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.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 7

Sidekick to break a board
"Thot" is derogatory slang for a ho, slut, or whore. Demonstrating how they have overcome that word and those who say it, the Girl World girls painted it and other words like it on white pine boards and planned to snap them all with kicks and karate chops. Even if you know nothing about martial arts, you have probably heard of breaking boards and can envision the feeling of power that comes from cracking through a thick piece of wood with your bare hand/foot. Although technical difficulties with the board forced me to do the kicking and snapping, in the end, the words and their implications still fell broken to the ground in a symbolic Girl World victory.

Week 7 was the last week of martial activities for Girl World. And as with every other week, it brought a mix of unexpected delights and challenges, some of which threatened to outright ruin the entire class. Thankfully, our session ended with an awesome board break, a very excited group of youth, and an overall great atmosphere. Here are some general reflections on the class. Specifically, I want to talk about the planning that goes into youth development work and the bigger issues of female empowerment that underlay our session.

It's one of the first things you learn both in school and on the job, but you still need to experience it dozens of times to believe it. When planning youth programs, expect all of your plans to fall apart. If you are lucky, you can hastily cobble something together from the pieces. If you are unlucky, you just have to sweep them out of sight and start from scratch. To some extent, this was present in every Girl World class, but Week 7 offered the most compelling example of careful plans that rapidly came undone.

Here was the plan for Week 7: Girls would paint a stereotype on a piece of wood, let the paint dry while practicing board breaking techniques, and then they would break them. We planned this weeks in advance, bought the boards and the paint, and were setup and ready to go almost an hour before the girls even arrived at the building. Because we knew that the class depended on materials as much as curriculum, program staff followed strict specifications for the boards (the right length, height, and thickness) and the paint (quick-drying, not too messy).

Girl World starts at 4:00 PM. At around 3:45 PM, the program leader came up to me to show me the boards that she had bought, having followed all of my guidelines for which pieces to buy. It looked great at first glance, at least until I noticed something that I had completely forgotten to mention. The wood was up to muster in every respect except for one, and that last quality was probably the most important one to get right.

Breaking boards!
Used to demonstrate your strength and martial technique!

Here's the thing: Board breaking is mostly an illusion of strength and power. That's not to say that it doesn't take strong technique to break boards, and a stack of even the shoddiest pieces of wood still represents a formidable target for even a strong practitioner. But board breaking has a few tricks that make it work. You hold the board on the edges so it can bend in. You hit dead center. You avoid boards with knots in the wood, and you use softer woods like white pine instead of sturdy oak or elm.

Most importantly, and this is what we messed up, you hit PARALLEL to the grain of the wood. For those who don't go around breaking boards or building stuff on a daily basis, a wood's grain is the lining on the surface. If you hit parallel to the grain, it splits along the little fissures. That's how everyone from 6 year-olds to 60 year-olds break boards. But if you hit perpendicular to the grain, the only thing you tend to split is your fist; that's the grain used in construction, not in martial arts. It turns out that construction boards are meant to withstand forces a lot stronger than a 24 year-old martial artists' sidekick (or mallet swing).

Building boards.
Used for building shit. Like, houses.
At 3:50 PM, we realized that we had a stack of boards with the grain running the wrong way. We couldn't just rotate the boards because they were thin planks, and the grain was running lengthwise from top to bottom, not widthwise from side to side like it should have. I went outside to see if the board was breakable. After kicking it, stomping it, jumping on it, and smashing it with a mallet, it became clear that the only thing that was about to break was my foot.

There was no way that the girls were going to split any of their boards without either a chainsaw or a sudden Hulk transformation. That was a serious problem, given that we had set up 15 stations with paints and boards, and that they were already walking through the door at the end of my failed tests. This forced program staff to immediately rethink the entire session, both so it would still convey our underlying message, and so it wouldn't be a disappointment for the girls.

Thankfully, I happened to have some boards in the trunk of my car (add that to the list of odd things you find in martial artist's car), only one of which was usable for a break. So the girls painted one word on that board and I ended up performing the break; the board was too big for them to get without previous experience, and we didn't want anyone to hurt themselves.

There are a few morals of this story. The first, returning to my opening sentence, is that youthwork is as much about improvisation as it is about careful planning. Something always goes wrong in every session, and your success as a youth worker depends on your ability to rebound and recover from those situations. That can be very difficult when the failure was in your own carefully executed plans. Indeed, it almost feels like a personal failure, not a program one. In this case, we had planned the session for weeks and built up to it amongst ourselves and the girls, so we were quite reluctant to admit the failure.

The second moral touches on another point I have discussed in the past: Don't take yourself or your work too seriously. That's as true for martial artists as it is for youth workers. When I couldn't break the board, my initial instinct was to drill down on my technique and figure out why my sidekick was so weak that it couldn't beat an inanimate splinter from a dead tree. Instead of despairing or self-criticizing, I realized it was much better to laugh about it; as said before, it turns out that it's hard to break wood designed to hold up an entire house. The same goes for the session design itself. Instead of making it about a failed idea, we turned it into a demonstration of an experienced martial artist as a way to show the girls "you can do this too with training!". In hindsight, I am a bit disappointed in the underlying implications of my breaking the board instead of them. It felt a bit misogynistic, even if by accident and not design, and I vastly preferred our initial plan to the revision. But the girls still loved the class and had a great time, so I try and avoid becoming too academic or analytical about it.

One of the aims of winter Girl World was to give a positive and encouraging introduction to exercise. As I mentioned in one of my first posts on the program, many Girl World girls were tired of being automatically assigned to traditionally feminine exercise options. Some wanted to play football. Others wanted to wrestle. Others still just wanted to be able to get stronger without a friend or family member telling them that lifting makes your arms and legs look gross. To finish the winter semester, girls and staff wanted an empowering activity that would serve as a culmination of all their talks and training. From a martial perspective, there's nothing better than board breaking to fill that goal, even if they didn't get to break the board themselves (more on that later).

When thinking about Girl World, it is important to think about the issues at its foundation. Engaging in physical activity, martial or otherwise, is inherently a process of overcoming barriers. This includes mental barriers ("This exercise is too hard"), physical barriers (your heart rate hits 150 when you walk up stairs, let alone go for a jog), and logistical barriers (gyms are expensive and schedules are busy). For young women, however, there is an added obstacle that they must negotiate: popular perceptions. We have either heard them or said them, perhaps jokingly, and everyone is familiar with them from an early age: "Girls don't sweat". "Too much muscle looks ugly". "Contact sports are for boys". "Women are weak". Although it is possible to overcome these hurdles, they are a challenge that every prospective female athlete or casual exerciser will consider. And the younger you are the more powerful these stereotypes feel, even if they are no truer of a Girl World teenager than an Olympic competitor.

Our initial form of the board breaking activity was clearly a protest against these barriers. The girls would not only break boards themselves, a clear personal statement of strength, but would also break the harmful words painted on them. Moreover, they could take the shards home as a trophy to remind them of their success.

The girls still enjoyed the revised form of the exercises in which I broke the board myself, but it wasn't as satisfying for me. I won't speak for other program staff. The problem was that I, an experienced martial artist and male, was breaking the board they had painted. The girls were just watching. It was much more non participatory than our first activity idea, although it was clear that the girls were quite excited and anything but disengaged. Even so, the symbolism wasn't as meaningful with me as the breaker, even if we didn't really have another option.

This brings it back to the underlying purpose of the winter Girl World program, which was, in essence, female empowerment through exercise and physical activity. The board break may not have been the most exemplary instance of this objective, but as a culminating activity to the semester, it still drove home our point. After all, even though they didn't break the board, they had already kicked, punched, and wrestled for 5 weeks, and the growth they went through in even that small amount of time was clear to anyone who watched them.

In the end, I would not say that Girl World "succeeded" at defeating gender stereotypes and overcoming harmful perceptions, but the program certainly empowered the girls to fight against those in the future. And with any luck, this will not be the last time that we see boards broken in Girl World.

The paint wasn't quick-drying after all