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Overcoming Poverty and Prison: Helping Teens Write
By Jasmine Bager


Writing about overcoming adversity can help mend broken pasts was the theme of a recent Youth Communication’s “Listen v. Lockup, Unheard Stories from Teens in Trouble” fundraiser event. For the past 30 years, the New York-based organization has been encouraging impressionable teens to “reach for a pen, instead of a fist.” The Youth Communication mission has been helping marginalized youth use the power of their own words to overcome emotional turmoil from their violent pasts. The youth writing program can be done part-time during the school year and fulltime during vacations. It offers these young men and women the chance to be paid writers. Professional editors, who help the teens draft cohesive essays or poems, review each piece before publication. Sometimes it takes up to 20 edits. The result is then included in one of the organization’s magazines or books. The exercise helps these teens express themselves. It also offers readers a true snapshot of how life can be like as a teen trying to survive in tough environments.

The night included a powerful impromptu performance by three passionate teens, who walked along the aisles of the packed auditorium, telling stories of life’s challenges on the street. A large screen played clips from the 2012 documentary, The Central Park Five, which showed the true story of the infamous 1989 rape case of a white woman who was jogging in Central Park in NYC. Five unlucky black teenagers, who were standing nearby, were eventually jailed for decades for a crime that they did not commit.

Raymond Santana, one of those wrongfully convicted teens in the rape case, was a panel speaker. Writing had a positive impact on him during those turbulent years. He talked about his time at Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, where he participated in a writing youth workshop, run by Youth Communication. Sarah Burns, author of the Central Park Five book, was also on the panel. She said that the purpose of the film, like the writing youth programs, was to “humanize” and to hear “directly from the guys.” The panel centered on topics that defied the stereotype. Journalist Neil Barsky, director of the Koch documentary and co-founder of a hedge fund, stated that this initiative was “not just ticking a box, the one that says ‘least likely to succeed.’” One of the most recent participants of the program, Marlo Scott, was on the panel, too. Scott has been a staff writer at Represent Magazine—one of the publications of the program—since 2011. He lived a life of poverty as a child, which resulted in depression and anger.

He took the attitude of “I don’t care, ‘cause no one else cares,” he said. The writing program helped him gain confidence and have a sense of purpose. He proudly talked about how he “didn’t write to satisfy the teacher’s curriculum,” but that he wrote because it was what he was passionate about. 

Founder and Executive Director Keith Hefner said that this event was “to engage those who are most disengaged: the young people who have been let down by the adults in their lives.” He spoke of how he approached the probation officers with books to hand to the teens years ago. The response he got from those probation officers was, “I hope it’s Facebook (the social media networking site), because that is the only book that they’ll read.” That wasn’t so. The students not only asked if they could take those books home, but they even came earlier than their approved times to dive into the pages. Many of these were “kids who were running around in the streets for years or locked down in their homes. When they got out at 13, they had poor education and poor skills. These stories taught them what others are going through. It helped them socialize. When the kids knew that they could read stories, they wanted to write their own.” He highlighted the story of a student who was astounded when one of the books he was given mirrored the teen’s own life. When the teen looked at the author of the book, he found that it was written by his very own principal, Shawn Welcome, two decades earlier. Now, a successful educator and writer, Welcome spoke to the panel and how “the fog of anger and hurt began to lift away from his life,” when he used writing as a tool after years of being in trouble on the streets.

The packed house watched attentively as the lights dimmed again and the words of the two male teens and one female teen echoed loud and proud. They recited words of hurt and pain, things like, “Nobody listens to me and I dropped out of school at 14.” Slowly, the teens described how writing helped them heal. Working with an editor, one of the teens says, was like holding up a mirror. Another chimed in how second chances made them proud of their own reflections now.

Hefner concluded, “if we don’t allow children to speak, we rob ourselves from listening and helping them grow. The goal is to expand and to reach youth directly in the front lines.” #



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