Monday, March 24, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 8

The winter Girl World session wrapped up two weeks ago, and Girl World martial arts ended with it. Although it is possible that our agency will offer more martial art programming in the future, Alternatives will not see any young women kicking or punching for at least 6+ months. It took far too long to finish this last post on the subject, which had nothing to do with the final session or the group and everything to do with that special species of procrastination that all college graduates are familiar with.

During that final Girl World meeting, there was no boxing, no wrestling, and no board breaking. Program staff and I agreed that we should use the final hour to reflect on our shared experiences from the semester; it is rare that young people actually have a space in which to meaningfully reflect on their programs, especially given that those programs are often designed and launched without their input. I don't have any photos from the session but hopefully by describing their reactions (and those of program staff), I can give an accurate picture of our last meeting. Twelve of us, 9 girls and 3 staff, sat in a circle in the youth center and talked for the hour while eating quesadillas. What we lacked in physical energy we made up for in the honesty of our interactions and the comfort of the space.

All of the girls enjoyed the martial art focus of winter Girl World. We know this because they told us so and if you need to know anything about Girl World girls it is that they always speak their mind. If they had not liked it (as happened during some individual sessions over the semester), program staff would be the first to know. This isn't to suggest that they all liked it for the same reasons. One girl enjoyed the novelty of an activity that girls did not traditionally do in her experience. Another said that she liked the feeling of confidence from hitting the pads. Another still just said that it was fun to hit things and let out some aggression. A larger girl pulled me aside after the circle and said she enjoyed the grappling because it was the first time she had viewed her size as an asset. One of the smallest girls in the class told me the same thing, explaining how it was fun to be so quick and agile. It was a testament to the martial arts that all of these girls could participate in the same classes and enjoy them for so vastly different reasons.

In all of this, we asked the girls how they would use their experience in Girl World in the months and years to come. At least three girls told me that they were seriously considering signing up for classes and wanted some advice on what to look for in a gym. Even for those who didn't want to commit time (and money) to martial training, they said they would remember the basic lessons of the class about technique, mindframe, and the value of physical fitness. Of course, we can't know how these classes will affect these girls in one, two, or ten years. The girls don't know either. So I don't reflect on this point to provide testimonial to how awesome martial arts are at improving the lives of young people. Rather, I mention it as an entry point to discuss the relationship between youth program curricula and the lives of the youth that they teach.

Young people engage in a lot of activities. Those with higher income and more resources tend to engage in more activities, but even disadvantaged youth from Chicago's public schools tend to have ample opportunities to join programs like those run through Alternatives. As program staff, we are often teaching our passion to these young people. Some of us teach painting, drawing, dance, or spoken word. Others teach computers, filmmaking, and programming. Those like me teach a sport or physical activity. Many of us teach multiple passions. In all these cases, we have taken a lifelong hobby of ours and packaged it for youth that we will only see for a few months. And in all those cases, our intentions are often unclear. Do we want every youth in our program to adopt our own pursuits? Do we just want to expose them to different opportunities that they don't know? If so, are we okay with their disinterest? Are we teaching them for their sakes or are we teaching the curriculum for ourselves?

These are challenging questions that every youth worker must ask. In the case of Girl World, there was certainly a "selfish" element in my martial art emphasis. There were countless other physical activities the girls could have done (football, gymnastics, weightlifting, archery, etc.), and I focused on one that was dearest to my own heart. The girls ultimately approved of the choice, but it wasn't as if someone had polled them to figure out what activity they wanted to do. They gave general guidance about doing non-traditionally female activities and I picked combat sports. So in that sense, my own bias definitely weighed heavily in the decision, even if it was not ill-intentioned.

On the other hand, at least for our program, our objective was very much to expand the girls' horizons. This was both about exposing them to martial arts as a hobby, but also about exposing them to the warrior mentality as a way of living their lives. Courage, honesty, respect, confidence, independence; these are all values that we want our girls to know, if not to adopt. By emphasizing these different concepts to them, not to mention the techniques, we certainly wanted them to incorporate some piece of it in their lives. We wanted Girl World to be more than just a one-shot program. We wanted it to open a path that they had neither traveled nor even known about.

Ultimately, I believe that the key is to let the youth choose what they want to do with your program. As a program leader, your only responsibility is to create an atmosphere where they have that choice. We had every intention of expanding their horizons and I personally would have been thrilled if everyone enrolled in karate or tae kwon do or jujitsu classes on the spot. We were also aware that the activity was not a good fit for every girl, so we encouraged them to identify concepts that they could take away from the class, even if they didn't actually want to wrestle or box. That openness is what made the semester successful, and it is something I intend on keeping in all future iterations of this program and other martial lesson plans.

About a week after Girl World ended, I was biking to lunch down Lawrence when I heard a shriek of "HI SHERIDAN!!" from the sidewalk. Because I was at the intersection of Lawrence and Sheridan (working on Sheridan road has its benefits and drawbacks), I wasn't sure if this was someone talking to me or one of Uptown's many mentally ill residents talking directly to the street; I have heard even stranger comments at that intersection so this wouldn't be unexpected. But when I turned to look, it was actually one of the girls from Girl World walking back from school with her friend. We chatted briefly and parted ways, and although I wouldn't categorize our talk as high conversation, she smiled the whole time. This was one of the girls with the best kicks, best punches, and overall best martial sensibilities in the program, and I restated my honest opinion that she should stick with one of the arts and develop her talents.

What is most interesting about this interaction is not that she remembered me or that we ran into each other near my office. Youth often remember the adults who work with them, especially only a week out from programming, and it was quite probable for me to run into at least one Girl World participant in the neighborhood. It is very interesting, however, to think about how these relationships work and what they mean in the long term.

For all its emphasis on cultivating relationships and building communities, social workers often engage in fleeting interactions. We meet with a kid a few times before his family moves, his schedule changes, or he simply loses interest. We run a program for a few months before everyone graduates or moves on and then we do it all over again. In all these cases, we like to think that we are making lasting impressions on our clients, but that is often not commensurate with the time we spend with them. And even when we do clearly leave some kind of impression, as with the girl I encountered on the street, we always wonder how it could have been better if we had more time, more money, and generally more resources for the program. For the staff, however, every interaction is often powerful and long lasting, and even when we are so overcome with fatigue from our programs and ready to just switch careers and go back to school, we tend to remain invested in all our clients, past and present.

These past blog posts are a great illustration of this principle. For many of the girls, Girl World was just another program in the unbroken chain of predominantly middle class (or higher) caucasian do-gooders helping out poor kids of color. For us do-gooders, however, each session is so powerful and enduring as to warrant its own blog post. I don't think it's unethical, but I do think that the girls would find it somewhat odd (perhaps a bit flattering but mostly very strange) that I have dedicated so many words to a session that was at most 45 minutes. At its best, that's a testament to our commitment and care. At its worst, it highlights the imbalance between the youth worker and the youth themselves. It also highlights the systemic imbalances that give rise to this impermanent way of offering youth programming.

This is a critical point when designing programs, and it is one I will remember in the future. For every youth that says "HI SHERIDAN!!" there are probably a half dozen more who I'd be lucky to have remember me as the dude with the too-tight t-shirt who did wrestling and stuff. Observations like that help us avoid the dreaded savior complex that so many in our profession fall into, and it helps us remain humble as program leaders and designers. Because ultimately, we are just one passing character in their lives, and we need to be mindful of that role. Then again, as anyone who has read a good book knows, it is often a passing character who leaves the most enduring impression, which gives us something to strive for.

Hopefully these reflections have been helpful for my colleagues and entertaining for the average reader, despite their rambling tendency. I hope to revisit this topic in the years to come as opportunities arise to teach more classes. Although those subsequent sessions are sure to be better organized and better designed than those I have written about, I will certainly not forget the warriors of Girl World 2014 anytime soon.

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