This summer, 12+ welcomed six new talented individuals to the team through the 2014-2015 Fellows Initiative. These Fellows are commissioned to implement workshops, to provide academic assistance, and to serve our students in the PLUS Centers of our partner schools, Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Penn Treaty School. Here, we document their stories.
Christine, a native to the Philadelphia area and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, came to 12+ with a heart to serve inner city youth. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Biblical Counseling and enjoys sharing her love of dance and fashion with her students.
In our neighborhood of Kensington, our students come from very different backgrounds. You walk around and you can’t help but notice the brokenness that defines this neighborhood and you meet these students and you see how this environment has shaped them and their outlook in life. In the hallways you see the hustle and bustle of getting to class, you hear the yelling between people, you see fairly obvious cliques. In the PLUS Center, students come in to use the computer, to say “hi” to the staff members they know, or to just hang out with their friends. Throughout the school there is a mixing of minds, cultures, and personalities all in one place.
What does it look like to cultivate culture? How does culture shape who we are, how we think, how we act? What does culture mean to an individual versus a community? These were some of the questions that came to mind as I started thinking about this year and how my job description as “Culture Fellow” would play out. Often times whenever I think about culture, I consider what identifies me. My nationality, race, sex, religious affiliation, the list goes on. Everything that could define me, or anyone, has subcultures tied to it that somehow feed into a greater culture. How our cultures shape us, relates into how we shape society. So how do you go about creating a unifying culture in a place that has so many different cultures pulsating through it? How do you get the student body/school to “buy in” to what we’re trying to create?
One of our programs is our PLUS Leader program which trains student leaders in developing their leadership skills. This past week we had our second PLUS Leader Workshop looking at the “Peaks and Valleys” in our lives and the value of our personal narratives. Our exercise was to map out the narrative in our lives identifying high and low points and then sharing them with each other. After I explained the activity, I mentioned that we’d be sharing our narratives with each other, and immediately I saw looks of panic across the room. This required them to be honest and vulnerable with their peers in a way that maybe they hadn’t before, and many of them were notably anxious. After giving them time to construct their “peaks and valleys” map, we split into groups and shared. I made sure the students knew that whatever was shared in this space stayed in this space, and in insuring the safety of their stories, many of them opened up in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It’s really easy to talk about oneself in a general way to meet the requirements of an activity without really pushing one to be more intentionally vulnerable. However these students went deeper, expanding upon their points and sharing details about themselves and their personal lives that both moved me and impressed me with how brave they were being. What encouraged me afterwards, was how the students responded after each person shared. They encouraged each other, they affirmed each other, they shared stories of how they related to certain aspects of each other's stories, and suddenly it didn’t feel like we were just a group of different individuals, but a community of people who had shared in the victories and hardships of life.
Walking into the doors of KHSA, there are seemingly apparent differences between the students and myself. In our society, we’re often taught that despite being a “melting pot”, these differences create two parties. “Us” and “them”. Between these two parties, there’s a feeling of apprehension towards the unknown, and so everyone has their walls up, guarding themselves from being vulnerable. On several occasions, our team has been trying to take pictures of our students, and when prompted to smile, a lot of them reply, “I don’t smile. I just don’t do it.” Even with something as little as getting someone to smile, you see how a culture shaped by toughness and mistrust of those around you has shaped a lot of our students to seem cold and tough on the outside. But they’re only youths. Yet the harsh reality of life has taught them that the only way to survive is to “grow up” and fast.
I get it. In a lot of ways, I can relate to this caution towards anything vulnerable and “soft”. I know what it’s like to feel like there’s no one that believes in you. To not know who to trust. To feel stuck. So many times I see the teenage version of myself in my students, and my heart cries out for them. In the greater scheme of things, I can’t change what happens outside the walls of the PLUS Center, or our school. I can’t change the hardships that my students face. And if I was coming in with this savior complex, it’d be really easy to be discouraged in realizing how “little” I can actually change in a student’s life. But regardless of that, what I can do, is I can engage this culture of being cool and guarded and cultivate a space and culture for vulnerability, warmth, and inner strength to thrive. I think that’s why I value so much of what it is that we do here at 12+. Obviously, there’s this focus on academics and achieving post-secondary education and goals, but beyond that, we focus on building relationships with our students. By building these relationships, we engage this point of contact between cultures and create a new culture. In this space, we are able to break through the walls and see the core of each student: their dreams, fears, aspirations, etc. It’s in this space that we can Believe, Act, and Inspire. And it’s in this space that we can change and be changed.
Have I figured out all the questions that I’ve been wrestling with? Probably not. However I’m starting to understand that rather than trying to find all the answers to these theoretical questions and come up with radical ways to engage and cultivate the culture at the school, a lot more gets accomplished through the conversations, laughs, hugs, “peaks” and “valleys” that we share. And the culture that we create is no longer defined by segregation, but by unity and friendship.