“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens is working to change the world in Rochester, one girl at a time. They are volunteers of Justice and Opportunity for Youth (JOY), a Rochester nonprofit working to inspire and empower young women to improve quality of life for themselves and their community.
JOY was founded in 2012 as an organization dedicated to helping Rochester youth who were considered high-risk for drug use, truancy, teen pregnancy and victimization. The volunteer staff and board of JOY believe that through community support, positive adult role models and transformational relationships, every child can create an upward trajectory for her life. Research on resiliency in children shows that sometimes the only difference between a child who “makes it” and one who doesn’t is the presence of a single supportive adult in their life. JOY volunteers aim to be that adult.
JOY AND PEACEMAKING CIRCLES
In order to offer that support to participants, JOY offers weekly meetings for participants utilizing Restorative Peacemaking Circles. Adult volunteers model positive communication skills, empathic responses and problem-solving skills to help the participants learn how to tackle issues in their lives.
During the Peacemaking Circle, participants learn to take turns talking using a “talking stick” and respectfully listening when they are not talking. Each participant’s opinions are valued and contribute to the functioning of the entire group.
To foster leadership, participants plan their own programming, including service projects, educational speakers and field trips focusing on arts and culture. This year, JOY participants will bring in speakers to discuss finances and budgeting, healthy relationships, college preparation, and career opportunities. Several members will contact nonprofit organizations to coordinate volunteer opportunities on behalf of the entire group. Finally, with the generous support of the People’s Energy Cooperative Operation Round-Up Grant, they will take field trips to arts and cultural sites and festivals.
JOY currently works with one group of 12 high school sophomore girls. A second group for middle school girls will be forming this winter. JOY leaders are Julie Ace (implementation associate in the Office of Curriculum and Instruction with Rochester Public Schools), Lisa Weber (truancy/early intervention coordinator for Rochester Public Schools), Ann Miller (instructional coach at Gage Elementary), Dawn Sanborn (Dawn Sanborn Photography) and myself, Terri Allred (owner of Third Eye Tribal).
MLK ESSAY CONTEST
Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day, the Rochester Branch of the NAACP holds a youth essay contest as part of the celebration. Contest winners receive a small, cash award and get to read their essays at the MLK birthday celebration that follows the MLK march through downtown. Last year, students were asked to “name and describe one or more injustices you have seen in the last year in the United States or elsewhere.” Additionally, they were asked, “How can you pursue liberty for yourself and others in the face of such injustice? What role can you play in making our society more just?”
Last winter, JOY hosted an essay writing workshop with RochesterWomen magazine Publisher and Editor Jorrie Johnson. Several members of JOY participated, and one JOY participant won the writing contest for her age group with the essay below.
Alual Mawien wrote,“I am a ninth-grade student at Mayo High School in Rochester Public Schools. I feel that an important injustice that I have seen in the last year in the United States is that the media pays more attention to things like (the) Paris terrorism attack, while giving little attention to other attacks in less glamorous places. It also seems like many people group all Muslims in the same group. If you are a Muslim, you must be a terrorist. The attention should be given to all the people who suffer every day in the United States from homelessness and depression.
I think it is important to speak out against things you find unjust. There are lots of places your voice could be heard if you are brave enough to use your voice. More people are dying of homelessness and depression every day in the United States than the number of people who died in the Paris attacks. And yet no one is changing their Facebook profile pictures in honor of them and their lives. People make it seem like just because a couple Muslims decide to do something bad that all Muslims must be bad too. If the people who caused the terrorist attacks are truly faithful Muslims, then they would be breaking their religious laws when they killed other people.
One thing I think I could do make my country more just is by starting a group that goes out to schools to make them more aware and nderstanding (of) the things that are important. “
STRUGGLING WITH INJUSTICE
Several other JOY participants shared their thoughts and personal experiences in the essays. “People should understand that all lives matter. Black lives matter; white lives matter; Muslim lives matter; and Hispanics lives matter,” writes Brenda, a sophomore at Mayo High School. “Everyone should be more open-minded about things and others, love each other and stop blaming innocent people for what other people are doing that has nothing to do with them.”
Her thoughts are echoed by her friends Karen and Kara, who wrote an essay about the racism they experience in their daily lives. “If people would just get to know each other rather than judge and believe stereotypes, then racism wouldn’t be so powerful,” they wrote. Karen and Kara tell a heartbreaking story of racism in Rochester in their essay. “We were at Walmart and this elder woman kept looking at us. She kept pushing her kid away from my family, telling her child that he would get a disease if he came close to us. She said we should get back on the boat and go back to Mexico.”
Karen and Kara wrote, “When these things happen, we often don’t know what to do. Even the teachers and school administrators don’t seem to know what to do. Sometimes they behave in racist ways to kids, for example, calling out the Mexican kids, while the white kids are doing the same thing but are not drawing their attention.” Karen and Kara want their school to educate teachers and students about racism and teach people how to respect each other. They also know that they can do things personally to combat racism. “We know that we can’t make racism go away, but we can do some important things. We can make sure we don’t tell jokes about people from other races or cultures. We can also make sure to treat all of our friends equally and not discriminate against them about their culture.”
Each JOY participant who submitted an essay emphasized the importance of having adult role models to help them learn how to respond to and confront injustice. Whitney, who wrote about gun violence shares, “People deserve to live a very safe life because all lives matter. We just need a lot of good role models to show us the way.” JOY volunteers strive to be those people. If you are interested in learning more about JOY or volunteering, visit joymn.org.
Terri Allred is the owner of Third Eye Tribal and a proud volunteer with JOY. She lives in Rochester with her husband, sons and dog.