The Phoenix Treatment program is just one piece of the Serbu Justice Center network that works so hard to support the at-risk youth of Lane County. To make Book Club more effective, it’s crucial for us to understand not only the circumstances that the youth come from, but where they go upon “graduating” from Phoenix.
My Friday afternoons are blissfully free (almost!) from classes. Instead of holing up in a sunless cafe to study, I decided on a whim to take up a longstanding open invitation from my friend and Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center, Matt Sterner, to visit MLK, the day program that a small percentage of Phoenix youth transition to post-release. Under cloudless skies (an excessive respect of the mightiness of poetic justice makes me worry that we will pay in the spring for these glorious days of sun), I hopped on my bike and rolled across the roiling Willamette and onto the Serbu campus.
Matt treated me to a tour of MLK’s impressive facility. Though the Center is based in a a pod that is the same drab design (but a mirror image) of the secure Phoenix and Detention units, Matt and his team have done wonders for the space. Strolling around the facility, I was much less struck by the gloominess of prison architecture than I was inspired by a palpable sense of positivity. The walkway to MLK’s entrance is buffered on either side by a native garden, and close to the door is a large greenhouse. Both spaces host MLK’s horticultural program. Inside is a ping-pong table (I held my own against MLK’s incumbent all-star) and a basketball court, both of which lighten the mood of the space. Student art projects, job postings, and photos of field trips are like wallpaper on every vertical surface; this shows youth, with visual testimonies rather than off-putting overtness, that the program is both fun and a pathway to success. Keep in mind that prior to an official renaming, the MLK Ed. Center was simply known as “Court School” (also note that MLK has a brand new home in the works, also on the Serbu campus).
While things were slow when I arrived (the norm on Friday afternoons), the place was abuzz by 3 pm. Two U of O athletes from “O Heroes,” an Athletic Department project that brings student-athletes into important community settings, spoke to MLK and Phoenix youth, the Serbu kitchen crew, and MLK staff members. The attendance of the U of O student-athletes was part of MLK’s last-Friday assembly. To open the gathering, Matt introduced the guests, and revealed the program’s Student of the Month and Employee of the Month. This small gesture seems a pivotal piece of the culture of success that Matt and his team have built at MLK; only two people are affirmed for their efforts, but everyone involved is implicitly challenged to push their efforts at self-improvement just a little bit farther.
I want to close with one image from my visit to MLK.
I had the pleasure of sitting in on a class session at MLK (MLK students attend traditional academic courses in the mornings, and electives in the afternoon) with a teacher named Stephan. This class, I was ecstatic to hear, is one of two electives focused on urban and sustainable architecture. What a perfect fit with MLK’s horticultural and culinary programming! Sitting in the back of Stephan’s class, I watched as one of the students crumpled up the handout that Stephan was using to invoke student response and discussion, “Stealing Nature’s Harvest,” an article written by Oregon’s own Vandana Shiva. This action seemed to seal the student’s withdrawal of interest. I watched Stephan carefully to see how he would react, but to my surprise he just continued to ask questions of the other students. Another minute went by, and the student who had crumpled her assignment turned her attention to unloading a tape dispenser all over her desk. Yet another minute, and still no acknowledgment by Stephan. Three minutes later, I watched as this student reached underneath her desk, picked up the crumpled wad of worksheet, and then unfolded it on her desk, smoothing it flat against the hard surface. I was awestruck as she then held it six inches before her face, and began to silently read it to herself, her thin finger following her eyes as it digested the words on the page, one line after another. Stephan glanced first at her. Then he looked at me, as if to say, “Give them a chance, and they’ll come around.”
You can read more about the Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center here.
‘Outside’ alumnus and blog editor at University of Oregon