the students develop not only literacy but social skills.

The students went into different neighborhoods to conduct the survey, interviewing people at schools, churches, different businesses, talking to a total of about 85 people. Once we had the responses, we read them and began to discuss some of the concerns and comments that were made by folks in the community. The class compared the answers from neighborhood to neighborhood, looking for the biggest issues.

This process made me thing about something that I really never even took into consideration before: how the comments would effect the students. One morning, while going over the comments in the surveys, a few of the students got into a very heated conversation about being homeless. I observed them without interrupting and came to realize that these issues were reality for some of the folks in the room.

We had planned originally to do only class presentations and educate each other, but as we talked, we came to the conclusion that we need to give the information out to others in the community. We thought about meeting with parents, but then thought that the process of change should start with kids. A lot of the students in the class felt that made the most sense.

Cares of Ourselves

The students decided that they would like to put together a forum for the junior high school students. The students chose junior high because they felt that this is when peer pressure kicks in. They believed that the younger students need to know that there were better opportunities in life. I felt that the forum was an excellent idea, but, thinking of some of the heated discussions we had, I also felt the need to help my students develop a support system before taking the project any further. For the forum to be successful, we had to take care of ourselves first.

I decided to do an exercise called memory lane with the students. I asked the students to visualize way back to being in the womb, and then think through their lives up to the present. I asked them to think of the people in their lives, both those who had been supportive and those who had not. The students were really emotional. We identified a common bond, in that we all have life struggles and our pain is not unique. There was a lot of pain in the room that day and I even tapped into some things that were not resolved for me. Support groups, going to the healing ministry, writing good-bye letters to our grief, group cries, prayer, praise, pampering our child within, and lots of hugs and unconditional love carried us through the healing process.

After this, the project seemed to be heading in the right direction. Group dynamics were changing. The students were demanding that they respect each others' right to a difference of opinion. They insisted that nobody use inappropriate language. They asked each other to be on time; those who were absent or late had to make sure to get the information they needed so the project would not be effected. As for the survey information, we were working on separating facts from opinions, and developing recommendations for solving the problems of the community.

Motivation Lags

Spring was coming and the weather was beginning to break. The students were starting to enjoy the spring weather more than the classes; even the most motivated students interest was starting to drop off. The group facilitators were becoming discouraged because the groups were not holding up and they felt like they would not accomplish what they had set out to do. I was really quite disappointed that the students were losing interest, but the important thing for me was that I keep those students who were still involved working on the forum. I divided the students into those who were not going to participate and those who were. Those who were not going to participate became the audience, so that those who were going to present could get a feel for what it would be like.

One afternoon the students and I had a class discussion on the issues we had chosen to work on. We were still deciding how we would present them to the junior high school students. One student, who is 16, informed me that she would like to develop a panel. Panel members would speak on a personal note about the topics teen pregnancy, drugs and gang violence, respect, and homelessness. I thought this was an excellent idea, but I wasn't quite sure the students would want to get that personal.

The students who were selected to sit on the panel were Taliea Hatcher, teen pregnancy, John Doe, homelessness, Tylon Jarrett, gangs and violence, and Isylma Wharton, respect. Finally the day arrived for the forum. The students were both nervous and excited. The forum was held at Lewis Fox Middle School. We received permission to conduct the forum with the students in the inside suspension room. This is where children are detained for violation of school rules or disrespectful behavior. We chose inside suspension because these children were making poor choices for themselves. We wanted to help them turn their obstacles into opportunities. The principal helped provide us with a larger audience by sending some of the hard to reach children who had visited inside suspension in the past back to attend the forum too.

A total of 17 students attended the forum, mainly young men. I began by introducing the panel and sharing what it was like preparing for the forum. I talked about some of the issues that we had discussed, and briefed them on the background of each panelist. First, Taliea discussed teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Seven months pregnant with her first child, she spoke with the students about making wrong decisions in her life and the disadvantages of becoming pregnant at a young age. She spoke about the difficulty she was having carrying her baby. She talked about her misconceptions about how much fun it would be having a baby. The audience listened carefully as they saw a former student of Lewis Fox share about this issue. Taliea then began to tell the students about sexually transmitted diseases, and the risks she took with her own life by having sex without using a condom. The junior high school students seemed to be really interested in what she had to say. In the discussion that followed, the students talked about peer pressure and about moving too fast into commitments for which they were not ready. They expressed their gratitude to her. One student said that he never really thought about what young ladies have to go through.

The next speaker did not want to use his name during the forum, so he called himself John Doe. He started out discussing the community he lives in and the advantages and disadvantages to growing up in the hood. He is a very intelligent young man, both academically and street wise. I admired the way he conducted his conversation with the students. In the beginning, he spoke in slang, and as he talked about how he grew and changed, so did his language. Students caught on to this change without him pointing it out to them. During the question and answer period, quite a few students brought the change in his speech to his attention. John discussed how he had lived both sides of the world. He started out as a productive member of society and then he became the stereotypical homeless bum and drug addict. He lost everything and ended up bouncing from shelter to shelter, living anywhere he could lay his head. He urged the students to stay in school, to trust and believe in themselves, and never to let anyone tell them that they cannot accomplish their goals in life. He encouraged students to hold themselves in high esteem, because they deserve it. He told them that no matter where they came from or what they have been through, they can make it in this world. The students had tons of comments and questions. They related to John's story and expressed a lot of similarities. They commended him on how he turned his life around. John demonstrated that he was no longer a victim, but a victor.

Isylma, the oldest of the panel members, is from Jamaica and enjoys learning and supporting positive causes. I found it quite interesting that she had chosen to speak to the students on respect. I admire her non-nonsense attitude. I also found it interesting that she felt the reason children didn't have respect for themselves or for each other is because they did not receive respect at home. During preparation for the forum, I must say I was kind of skeptical about Isylma because she has a very bold spirit. Unless you know her, she can be a handful. But she was awesome. I saw how, in the beginning, the students didn't want to hear anything she was trying to deliver. So she spoke to the students on a personal level and shared lots of information about her culture and the way she was brought up. She talked a lot about respecting yourself in all that you do.

Tylon spoke with the students on drugs and gang violence. He talked about wanting to be a part of a gang, and the advantages and disadvantages of being in a gang. He shared some of the details of his personal life, including losing his daughter and his girlfriend from gang retaliation. These deaths caused great pain. He talked to the students with sincere honesty. He expressed his concerns about the youth today and how important education is. Ty shared about how hard it was for him to get out of the gang, and about how he had to relocate because of the name he had made for himself. Today, he wants to work with youth to help keep them from going astray. Ty was brutally honest about gang life. He encouraged the young people to stay in school. The students shared their feelings about peer pressure, and about being bullied for not being part of a gang. They really talked back and forth with Ty, as he told his story.

The junior high students seemed to enjoy the forum. They asked questions and the teachers asked if we would do it again. The students who participated in putting this together, as well as those who sat on the panel, really developed some great leadership skills. They were able to develop unity. I believe strongly that they felt like they can and did make a difference in the lives of the young people, as well as their own.

Working with the students on this project was a rewarding experience. Although it was time consuming, the more we developed the forum, the more growth occurred in the students as well as in myself. We have learned how to put forms together, to gather data and use it to achieve our visions. Students learned better writing, research, public speaking, and advocacy skills; they learned brainstorming and conflict resolution, planning, and patience. They bonded and became leaders. Most important, they learned the vital role they play in their communities.

About the Author

Deborah L. Johnson has been at the Urban League of Greater Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut, for three years as a life skills teacher and an AIDS counselor. Her mission is to work with youth and young adults.