Ever since I left Wilderness Endeavors, (a restorative justice program for adjudicated youth ages 13-18) I have been trying to figure out how to cultivate this type of experience in an urban setting. How do we create a space in which youth (in this case, girls specifically) will have the opportunity to experience healthy interactions and connections with one another and still remain in their respective communities rather than be sent away. Create an emotionally safe space where stories are told, tears are shed and there is a freedom to create.
Looking back on my experience at WE I can say it seems easier to create this space in a wilderness setting. The moment your paddle takes its first stroke through the water or when your foot steps onto the well worn path, things are different. (although if you asked me while I was in the middle of it, well, let’s just say I may have had a different perspective). In the wilderness the girls are out of there comfort zone, they are removed from everyday distractions, they can not get in too much trouble considering the physical location of the program (some may disagree), in addition, a community is created based on collective negotiation of community standards. Everything we need is on our backs and we learn to rely on each other.
But this is not reality. I think of wilderness therapy as a fast vehicle to the soul. The intensity of programs like these can create opportunities for self-reflection and it is good practice for reality…practice, practice, practice. However, without continued support once the youth returns home… reality does set in, life.
When positive relationships are not propagated due to lack of access and lack of exposure girls search for any connection. These connections often lead to unhealthy and dangerous relationships that may in turn lead to their eventual and/or continued incarceration. One of the most startling things girls report is that in their search for healthy relationships and a sense of community they often gravitate toward gangs. The gangs offer them a sense community and a feeling of belonging but gangs also involve dangerous and violent relationships that are always abusive, particularly for girls and women. They seek a place to belong and find something that is nothing more than a false community. Then they are stuck and are afraid to leave, in part because their life may be threatened, but also because this false community may offer them the sense of belonging that they seek. Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, discusses that violent relationships in which people, in this case girls, find themselves might be characterized as a manifestation of “their duality” (p. 62). They long for genuine relationships but they fear them. They seek community but find more oppression. Freire characterizes this as the tragic “dilemma of the oppressed”:
“The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized. The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world. This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account” (p. 46).
If the girls had the freedom to remove themselves from false communities and find a genuine home where they can form trusting relationships, well, who knows what might happen.
I think I may be getting closer to an answer…but that will be another post. And if anyone is reading this… I am open to ideas!