FREE SPEECH ZONE | When young people speak, who will listen?


If it hadn’t been for the East African boys attending a teen circle I facilitated in a Seward park building, I’d still be in the dark about “swag.” “You don’t know what ‘swag’ means?!” they exclaimed in disbelief. Several youths rose from their chairs, shed their reserve, parading around the room in style to everyone’s delight. “Swagger,” I thought. I get it–confidence, lookin’ cool.

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That’s not the only thing I learned from the boys. One young man who fasts during Ramadan says it helps him be a good person. Another told of being beaten in an Ethiopian school because he hadn’t cut his nails. And I learned about the NFL, NBA.

What I didn’t anticipate was the education I’d field in a set of complex, clashing cultural values that arose in the circle. Consider this case study: what would you do?

The circle had been going 4 years when I was hired by a local restorative justice organization to facilitate. I was delighted to discover a group of bright, expressive, respectful, caring, interesting young men, and honored, as a white woman, to be allowed into their lives. As a seasoned circle keeper I was pleased to see how they had embraced the circle process, native to indigenous North Americans, and to see the circle grow as they invited their friends. It was a safe space for them to share experiences, and pizza, to support each other, and discuss topics they chose, e.g. Arab spring, sports, school, religion, politics, death, bullying.

“The circle belongs to the youth,” I was told in my interview–they decide if and when guests are invited or activities scheduled during circle time. Key goals for the circle were empowerment, autonomy, and leadership development.

At the same time I was hired, a park employee, young college grad from Somalia, was assigned to the circle to recruit teens, order pizza, handle logistics, and participate in the circle, a new experience for him. Four months into our work together, however, a problem arose–he’d scheduled an artist-led event during circle time without consulting the circle and apparently had forgotten about it. I discovered the glitch by accident the day before circle, discussed it with him, and we agreed we’d give the teens a choice: stay in circle or do art. But the next day in circle when several kids declined the art, the park employee exploded: “Shame on you,” he yelled. “How can you be so disrespectful to our artist guests. I can’t stand to be in the same room with you!” He bolted from the room. The kids were shaken, some angry. They noted his facts didn’t jive–he said he hadn’t known about the event until the day before, but also mentioned he’d gotten an email about it 3 months ago.

Delicate situation. Your response? Mine: carefully, diplomatically discuss the episode with the park employee. His response: very angry, refusing conversation with me or meeting with my supervisor, defending his actions: “I’m not going to be the bad guy here!” Soon he cited cultural issues as the problem. When I suggested meeting with a Somali community organizer I knew, to sort it out, he refused: “If you want to know anything about Somali culture you can ask me.”

Subsequently I called my supervisor and expressed concern about the incident’s potentially negative impact on the kids and the safe space we’d created. I’d already witnessed one of the teens, in the staff person’s presence, pretending he’d done art that night. I sensed the boys felt intimidated, especially as the staff person also had a powerful administrative role in a high school many of them attended. “Doesn’t anyone get to be human around you,” she exclaimed. A board member informed me, “If you don’t remain silent about this, we’re prepared to shut down the circle and reconstitute it with a new person…. He must be allowed to save face, crucial in Somali culture.”

At the next circle the staff member reinforced what he’d said, ”I was angry last time and it was perfectly normal and appropriate that I was.” The youths were silent. In ensuing months, he told the circle repeatedly that he disagreed with me and the way I led circle. He scheduled another activity during circle, again without consulting them, and threatened to remove a new boy from the circle (and park) for giggling. Once he failed to show up for circle, to notify me or make arrangements. I’d been silent about continuing problems but this time emailed him, saying we missed him and asked him to notify me of any future conflicts. He reported to the park director that I complained about him every week, that he could do nothing right.

Eventually, staff involved with circles met to discuss the situation. The staff member introduced himself: “In Somalia we have an expression that my father uses to greet guests, ‘It’s a good day, I have sons.’” He beamed, “And I have 2 sons.“ He was offered circle training but refused saying he didn’t need it, and didn’t support circle ways: “Kids need guidance, not empowerment. They need to be told what to do.” At the next circle the staff person announced he was withdrawing from the circle, citing differences with me.

Shortly thereafter I received a certified letter terminating my employment, as they needed a “fresh start.” I could attend the next circle to say good-bye but then have no further contact with them. Greatly saddened, I wrote a letter requesting reconsideration, citing the circle’s growth and vitality, including my engaging the youths with a playwright who wrote a play using their ideas, one of youths even acting in it. To no avail.

Final circle: in the presence of boys who’d come early, a board rep and new circle keeper confronted me, furious about my letter, which I’d shared with a few colleagues: “You must leave right now! If you don’t we’ll call the police and have you picked up for trespassing.” “I’m here to say good-bye to the kids,” I replied, “and I plan to stay.” I didn’t move. The youths left the room.

Minutes later 12 boys entered the room, one flashing a sign, “We love her.” I told about the termination, the warning I’d received not to speak up, and I quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

Then the talking piece was passed around the circle and the youths all spoke, voicing their desire for me to stay: “I’ve only come 3 times, but Jean always makes me feel welcome and remembers me. I like coming.” “You’re tearing out a piece of our hearts.” “We are close to Jean–she’s family.” “This is our circle and we should get to choose who we want as circle keeper.” “In our religion [Islam], we forgive and forget. I ask, will you do that?” One boy stood and read a petition they’d just created and signed:

“This petition shows that we the attenders of circle, would be very disappointed and outraged if Ms. Jean is fired and we will stop attending circle if she is fired, reason being she gives us choices and [staff member] doesn’t and he should be fired/removed.”

I was stunned by their courage–I had no idea they felt this way. I couldn’t hold back tears–one of them passed me a hankie. I thanked them for what they’d said and done, and shared how thrilled I was to see them demonstrate the very qualities I hoped they’d learn from circle–to be empowered, have a voice, to be respectful and caring, to be positive leaders–and honor the relationship we’d developed. After the circle many of the boys hugged me, urging me to come next time.

This was “swag” in the finest sense of the word. These young men stood up for what mattered to them. They took a huge risk. Sadly, they were ignored. No acknowledgement even was given that night by the board rep or facilitator. I sent their petition to Minneapolis Parks & Recreation, the restorative justice organization, and local community councils but no one responded to the youth.

It’s troubling to consider the messages given to those kids: don’t speak up–you’ll be ignored; adults will be protected first, not youths; relationships you develop with caring adults may not be honored (Search Institute indicates that’s a vital developmental asset key to kids’ success.)

Who will listen to young people and take them seriously? How important are they to us?

And have we the courage to mentor young leaders, challenge and support them,  teach accountability, and assess readiness before assigning them positions of power? For those from authoritarian cultures, will we teach egalitarianism/respect for women, collaboration/cooperation, the cost of authoritarian leadership? Or will we compromise our values, perhaps, to         improve diversity stats? Can we learn to engage the intersection of cultures with integrity and compassion?

I walked away from kids dear to my heart, kids with names like “Abdi” and “Mohammed,” after learning who they really were in their finest hour. There is every reason to place our faith in our young people, whether born here or elsewhere. Given a chance they will draw upon the goodness within them and bring it forth in our world, a gift to us all–if we but listen to them.


Jean Greenwood, Minneapolis, MN

Restorative Justice specialist, Presbyterian minister, mediator