Pongo Poetry Project’s mission is to engage youth in writing poetry to inspire healing and growth. For over 20 years, Pongo has mentored poetry with children at the Child Study Treatment Center (CSTC), the only state-run psychiatric hospital for youth in Washington State. Many CSTC youth are coping with severe emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges. Approximately 40% of youth arrive at CSTC having been court ordered to get treatment; however, by the end of their stay, most youth residents become voluntary participants. Pongo believes there is power in creative expression, and articulating one’s pain to an empathetic audience. Through this special monthly column in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald, Pongo invites readers to bear witness to the pain, resilience, and creative capacity of youth whose voices and perspectives are too often relegated to the periphery. For an opportunity to learn Pongo’s trauma-informed techniques for facilitating personal, healing poetry in your classroom, therapeutic practice, or community space, join their training on May 22nd.
STRENGTH AND HOPE
by a young person, age 12
Strength is something you get by being brave, willing to put your life in the eternal grave.
Risking everything to save the one thing you want most, going back and forth coast to coast.
Pongo Poetry Project’s mission is to engage youth in writing poetry to inspire healing and growth. For over 20 years, Pongo has mentored poetry with youth at the Children & Family Justice Center (CFJC), King County’s juvenile detention facility. Many CFJC residents are youth of color who have endured traumatic experiences in the form of abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence. These incidents have been caused and exacerbated by community disinvestment, systemic racism, and other forms of institutional oppression. In collaboration with CFJC staff, Pongo poetry writing offers CFJC youth a vehicle for self-discovery and creative expression that inspires recovery and healing. Through this special monthly column in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald, Pongo invites readers to bear witness to the pain, resilience, and creative capacity of youth whose voices and perspectives are too often relegated to the periphery.For an opportunity to learn Pongo’s trauma-informed techniques for facilitating personal, healing poetry in your classroom, therapeutic practice, or community space, join their training on May 22.
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.”
Christians are called to listen for how the ancient scriptures speak to our contemporary circumstances. From Isaiah to Jesus we hear an exhortation to stand with those who are oppressed and imprisoned. This call to solidarity is a call to relationship, a call to offer comfort to those who suffer and a call to confront the powers and principalities that perpetuate such suffering. This calling, deeply rooted in the Christian faith, coupled with the voices of youth participating in the No New Youth Jail movement, compel people of faith to rise and testify.Constructing this “Children and Family Justice Center” without addressing the broken system upon which it is built through dialogue with those most affected will only perpetuate systemic racism that oppresses youth of color.
Those who seek to follow the way of Christ quickly discover that this way leads to a relationship of mutuality with those marginalized, oppressed and dehumanized by those in power. It is those with power who have who have created the plan for the new youth jail. Their hearts may hold the best of intentions but they will have a devastating impact if they don’t listen to the communities who are being oppressed by the criminal justice system. Youth of color commit crimes at the same rates as white youth, but are arrested, charged, sentenced and denied opportunities for alternative programs at higher rates than white youth. At every step in the process from childhood to inmate, the disproportionately harsh treatment of youth of color is amplified (Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).
This is an unjust system and this injustice does not happen by accident. As Michelle Alexander describes in her book, The New Jim Crow, the mass incarceration of people of color has become our nation’s way of continuing to oppress people of color. As slavery was abolished, the Jim Crow laws and fear of lynching took over as the mechanism of social control. As Jim Crow laws were outlawed, our policies and enforcement around incarceration became the new, more“politically correct” form of slavery (Alexander, 2010). Our juvenile justice system takes children who are already more likely to have had adverse childhood experiences from the poverty and racism that is embedded in our society and puts them into an environment that has been documented to create further trauma.In fact, the best predictor of who will be incarcerated as an adult, is whether they were incarcerated as a child (Gatti, Tremblay, & Vitaro, 2009). This means that incarceration is not a solution, but a last resort.
In order to change the root causes that lead to incarceration of youth of color, deep institutional changes in our criminal justice system need to be nurtured and fed at a grassroots level. In demanding change we must recognize that the vision must be shaped by those who are most affected by the injustice of caging youth. The Christian faith teaches that cultural privilege of any form, be it race, socio-economic status, gender identity, is not to be wielded as a right but released as means for uplifting the crushed. Power, in all of its forms is not to be hoarded and consolidated as a means of control but poured out so that the voices of all may be heard with dignity and respect.
The No New Youth Jail movement is one that is led by youth of color because they are the ones affected by racism in their daily lives and therefore have an expertise that no degree or research can match. The creativity and energy that I have witnessed on this campaign is transformative in the way that tells me that the sacred spirit of truth and wisdom is at work. My belief in what is possible for reforming systems of oppression is rooted in a faith that speaks of beauty from ashes and new life from that which is broken and reeks of death.
The No New Youth Jail movement is working within the context of a world that is often unjust, but people of faith and as anti-racist organizers are called to think beyond the banal possibilities sprung from false dichotomies and forced choices. I understand the concern for a facility falling into disrepair yet there lives a greater threat in the destruction created by the broken system the facility is built upon. We cannot accept a slight decrease in the number of beds in the new youth jail when we know that we can prevent them from being needed at all; we cannot accept making jail a more comfortable place when we know that it will always be a cage for our youth; we cannot accept racism as just an afterthought in the minds of our leaders when we know that it is destroying the lives of people of color.
I stand with youth of color as they seek solutions that are rooted in their understanding of how the juvenile justice system perpetuates racism and I am committed to lending my hands, feet and mouth to their work as they speak truth to power.
The Rev. Brandon Duran is ordained for ministry by the United Church of Christ and currently serves as the Associate Minister for Youth and Young Adults at Plymouth Church Seattle. This editorial reflects the views of Rev. Duran who can be reached at Brandon.Duran@gmail.com. To learn more about Plymouth see http://www.plymouthchurchseattle.org. To learn more about the United Church of Christ see http://www.ucc.org.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York:New Press, The.
Gatti, U., Tremblay, R. E., & Vitaro, F. (2009). Iatrogenic effect of juvenile justice. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 50(8), 991–8. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19673053
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