digging around in the dirt

At exalt, we’ve been challenged at many junctures over our use of the word “transformation” in our mission.  One expert on theories of change (as they relate to nonprofit missions) suggested that our goal of transforming young people’s lives was not only unrealistic, but arrogant.  How could anyone possibly claim to cause life transformation with such limited “dosage” as our program provides, in which students only spend a few hours a day with us, over a span of 5 months?  

We don’t purport to fully transform anyone’s life – that would indeed be arrogant, and incredibly naive.  We do believe that our intervention model helps many young people initiate significant transformation – which is at the core of sustained behavior change.  But we are not just aiming to help students change their behavior, we are interested in and intent on helping them shift their perspectives on themselves and the world.  

When we focus solely on behavior change, we inherently continue to put all the responsibility for a young person’s behavior on him or her alone.  I have always been taken by the number of students in our classes, who when asked why they come to exalt, say, “to become a better person.”  It’s a noble goal on the surface for any of us, but for many exalt youth, it belies an inherent sense of being insufficient, bad, criminal, first and foremost.  Worse, I feel, is when they share this with outside guests, often unfamiliar with the intricacies of their lives, who may visit our class for a variety of reasons, often as part of a consideration of whether to fund our work.  It reinforces stereotypes that underlie our mass incarceration epidemic – that if (bad) people just took the initiative to change their bad behavior, they could avoid such a negative trajectory.  It takes the rest of us off the hook for our roles in building and perpetuating a society that has such vast inequities, and which first and foremost punishes, rather than helps, those with the most obstacles.  

exalt students haven’t had the opportunity to really reflect on their lives, let alone the wider historical circumstances and contemporary cultural context that have shaped them.  Our goal is not to shift all the responsibility for who they are onto systems, circumstances, environment or any other combination of external factors.  Rather, it is to help them learn that our identities and behavior patterns are best understood, and therefore have the greatest chance of being shifted, if we see what has had, and what might have, the biggest influence on them.  

I’ve been re-reading William Bridges’ Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, and appreciate how much it resonates with exalt’s approach to helping young people transform.  He identifies endings as the first step in any significant transition; the ending of an identity, role, behavior pattern, relationship is the necessary precursor to any significant new stage, phase, role we seek to live.   By highlighting the scale and powerful tide of the school-to-prison pipeline with our students right away, and by balancing the gravity of that with a guided exploration of their very unique individual identities, we aim to ignite a sense of urgency within them.  Encouraging them to leverage their individuality as a tool to resist the strong tide – which swells with their complacency - pulling them further towards life-long poverty, unemployment and disenfranchisement.  

For our students to begin shaping and stepping towards a new vision of their futures, they have to fully own and determine which parts of their current identities, roles and behaviors they need to end.  They need to shed their identities as criminals, which has lots tied up in it, not the least of which is that much of the external world continues to identify them this way (see my last post on how easily they get arrested for simply being.) Bridges calls this “disidentification” in which we “loosen the bonds of the person we think we are so that we can go through a transition toward a new identity.”  

This is hard work.  And the other aspects of the ending phase of transitions Bridges identifies – disengagement, dismantling, disenchantment, and disorientation – are no picnic either.  But it is quite liberating to see some universality in what can feel like such a lonely personal struggle to “change.”  Insight into ourselves, even if it is the discovery of something negative or painful, always has a buoyant quality as well. Being a part of a young person’s – and a whole group of young people’s – journey to seek and access this exaltation is itself transformative.

Please join us June 4th at The Greene Space to celebrate and honor the transitions and transformations so many exalt youth have made, as well as to support our ability to provide this opportunity for many more to come.    

Executive Director

Executive Director