When I first started coming around this space for formally incarcerated youth, we had conversations of what this could become and it was very exciting. The idea of having a space for young people to come in and work together autonomously is something we don’t see enough of these days. I feel like often younger people are treated like they do not have a mind of their own and told what to do or are coddled. I felt like this was something I would dedicate time and energy in for sure.
But after the meeting I had on Friday with one of the “caretakers” I have decided to not continue to work with them.
Overall, I have noticed a trend in the two caretakers I work with being very controlling over this space. For example, I have not once been invited to bring ideas, help facilitate discussions, bring in projects or anything. When I have tried to step up more recently, I was pretty much shot down. First, I brought up doing some more activities, perhaps doing some readings, with C (since at the time he was the only one showing up weekly) and was told that we (not including me) would have to think of some thing that will make the space more exciting. I recently had written an email to the caretakers saying I wanted to be more hands on in this space. I talked about wanting to do more in and out of the space, and offered to head up events or projects with C. I have even tried to push to do projects with them outside of the space and am always shot down.
Last week when I came in I decided to push to hang out more with the young people who came by talking to them directly. I have tried with C in the past but he was going through a lot and didn’t seem enthusiastic about hanging out with me. This could be because he was feeling anti-social. It could be because this space is now not as exciting as it first was and has now become a paid job, something he has to do. Or he might just not want to hang out with me. But whatever the case, on this day both C and J were there and I decided to try at it again with the both of them. It was going to be impossible to develop the kind of relationship I wanted to have with them just by showing up on Tuesdays alone. Also, I wanted to try to push organizing, something they both showed interest in doing and wasn’t happening in this space.
My first attempt: There was an art project that needed to be completed. I offered to do this with them during the weekend. This way the project could get completed, I could head up a project for the first time, and I could have time to develop my relationship with them. But this was shot down immediately as one of the caretakers said she wanted to be involved and we could just wait until a Tuesday to do it. I felt again that they were controlling and wouldn’t let me do any of the work. On top of that I was shocked that they wouldn’t be pushing for me to be wanting to participate in a more hands on fashion, instead they saw this as a threat. But, I didn’t push the issue. I could have asked C and J if they wanted to wait until a couple weeks or if they’d prefer to do it that weekend. I didn’t push it though.
My second attempt: Then at the end of our session I asked both C and J if they would be interested in doing some readings with me. A group that I am involved in was meeting during the weekend and I thought it would be cool if they came out. I got J’s phone number (I already had C’s) and said I’d hit them up during the weekend (something I did and was unable to get a hold of C so far, but J said he was interested in coming out to a meeting of this group working around prison issues that I am a part of).
The next day I got calls, voice messages, an email and a text message from R, one of the caretakers. He wanted to set up a meeting with me for Friday. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen, and again, thinking back I could have used this to push for more transparency and suggest we wait until Tuesday to discuss issues of this space without everyone being present. Not thinking into it enough I agreed to go and went alone.
During that meeting I saw some of the worst aspects of the Left here in Austin shining through. I was told that if I wanted to continue to work in this space I would need to learn “the process”, agree to the terms of learning that process, and once I earned the trust of everyone there and have shown that I understand the process then and only then could I begin to contribute to the space.
I was told I was disrespectful to the caretakers by getting the contact information of J. Pretty much that my relationship with them is only through this space and should not exist outside of it. I was also told that the role of a mentor is not to be friends with these young people, that there must be constant distance between us.
I guess my idea of what it meant to be a mentor was different than the expectations of me as such within this space. My understanding of a mentor is someone who has more experience and plays the role to hang out, talk and challenge, to learn and grow with, someone you trust and look up to, someone who can teach you about their experiences but give you the tools to find your own way also. So when I approached this space, and the young people who came around, I did it with the idea that being a mentor is a full-time gig, not a once a week thing. I knew I would have to develop a relationship with them first, one of trust and respect both ways.
I tried to think about talking to them more than just in that space, to make our relationship stronger and not just be based on a once a week time for a few hours. I invited them out to come to a study group because I wanted to again, build our relationship, and also to get them reading new things, talking about their experiences as young people who, for C, was incarcerated and continues to deal with a lot of stresses at home, and in life, and J, who also has so much to offer and express that I feel I could learn from them both and would hope I had something to offer as well. There is nothing sneaky or wrong about this. I thought the point of this space was to share ideas, to grow together, to create art and also movement.
But after talking to R, I see that my understanding of my role in this space was wrong. I was told that I should come and observe and learn the process, and only when I know the process then can I contribute to this space in any other capacity than that. And when I said I thought that this was my space to create and participate equally to others I was told, basically, that I am not an equal and that I should learn and be quiet and follow.
But what is this process? It is one that comes from the “elders”. It is learning how to use art to create social change. That art is so powerful that it alone can cause people to get together to fight, something both C and J argued against. It is the method of pedagogy that has been passed down from the ex-pinta that started this space to the caretakers that resign there now. Although they are very focused on bringing in youth their approach to young people is backward. R explained to me that these young people are “vulnerable” and that they (the caretakers) need to protect them against things, including recruiters – which I apparently am. Also by not allowing new ideas to be shared with them without first going through the caretakers it suggests that these young people can’t think for themselves to the point that even ideas need to be censored.
And when we talked about this rigid process, R expressed to me that at times he feels they are going backwards, but you have to trust in the process and in the elders and keep it up. There is no changing with the times, no evolving, growing, changing. They are so stuck to this process that even the young people who participate in the space can not influence this process. There is no room for autonomy here. You can not build here.
There is a serious failure here for the left. Why are we pushing out willing excited people who want to do the work? Why can’t we be up front and honest with young people and allow them to come to their own conclusions, make their own choices? If we would listen we would see that they have a lot to teach us. Instead the left is holding on to old ass political “processes” that have failed us in the past, why should we idolize our elders to the point of being unable to critique them? Let’s build something new, not forgetting the past or our elders, but by growing from where they left us, by moving forward. Are we so afraid to fail that we won’t move at all? The youth is going to lead the way whether we are ready for it or not. I’d rather learn and grow with them than push them away. They are not children. They are fighters, they express wanting to fight and are trying to learn how by being in this space but instead of being able to grow they are only offered the methods of the past. C and J have fought against some of the methods of this space. Yet when they do it is not taken seriously only ended on the note “I disagree”. I say step out of the way viejos and let the young lead the way!