‘The Shadow Beside Me’: Seattle Nonprofit Debuts Poetry From King County Juvenile Detention

by Mark Van Streefkerk 


“You see that I am always getting in trouble

Trouble follows me

like a shadow right behind me, always

You see that I am always in fights

Always rebel fights, arguments

But you don’t know me. I’m not that type of person

I’m really caring, giving

Always trying to help people”

Those are the opening lines to “Josiah,” a poem by 16-year-old Damian, a youth incarcerated at Seattle’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), formerly King County Juvenile Detention. “Josiah” appears in The Shadow Beside Me, a new anthology of poems from youth at CFJC, published by the Pongo Poetry Project. In the poem, Damian writes about how life changed when his friend Josiah was shot and killed. “Josiah was the only person we knew who had graduated / had a job, and had something going for him / When he left, it broke me.” 

Damian, who like all poets in the anthology have had their names and other identifying details changed to protect their privacy, was a participant in the Pongo Teen Writing program at CFJC. With help from trained poetry mentors, incarcerated youth in the program write poetry from the heart. Poems can often describe personal experiences of violence, homelessness, poverty, addiction, or assault. But they also explore youth themes about heroes, resilience and courage, or the life they wish for once they get out of detention. 

(image courtesy of Pongo Poetry Project)

The Shadow Beside Me is the 15th anthology from Pongo, a Seattle nonprofit whose methodology and training has been taught around the world as a way to facilitate poetry written by homeless or incarcerated youth or youth with disabilities. Through Pongo poetry, youth can open up and ameliorate the lasting effects of trauma. Writing poetry is also a space where youth are listened to and believed, especially impactful for youth who lack access to traditional counseling or expressive arts. 

“I want everyone to read it,” said Pongo Poetry Project development manager Nebeu Shimeles. “Youth that are in these facilities are often seen as disposable; they are often seen as not having value; they are seen as people we shouldn’t be listening to. That’s part of the reason they might be funneled into these facilities. I think the act of sharing their stories and showing that they have value is really important. I want to get a book in front of as many people as I can.”

Shimeles noted that at CFJC, 87% of youth are Youth of Color. “We know that social and systemic injustices are things that our youth often bring up in their poetry and are often times the reason they are in a facility like the Children and Family Justice Center, whether that be racist policing, over policing, or hyper policing in their communities, significant generational disinvestment in the communities that our youth come from,” he said. 

In Seattle, Pongo poetry mentors visit CFJC and the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC) once a week (during COVID-19, the weekly visits are virtual). The sessions start with check-ins or group activities and then a one-on-one 30- to 45-minute writing session with a poetry mentor. Sessions end with an optional group share. To help remove barriers to creative expression, mentors use a few different techniques such as dictation (or simply recording the poem as the youth speaks it), fill-in-the-blank prompts, or other improvisational ideas like writing a “wish poem.” Youth can also write on their own with mentors offering ideas or check-ins as needed. 

Shaun McMichael, an English teacher and Pongo Poetry Project program manager, said “The first and most important thing of our method is a judgement-free stance. We listen to youth, what they have to say in the words they have to say it, even if the emotions they are expressing are very difficult to hold. Even if they’re expressing behaviors that might appear strange or we may have some anxiety around. We are here to listen to them and record what they have to say. We’re there unequivocally to be the fan of the poem that’s being created.” 

When mentors write or type what the poet says, it eliminates any self-consciousness around handwriting or spelling. Mentors ask clarifying questions like “Would you like to say more?” or “How did that affect you?” The questions are open-ended to not push the poet to talk about uncomfortable issues. “We facilitate poetry in a conversational process,” explained McMichael. “We record and at the same time the poet remains in control of how that’s recorded. Youth are invited to omit, to scratch things out, to add to it. We offer ideas, but it’s ultimately the poet’s work. This element of control and freedom the poet has as they’re creating the poem with us is wholly different than the traumatic moments they often share about in which they had no control.” 

Surveys from Pongo poets over 15 years show high rates of satisfaction (graphic courtesy of Pongo Poetry Project)

Pongo Poetry Project was founded 25 years ago by Richard Gold. As an expressive therapist with a master’s degree in poetry, Gold started a poetry group in San Francisco in the late 1970s with students with disabilities. He received positive feedback from psychiatrists and counselors who reported that youth were able to unpack issues they couldn’t in other treatments. In the 1990s he launched the first Pongo Poetry Project at the former Orion Center, guiding the project as volunteer executive director until his recent retirement. Pongo is a character from Gold’s own poems, based on the story of Pinnochio, who has to escape the clutches of a cruel and uncaring father, learning empathy and compassion on his way to becoming human. 

Working with psychiatrists from the University of Washington, Gold fine-tuned a trauma-informed technique that has been taught to therapists, counselors, educators, and other volunteers who want to help youth through poetry. 

Surveys collected since 2005 reveal that 99% of Pongo poets enjoyed the experience, 73% said they wrote about things they don’t normally talk about, and 81% felt better after writing. In addition to being an artistic and therapeutic process for youth, documenting these poems also changes the people who read them. Pongo anthologies have positive influences on counselors and service providers at inpatient or detention facilities. McMichael said that reading youth poems can “change the dynamic of conflict” that can happen at these facilities. These poems by youth who endure hardships and trauma, often compounded by racial inequities, creates greater empathy and understanding. 

“We think that the young people who have had difficult lives have important things to say and important things to teach us, and that if we as a society could read their words more often, that could change things for the better,” said McMichael.

Order your copy of The Shadow Beside Me here

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website at markvanstreefkerk.com and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter.

Featured image of CFJC by Susan Fried

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