Jun. 10, 2021 -- The past year has undoubtedly been traumatic for teenagers in our community and across the country. From personal and economic losses associated with the pandemic to isolation from ongoing shutdowns to anger and fear from continuing instances of police brutality to inspiration and focus from racial justice movements to any of the typical issues teens have to grapple with as they make their way in the world, young people have had to deal with an extraordinary amount of stress and change over the past year.
Youth mentor Jerod Johnson, a contractor who spearheads various inspirational projects across the district, wanted to hear directly from the teens themselves. Thus was born the #CompassionateManhood docuseries and soon-to-be podcast “Post-Traumatic Student Discussions.” Mr. Johnson and colleague Steve Walker, who runs the 21st Century Grant-funded after school program at Heights High, selected twelve students, both boys and girls, to participate. Nine of them are current 9th through 12th graders at Heights while three of them graduated in 2019.
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Walker convened licensed clinical social worker Angela C. Flowers of Making A Difference Consulting to run their sessions, which consisted of the young men meeting at Perfect Blend Barber Salon on four Monday afternoons and the young women gathering in the cosmetology space at Heights High on four Saturdays.
“This wasn’t a counseling session,” said Mr. Johnson. “It was really just a conversation.” But one about really tough issues. Students opened up about the various traumas they’ve experienced in their lives, from parents’ divorce to abuse and neglect, from losing friends to losing limbs. Creating a safe and supportive space for sharing experiences and emotions was critical to the project’s success.
But these safe spaces weren’t entirely private as the sessions were filmed by Ron Bridges of Genius Creative Film. The intention is to use these honest conversations as examples for other young people experiencing trauma, an idea that was embraced by the students. Mr. Walker reported that one young lady said, “If my story can help someone else going through this, then it’s worth it.”
Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Walker were surprised and impressed by how willingly the students welcomed the opportunity to really talk. “I was surprised every single week,” said Mr. Walker. “It just kept getting better and better. To see these young men become open and vulnerable and shed tears, … it was really something.”
Junior Keonshae Boyd Bey agrees. He was hesitant when first invited but went “because I respect Mr. Walker. I don’t open up to people very often so I just sat there and listened at the first sessions. But dang, by the end, I look at all these people as brothers now.”
The project leaders hope that the docuseries will serve as a platform for peer-to-peer mentoring. “Young people need to know they’re not alone; they’re not the only one dealing with these issues.” They said there was “a lot of laughter, a lot of tears, and a lot of follow-up” with several students deciding to seek counseling after sharing their stories.
For some of the students, their issues seemed minor or typical – a season-ending injury or pressure from parents. One even said, “I felt like my trauma wasn’t even worthy of a conversation.” But this process allowed them to open up and not feel guilty for their feelings. As Keonshae said, “Everyone goes through their own stuff. This really opened up a new mindset for me.”
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Walker will allow students the final say in the editing process so they can be comfortable with what material goes public. They then plan to host a screening for families in the mini-auditorium at the high school and hopefully a larger public screening at some place like the Cedar Lee Theater.
“I believe this is going to be something special,” said Mr. Johnson. “It already has been.”
Special thanks to the school district for allowing these groups to convene. And to Angela C. Flowers of Making a Difference Consulting, Ron Bridges of Genius Creative Film, Dave Gully of Perfect Blend, and Donna Pollard, Heights High cosmetology teacher, as well as the various guest speakers.