I recently attended a volunteer meeting that will enable me, once procedural hurdles are dealt with, to pass through the security check at the front desk without stopping. Just a flash of the badge. Almost every member of the Book Club either already has a badge or is somewhere in the process of getting one. This indicates a substantial level of trust bestowed upon us by the Serbu center and the Phoenix program in particular. I find this level of trust amazing, especially in light of the evolving nature of the Book Club’s structure.
We do not read books in Book Club, and we have not since I began participating in January of this year. As I understand it, the original structure of the program was to have university and Serbu youth read sections of books, graphic novels, or comics, and discuss what they read each week. For various reasons, this was not the ideal system. Moving away from that, the Book Club opted to read a play version of To Kill a Mockingbird. In each session, the group would read a portion of the play, then engage in discussion about the issues raised that week. This worked reasonably well, and it was only when the leaders of the program were faced with the possibility of reading the play of To Kill a Mockingbird three terms in a row that a new format was devised. This one incorporated some poetry, a couple carefully chosen youtube videos, and a lot of discussion.
This is when I began to participate, at the beginning of winter term. The project for the term was to build an abstract model of an ideal society. To achieve this goal, we were to focus on topics such as leadership, cooperation, and decision making. Our structure was frequently modified to incorporate what the youth were so obviously passionate about. For our final projects, we worked in five groups with two or three each of youth and university students. Each group had a topic that they were particularly interested in, ones that were chosen by the youth. They were two groups of youth homelessness, and one each of bully prevention, education improvement, and preventing gang proliferation. At our graduating ceremony, the youth led presentations to Mayor Kitty Piercy.
At the beginning of this term, we were confronted with a question: how do we follow the success of last term? Alex and Ted, who had led the program the previous term, had two things to say. First, they said winter term had been the best for Book Club. Second, they told us that they wanted to leadership be shared by every ‘outside’ member of Book Club. We were all equal leaders, we each had equal opportunity and obligation. In line with this democratization (for lack of a better term) of the planning process, we incorporated the youth’s interests more directly than before. We spent a session electing topics (both by university and youth students), and voting on them. Ultimately, university students pick the topics and design the weeks meeting, but this gave the Serbu youth greater voice in what we were all doing. The topics were as follows:
Child Abuse, Existentialism, Drug Abuse, Teen Pregnancy, Prejudice/Racism, Education, Alcoholism, Economy, Teen Mortality, Divided Self, Illness/Healthcare, Pollution, Development v. Conservation, Post-colonialism, Gangs, Drug Retail, Media and Body Image/Sexuality, Media and Music, and finally Slam Poetry.
The university students cut out a handful of topics that we did not feel comfortable leading a discussion on, put the rest up to a vote, and came up with this top ten:
Media and Body Image, Slam Poetry, Prejudice/Racism, Music and Media, Constructive Expressions, Existentialism, Illness/Healthcare, Education, Drug Abuse, and Divided Self
Each week, we have a discussion about one of these topics. We came up with these as a group and we voted for them as a group. More and more, the youth are determining the direction of Book Club though their positive actions. I find it amazing that Book Club has the trust of the Serbu Center, and the program is increasingly being directed by the youth, those young persons incarcerated because of criminal behavior, and in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. This is a tenuous relationship, constantly in limbo and moderated by university students, but I see it as one of the most interesting aspects of this program. Talk about what we may, the real discussion is about how the youth are striving to form their own ideal society, how they are experiencing, through Book Club, what it means to be trustworthy and, hopefully, recognizing the responsibility it entails. I hope that is true for the youth, because gaining the trust of these youth has been the greatest lesson for me.
UO Book Club Member