Dispatch #5: Looking for Mentors and Finding Ourselves

Project NIA often intervenes when youth get in trouble. We hold them accountable for their actions but we also try to find out the underlying issues that get these same students suspended or put into detention. Often, it is about attachment disorder—both individually and in the community. There is a break in the trust—a silent code that you don’t put your business out on the street—that you are having serious trouble in your home–but do not shine a light on this.

Last week, a 14 yr. old male eighth-grader was trying to stay in control. No one seems to believe that he can or will. On this day his anger was revved up. Evidently, this student became angry in the lunchroom with one of his peers, a girl, who “touched (my) neck.”

He lashed out at her with words–repeatedly shouting extremely inappropriate and sexual language. He would or could not settle down even when threatened with the serious consequences he would face if he did not reign it in-and soon! I was called to meet him after he was taken to the principal’s office.

When I entered, he was sitting at her desk. She calmly recounted (both principals at the school we work at are adept at maintaining their cool, yet caring and professional demeanor) the incident and he interrupted several times with anger (“SHE STARTED IT!”) and incongruent laughter. When it was suggested that I find a black male mentor to work with him, he asked what that was (“A WHAT?”). After she explained, he laughed uncontrollably and muttered something as he folded into his chest. “Hah hah hah! In THIS neighborhood? At THIS school? GOOD LUCK WITH THAT! Hah hah hah!)

I asked him if he would like to go for a walk with me and see the Peace Room and talk. “Not really.” “Or, I can call the police,” the administrator stated.

We walked around the school yard and then went to the Peace Room. After only a few minutes, he was engaged in conversation and relaxed. I only had 20 minutes to talk to him but he asked if he could come back.

“I want you to really think about it. If you want to come to the Peace Room twice a week, I believe I can arrange that. But we will be doing “work”—along with activities (he said he loves to draw and would love to work on the tree project).

“This is going to be a one time offer. I’ve seen you around for the last year. I see a lot of potential—but also a lot of disconnect, anger, and disrespect. I know your grandma, your brother and sister. I want to work with you…but you have to think about it and make a real commitment to do your best to give it a chance. It is not going to help you overnight. I believe that if you take this offer, we can work together and figure out some ways of getting through this next year without ending up with a record, suspensions, and expulsion. I will not tolerate the kind of disrespect you showed earlier. If you get angry you must agree to allow me to help you process that anger—-not act out or walk out.”

“I will come to your class on Thursday at noon and see if you accept this offer. I think you will be surprised at what can change if you give it a chance. I understand that you do not know me—so I am asking you to take a leap of faith. But I believe that these kinds of opportunities will not come up often. Ask some of the other kids about their experiences in the Peace Room. I’ll see you at noon on Thursday.”

His mom has my phone number and he called later in the evening. He wants to come to the Peace Room to “work.”


My belief is that in marginalized, underserved and isolated communities, the conditions that  create attachment disorders in youth as young as pre-school—are prevalent and ignored by underfunded and resistant systems.

“Neglect” is common (and hidden from systems already in place from lack of trust and/or knowledge that the support, if given, will be inadequate or create conditions that are even worse such as taking the children away and charges being filed). An overwhelmed woman of color with a criminal record and inadequate education who is living in poverty in an overcrowded apartment in the middle of a “food desert” who cannot even trust her own neighbors—-might not always be available to hold and nurture a toddler who fell and has mosquito bites and is overheated and will not stop crying.

Furthermore, the system is set up to shame her for her inability to take care of her family and herself. She is now isolated and may seeks comfort from self-medicating to her own attachment disordered thinking.

Every day is a struggle. How is she going to get food, medicine, pay the rent, and utility bills. Every day—scrambling and scraping. Yet, she is expected to get her kids to school—prepared (pencils, paper, bookbag, homework completed), on time, in uniform and READY to participate in a loud, overcrowded classroom with an overwhelmed teacher who is being judged by her outcome levels (number of tardiness, suspensions, detentions, absentees, and standardized test scores).

This is often the “point of entry” for our work in Project NIA. The real work that we do is around relationship.  These kids need to talk and they need to learn how to build relationships-and see the value in it. The parents and grandparents need to feel that someone cares that they live in a food desert and that they cannot easily move to another neighborhood.

What can we do? Show up, build relationships, support and get to know the community.

Re-define our expectations and give voice to the strength of getting through. There ARE mentors-give them a voice.


One comment

  1. Project Nia will soon be giving rides to IYC Warrenville to support families of incarcerated youth by making visitation happen! Please volunteer as a driver and help keep Families in Touch. We will have a meeting at the NIA Peace Room, 7035 N. Clark St., on Saturday, April 16th from 1:30 p.m. to 5:00. Please join us!

    Contact Tobin at chicagofamiliesintouch@gmail.com or by callying 303-241-6594

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