Can the CEM facilitate compassion inside the walls of juvenile correctional facilities?

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We envision a world in which all young people lead creative, purposeful lives.

“If we keep giving from a glass half-full, eventually we are not going to have anything left. The idea behind my work with the officers of correctional youth facilities is to nourish them, fill their glasses, and let it overflow, so they can learn to give from that abundance.” shares Andre O. Wilson, Founder & Executive Director of Youth for Development Network (YFDN).

What drives this approach?

Continues Andre, “In the communities I work with, there aren’t many adults who have been nurtured so deeply that they feel abundant. I’ve seen them get jealous of the investment that youth receive. This leads to resentment, and even anger, which in turn reinforces the poverty or trauma that youth are already experiencing. I didn’t want that to happen in YFDN’s programs. I wanted the staff to feel full, so the giving doesn’t become a question at all.”

Youth For Development Network (YFDN) is a non-profit that connects the most marginalized youth in Jamaica with opportunities to transform their lives. Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE) has worked with Andre and his team over the past four years to translate the Creative Empowerment Model (CEM) into a 7-day youth leadership camp called ‘One Love Youth Camp’, as well as train the camp staff on Creative Facilitation. Who are the camp staff? The officers from juvenile correctional facilities in Jamaica.

The story of how these officers became resilient advocates of CEM-driven youth empowerment, is one that lies at the heart of PYE’s Theory of Change – when an adult who works with young people transforms, it significantly increases the odds of them creating learning environments in their work, that are creative, empowering, and meaningful.

A paradigm shift in what it means to ‘discipline’

The quintessential role of a correctional officer is to deter youth from committing crimes, by disciplining them. This takes many forms of punishment. It is about brute force, to undo something that is ‘wrong’ in the youth. But, the learning environment created by CEM programs ushered in profound shifts, and cracked open a new perspective into discipline – one that is built on empathy, not shame.

“Officers are used to bringing authority to the table. But the model was asking them to examine how they were exercising their authority, and where was it coming from.” They belong to the same communities as the youth and share similar histories – experiences of systems, inequity, or trauma. Andre noticed a brave opportunity here, to facilitate compassionate understanding between the upholders of law and the ones who break it. He wanted to offer tools to the officers to see the potential in the youth beyond the crimes they have committed.

Adds Andre, “Using the practices of CEM, we started asking the officers about their stories, how it shows up in their jobs, and what they feel when they are at work. They had to empathize with themselves first. It was challenging. Adult men do not do this often. That is partly because of our socialization, and partly because such sacred communal spaces don’t exist where we can share about our inner life.”

Andre O. Wilson – Founder, Youth For Development Network

The experience of being seen and accepted

The deep, personal shifts described by Andre speak to one of the ‘Big Ideas’ or convictions that drive the Creative Empowerment Model – ‘we all have a valid desire to be seen and heard for who we are.’ To be accepted and appreciated. The courage to share about our personal worlds, and be listened to without judgement or questions, is transforming. It creates what we call ‘psychological safety’ to learn new ways of being and doing things. To take a creative risk, and change the narrative for ourselves.

Officers who have been part of the programs led by YFDN + PYE, have reported becoming better human beings. They see this as a resocialization process, where they learn to relate to youth differently, and engage with them from a space of curiosity. Essentially, they go on to create what they experienced in the CEM trainings – a space that is rich with play, gentle questions, acceptance, imagination, and allows the participants to examine deep rooted beliefs about themselves or the world around them.

A youth from Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Center shares – “I love the activity where we greet a friend we haven’t seen in a long time. I could relate the joy to when I get a visit from my parents. I have also learned to manage my feelings and reactions better now, especially when I get angry or offended. I am not my feelings.”

To create spaces where such shifts can happen in youth, takes commitment. After all, how often have you heard of officers willingly and joyfully dedicating their annual personal leave to facilitating camp?

Author: Nilisha Mohapatra

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