The young men gathered to listen to the stories and ideas of President Arias. Residents, identified by their peers and teachers as peacemakers, were given the opportunity to shake the President's hand and ask him questions. The 'peacemakers' were also the residents who greeted us and made sure we knew where we needed to go. They were pretty cool young men.
Following the president's presentation, we broke into groups to accompany the residents back to their houses/dorms to have lunch together and do workshops. I joined the one on creative expressions and it was beautiful. A couple of the young men brought out their poetry to share with us before lunch was over. And by the time we were through with the workshop, we had gotten pretty deep. Most of them shared something from their story. From my experience of listening to their stories and poetry, I mostly just want everyone to know that I saw a lot of hope and a lot of humility in these young men. They articulated a genuine desire to move beyond whatever had led them to the correction facility in the first place. Some shared about the pain in their experiences. Some shared anger. All of it was honest and raw. All of it contained eagerness for a better life.
Following the workshops, we all gathered together again in the gymnasium for the finale celebration of The Day of Peace. Dawn Engle, co-founder of PeaceJam, shared some moving reflections. Youthrive: LIVE! artists - Maria Isa with Muja Messiah, D.J. Snuggles and Heatherlyn - performed. I'm not sure exactly what moved them, but I was blown away that the residents stood to their feet and applauded enthusiastically after my first song. Pretty humbling.
I remember, as we were leaving, I was thinking that probably the general population has a pretty skewed view of residents of a correction facility. We hear labels like 'juvenile delinquent' perhaps without giving a second thought to how laden with disgust and judgment these terms tend to be and with no consideration given to that young person's story, what they've been taught, whether or not a trusted grown up has been there for them as a guide or a mentor.
Judgmental assumptions have no place until (and even when) we've taken time to do some storydwelling, some deep listening to the pain and disappointment and hopes and heartbeat of someone's life. When we give place to understanding and compassion, we want another person to succeed, learn from their past, fulfill their dreams to overcome and be a positive contributor to society and the world.
I left the correction facility appreciating the environment there, one that shows respect to the residents (I noted that the staff didn't call residents, 'inmates') and appropriate accountability that leads to empowerment, growth and even leadership. I was thinking about the cold and structured societal systems of paperwork and records that face these guys when they move on from the nurturing environment of Red Wing and I was just hoping that they would continue to be encouraged and empowered to keep moving forward with the progress they've made, that their pasts would not be held against them, that each and every one of them would be able to start anew and fresh when it's their turn to go back home or go to college or get a job.
Some of the residents were thinking about that too, it seems and they inquired if there's a way to connect into PeaceJam when they graduate out of the Red Wing program. There are ways and I think we are learning how to communicate the potential opportunity.
Jason and I look forward to returning and continuing to connect through our excellent partners youthrive and PeaceJam, to learn the stories of the Red Wing Correction Facility residents and engage in creative experession and conversation with them. We trust that we will continue to hear stories of hope, change and positive leadership from these residents even beyond those walls and gates in Red Wing.