Today on my way to yoga I was listening to a Radio Ambulante podcast that happened to report a story on Oakland International High School. A school I never worked with, but her sister school in San Francisco is one that I am very familiar with because I worked them and many unaccompanied youth that attended there.
I felt somewhat uncomfortable listening to the story because it felt like an invasion of privacy. This radio journalist was gathering stories of Central American youth who had come across the border in some way or another, but she only wanted to report those stories of youth who had come on their own. Because of their age and many of them not having family back in their home countries, many youth were able to stay in the U.S., and I am assuming that they are now in the process of filing refugee or asylum paperwork or some other kind of visa that will get them citizenship here. The story mentioned youths’ names and I winced each time a last name was said. I remembered what it was like to work with immigrant youth. My first job out of college was in San Francisco working with homeless and many immigrant youth. I worked at this organization for four years and everything about these years has impacted my life and work trajectory (for good).
One of the things I most dreaded while working with this particular population was the intake we had to do when someone new first came through our doors. There were many things that were lacking in terms of hospitality at this particular organization so I just took this issue with the intake forms as par for the course.
On countless occasions I would welcome youth from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and others, and after saying hello and welcome I would have to ask all about their personal information including their education, health, family, etc. It felt like I was really invading their privacy and I felt bad each and every time. Even more culturally significant is that I am a woman and most of the intakes I did were with adolescent Latinos. After taking intakes for a while I realized that it was just a matter of how I approached the form and the situation. I am mostly a friendly and kind person so I was just very nonchalant about the whole process and I made sure the youth felt comfortable with me (this is something that comes naturally but you have to learn to quickly cultivate initial trust too) and that they knew they could divulge as little or as much as they wanted…we could fill in the blanks later more accurately.
“Just tell me what’s on your mind now, because I know it is awkward to tell me some of these very personal things having just met me.”
After these intakes, getting to know each of the individual youth I worked with was my favorite part of the job. They would sometimes tell me stories, but really I just liked chatting with them about whatever it was that was going on in their lives at the moment. They probably had plenty of other people that were asking about their personal stories, so I didn’t want to intrude. Now, looking back, I wonder if I did the right thing or not…just letting them tell me the things that came to their mind. Of course, this is the beauty of being an educator, is that there are many different tools you can pull from for students to share information and for them to get things off their chest. Tapping into these different methods was really important in being able to read, relate to, and react to each youth’s story. Some youth expressed themselves via art or music or writing or silence or dance…etc. Other youth still hadn’t found their voices and were in search of how best to relate to the world around them.
I feel like sometimes, in the U.S., we are very intrusive and we like to know everything about someone, especially if they are an immigrant or if they have some kind of cross to bare, so to speak. To everyone else, we could care less, but when you have a grueling, or harrowing, or simply, just interesting story, we want to hear it. What do we do with these stories in return? Where do they go? Do they exist with us for shock value? Or do we actually get to know someone, a people, a culture, a history, as part of the process?