Imagine you are a fifteen-year-old girl. You don’t feel safe at home where your mother hits on you, you don’t feel safe in your community where there is gang violence and your fourteen year old cousin was shot and killed outside of your building by a gang member last year, and you don’t feel safe at school where you are met each morning by school safety officers, a metal detector, and a dean patrolling the hallways shouting at you and your classmates.
You’re already dreading going to class because you didn’t get your homework done. You stayed outside until long past dark last night to avoid seeing your mother. You went to sleep at 3am, got up at 8am and left for school without breakfast so you wouldn’t be late. You had to walk the long way to avoid those gang members and now you are late anyway. No one has said ‘Good morning.’ or ‘Hello’. The first words directed towards you are from the dean, ‘You’re late! Again!’
Now, get to class, sit down, and pay attention to your teacher.
Trauma informed programming seeks to counter these negative factors and experiences by providing opportunities for growth and learning through appropriate supportive environments.
The Prison Writes (PW) model has woven into it’s programming the main components of trauma informed care:
Avoiding re-traumatization – The social work group work model seeks to create a safe environment where mutual respect, caring and sharing are valued and there is no shaming or blaming. Trauma often involves a significant level of experienced unpredictability. Young people need to know exactly what to expect in order to feel safe. PW curriculum and practice ensures that participants understand what to expect and agree to participate. Agency and control over self is essential for young people who’ve experienced trauma to be able to function and heal.
Understands that problem behaviors are also coping mechanisms and seeks to address the underlying cause by providing opportunity for self-expression.
Invites participants to join and share in activities rather than demand.
Recognize each participant’s strengths and unique personality traits.
Encourage participant’s to provide feedback and support to one another. The participants are the experts and the ‘teachers’ are facilitators of a conversation and shared learning experience and exploration.
The PW model joins an LMSW with professional writers combining social work group work methodology with published authors with extensive teaching experience. Together, these experienced professionals facilitate the writing workshops. PW’s professional writing teachers function as role models and mentors. It is exciting for young people to meet professionals with other than a mental health background! Most young people in the criminal justice system have been scrutinized and stigmatized by a number of labels. The presence of a professional writer gives legitimacy to the classes as ‘real world’ experience. Taking control of their personal narrative provides a way out of the stigma and into individual expression of experience.
While adolescents are negatively impacted by traumatic experiences, they can be equally impressed by the positive. Adolescents I’ve worked with in an alternative to incarceration program became excited about writing after their first workshop. For our young participants who are reluctant to put pen to paper, we will take dictation. After seeing their experience in words on the page, young people understand the personal benefits that their words on paper can offer.
As writing is the foundation of success in life pursuits such as education and employment, helping young people engage in writing is essential. The vast majority of young people I’ve worked with over the years who are court involved were alienated from school. Often times, the school environment re-traumatizes students. It’s essential for identity formation that adolescents be recognized for their unique attributes, and PW’s workshops create such an opportunity for them.