To have conversation about diversity and social justice, we must first understand our stories and ourselves. From there we have the ability to hold space for the stories of others. My final project for SW 504: Social Justice and Diversity in Social Work looks at the stories of the young men at my field placement in the juvenile justice system. To contextualize and generalize (for the sake of this project) their experience, they are in a high secure residential setting for an average of a year. The pod I work with consists of 11 young men, all of whom have a very different story but some that may share similar elements. For my final project I planned two story telling activities.
Activity 1 Overview: Inside Outside
For one group therapy session, the residents on my pod engaged in creative expression. The activity is called “Inside, Outside.” To participate in this activity, grab a sheet of paper and fold both outside edges in until they meet in the middle like a set of doors. From there you will write or draw qualities that you think other perceive of you on the outside of these doors. For example, other may perceive me as a student, a sister, hardworking and positive. After you have completed this “Outside,” open the paper’s doors to the inside and write qualities or identities you see of yourself. These “Inside” qualities represent how you view yourself from your own lens, and not the “Outside” lens of others.
Inside Outside Experience
Common “Inside” themes from my residents include being strong willed, resilient, honest, and intelligent. Some residents had similar patterns in how others see them and how they see themselves, repeating words on inside and outside. These qualities hold true to their internal and external behavior. Others had no qualities that overlapped between how others saw them and how they saw themselves. I wonder why this is. Is it because ‘others’ do not see an authentic version of them, but see a mask of who they are? Is it because the ‘others’ may refer to the fellow residents, where it may be harder to trust one another? Or is it simply because they did not make the connection that others can see you as how you see yourself?
A couple residents on the “Inside” of their paper wrote ‘ME’ (See right, Figure 1). This word really sat with me. Maybe there is not a way to describe how you see yourself, it could just be a way of living, a feeling, not quantified by words.
One resident drew an abstract drawing on the “Outside” of his paper (See below, Figure 2).
When I asked him what he meant, he simply stated, “Whatever you think.” This response also brings up the question; maybe there is not a way to describe how others see you, because ultimately you do not know. For example, I know how I may behave around others, but I do not know how others perceive me. This could have been what this resident was getting at, that he is viewed in the eye of the beholder.
Below are some “Inside” and “Outside” themes pulled from the resident’s creative expression pieces. I noticed that if the resident included negative qualities they were more likely to be on the “Outside.” I have held this observation with me, that many of the residents are seen as qualities they do not hold true on the “Inside.” The juvenile justice system has the ability to perpetuate these perspectives that the residents are criminals, aggressive, dangerous, fighters. These views can be extremely damaging, especially when continued as they can become a part of a person’s own narrative.
View the rest of the resident’s “Inside, Outside” at the end of post 🙂
|Incarcerated, fighter, bad, love, money, respect, family, smart, leader, cool, confused, defensive||
Me vs. everybody, leader, love, talented, strong, smart, cool, resilient, loyal, self-reliant, different, me
Activity 2 Overview: Single Story
For another group therapy session, the residents viewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s Ted Talk, The danger of a single story. (Highly recommend if you have yet to see this talk!) Adichi defines the single story as a one-sided perspective of how someone or something is. When we perpetuate this single story that is what the person or thing becomes. Stories are defined by how they are told, when they are told, and how many stories accompany it. Stories are dependent on power that can foster stereotypes and rob people of their dignity, or be used to empower, humanize and repair. The residents, after watching the Ted Talk had a discussion regarding the stereotypes they have heard about themselves or that they have of others. We spoke of how it can be damaging and reduce our view of that person, or those types of people to that one story. Then the residents were tasked with writing their single story on an index card.
Single Story Experience
Four residents wrote on their index cards a single story of their committing offense, negative and void of hope. An example of one of these stories is below (Figure 3 and 4).
This resident shared his past negative experiences as important pillars to his ‘now’ story, including his father’s drug abuse and death, his mother’s incarceration, and his own behavior as an effect of his past experiences (Figure 3). On the back of his index card this resident shared important themes that were central to his story (Figure 4).
Four residents depicted their stories through drawing, leaving it up to the interpretation of others. An example of one of these stories is below (Left, Figure 5).
Note that this could be representative and abstract, or a way to participate in the activity without sharing a story that could lead to vulnerability in a space that is not always safe. (Sidebar: this is a challenge I have faced throughout my internship. Creating dialogue and listening with TING can be difficult when the environment is unfriendly, forced, and when you are surrounded by unpredictable people).
Two residents stories had a negative beginning, but a hopeful and positive end. These residents touched on past and present, and their stories represented a change for the better (See Figure 6 and 7).
View the rest of the resident’s single stories at the end of post 🙂
The lens in which we see ourselves can be affected by how we think others see us. Understanding the importance of diversity and the need for social justice begins with understanding the people we are working with, not just from our own lens but from the lens in which they see themselves. Through this project I really grasped the importance of creating the space in which others feel comfortable sharing aspects of themselves, and to share their stories. Without this type of environment, people may only choose to share ‘safe’ aspects of their story. These ‘safe’ aspects do not put the resident at risk of sharing too much, or being too vulnerable. I intend to continue working towards a space in which my residents feel they can share more aspects of themselves without concern of being judged, stereotyped, ignored, or tossed away. We must value, cherish, respect, be mindful, not judge, and thank others when they take any leap of faith in sharing what could bring down their walls. This will be a constant goal of mine, throughout life and throughout this profession.
Inside Outside: (On the left are the “Outside” qualities and how others see them. On the right are the “Inside” qualities and how they see themselves.)
Single Story index cards (One per resident with exception of one resident (indicated by part one and two)):