As I type my weekly report for my summer internship, I think about what made me want to return to Richmond and continue my work with RPEC.
The Richmond Youth Peace Project (RYPP) gave me a method and guidance in my goals of serving my community. I joined RYPP my junior year in High School. I was already familiar with it thanks to my teacher Ram Bhagat and because I met RYPP trainers while performing at the Educoncert. I was curious to find out more about what RYPP had to offer.
I recall walking through the double-doors at the church off of Forest Hill Ave, half-nervous and half excited to start my conflict resolution training. As I descended to the basement my anticipation skyrocketed. Through the small window, I saw a circle of chairs; I did not know it then but there is great power and unity in the circles RYPP trainers form during workshops. I opened the door, settle in and I’m greeted with illuminating smiles from Santa Sorenson and Paul Fleisher. I find a seat nearby them. “How can someone be so energetic at 9’o clock in the morning?” Soon enough the chairs fill with drowsy-eyed youth. I see one of my friends from school, and my nervousness slips away as I begin a conversation.
Once everyone settles in Santa and Paul greet everyone and we each introduce ourselves. Then we are shown the day’s agenda. Ground rules, “light & livelies,” activities, gatherings and closings–these entities compose a workshop. Santa gathers answers from the circle to create the ground rules and after everyone contributes Santa adds her own rule: have fun. I swore I thought the possibility of having fun in 8-hour training in conflict resolution was as good as getting it to snow in mid-July. Well, by that Sunday I’ve would have frostbite. The dialogues we had were dynamic and free from judgment. We weren’t being told what to say or how to think by our facilitators. We were figuring everything out ourselves. Anytime we felt burnout we would get a boost of energy through light & livelies. Even in our main activities we were able to use role playing, storytelling, art and games to convey the central themes of conflict resolution. I left the training on Sunday, feeling renewed and confident in my abilities as a leader and my potential growth through RYPP.
The first workshops I did were difficult. I wasn’t used to having participants seeking affirmation from me, let alone leading them through themes that I barely knew about myself! However, the wonderful aspect of RYPP workshops is that everyone learns from experience. As my mentor Santa as says, “we don’t tell the participants what to say or what to do. We pull out the wisdom from within them and they find the answers themselves.” I recall dozens of time when I stumbled trying to find answers in others that I already knew myself. Soon enough, I was able to guide participants to their answers and I relied less on the adult facilitators. Those early workshops were very suspenseful and fulfilling. Even when we met upstairs in the exhaustingly hot RPEC office to plan our agenda, I recognized the purpose and importance of it every time. In time the methods, skills and themes that I shared with other in my community became a part of me. I noticed it when I caught myself avoiding a ‘you’ statements and used an “I-message” instead. Sometimes when I listen to a friend share a story with me, I think back to Ram pretending to ignore a youth telling him how they brush their teeth. The themes of conflict resolution: Affirmation, Problem Solving, Cooperation and Communication are not just themes to me, but ways of living.
By time I was a high school senior, I was well versed as a conflict resolution trainer. I co-led many workshops across Richmond and established myself as a dependable and diligent RYPP trainer. I had some of my most memorable workshops during my senior year; a series with second graders at Fairfield Elementary among them. I was wary at first to be working with a group of participants so young; especially with the topic we were assigned. As a senior, I didn’t know how I could relate to eight year-olds who had trouble with bullying. Bullying was not discussed much when I was child. In fact children were simply expected to deal with it. I knew that was not the right course of action and I was determined to make an impact on those second graders to ensure that they would not perpetuate the cycle of bullying.
Surprisingly, the youth made the biggest impact on me. The second graders liked me, to the point they would bicker over who would get to sit next to me in the circle. I enjoyed their company too. The first workshop went extremely well. Santa and I were stumped as to why the school officials thought bullying was such a huge issue. But chaos joined the circle in the next session, as we witnessed the youth horseplaying and teasing each other. Even with all their rowdiness, they were still a pleasure to work with.
In the second workshop session I met a remarkable girl by the name of Taylor who changed my perception of conflict and what is truly valuable. We were doing an art activity in which all the children were to draw a picture of what bullying look liked. Some of the boys drew pictures of boys fighting and the girls drew pictures of girls fighting girls. I was a little disheartened to see those images but it said a lot about how the youth interpreted bullying and violence. Among all the pictures Taylor’s was the only one who dared to draw something different. When I glance over her shoulder, I saw the caricature of some tall boy and I inquired who or what is was. Taylor told me she was drawing a picture of me. At first I was startled that she was drawing a picture of me as if I was her interpretation of bullying. However, I looked closer and thought I saw a touch of serenity in this portrait. This young girl, seemingly untouched by bullying or not concerned with negativity, decided to spend her time drawing a picture of me. Dumbfounded I left her to continue working and moved along.
Another little girl saw Taylor’s drawing and said, “your picture looks stupid and ugly.” She sliced through Taylor’s self-esteem. The tears burst from Taylor’s eyes and speckled her drawing. I rushed over to her and asked her to tell me what happened. I could not understand her sorrow. In that moment I was helpless, confused and sad myself. I was on one knee trying to convince Taylor that her picture wasn’t ugly or stupid and that everything will be okay. She didn’t give in but let out more anguish. Worst of all she became a spectacle for the entire class to laugh and poke fun at. Looking around the room I saw in the children’s eyes that any one them could have been Taylor, but they were glad it wasn’t them. I looked at my co-facilitators and they seemed as shocked as me. I could only think, “Make her stop crying! Make her stop crying!”
Then empathy hit me. In a moment I was Taylor. I felt the thrill of scribbling with my crayon to compose my masterpiece. I felt proud as the older me looked over my shoulder to inquire about what I was drawing. It felt good to know that someone was interested in something that I was doing. However, as I’m adding the finishing touches my fellow classmate and occasional playmate ridicules my artwork, my creation. Their words diminish all of my hard work and effort. I had been so proud of my work just moments ago, but now everyone around the table are joining the ridicule and telling me that what I made was stupid and ugly. All I wanted was acceptance, a friend, to have fun, to share…but I’m told what I have to offer isn’t good enough…maybe I’m not good enough…I’m not good enough.
When those thoughts connected I felt my heart tremble in sorrow. I did what felt natural. I wasn’t trying to stop her tears; I wanted to make her feel accepted. I took her picture, reaffirmed how great it was and asked her if I could have the honor of keeping the portrait. Taylor wiped her eyes with her arm. She stopped crying and replied yes. I still have the portrait today.