I have spent the last fifteen years working with at-risk youth. Teenagers and young adults from underserved minority communities have been my students and my teachers. From the remedial classrooms of small-town New Mexico to the halls of Harvard University, I have had the privilege of serving some of the most brilliant young people from some of the most challenging environments. And I’ve seen many of them grow into inspiring young leaders.
But one thing that comes up with each new young person, each new group that I work with, is their willingness to open up to me in ways they admit they won’t to anybody else. So much of it, they say, is in the way that I speak to them.
This past week I was with a teenager that I mentor after he had gotten into an altercation with his high school director. As I explained to him that his school director is also attempting to look out for him, his reply was, “Man, that guy ain’t nothin but a phony. You can hear it in the way he talks. It’s all made up and fancy bullshit.” He went on to tell me that what he likes about our work together is that he gets where I’m coming from. “You say things in a way that I can understand,” he says, “I know you get what I’m going through.”
Interactions like this are really interesting to me. Because I have seen them happen in adult education classrooms as well as one-on-one interactions with youth. I had on adult ESL student, a middle-aged Dominican woman, tell me once “Usted es diferente teacher, porque usted nos ve como gente.” You are different teacher, because you see us as human beings. My eyes welled up as over twenty of her classmates nodded their heads with teary, downcast eyes as she said this.
What strikes me most about this is that our way of interacting with each other has come under such scrutiny that we are more concerned with being politically correct than with being human. Through the development of a hyper-intellectualized demand that society be all-inclusive and non-offensive, we have become exclusionary and elitist in the very language that we use. It is a language that emerges from an upper-middle-class privilege that starts in educational institutions that demand that society conform to their ideas of liberal thought.
While using this type of language is well-intentioned, I have seen it shut down communication in many situations. This is because we can get caught up in the dynamics of wanting to be politically correct to the extent that it shuts down our ability to communicate from genuine, heartfelt experience. When I am working with individuals from diverse backgrounds, many of them underrepresented minorities of low-income status, I first consider their desire to be heard, to be understood, in their language. Politically incorrect as it may seem to some, the language we use when interacting with our closest friends and relatives is rarely masked by our desire for propriety. Instead, language flows from us in an unadulterated manner. It is the way that we speak when we are acknowledging our own desires and wounds.
This is why poetics are so powerful. In my work, I use the poetry of writers such as Luiz Rodriguez and Jimmy Santiago Baca, I use the teachings of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and the richness of images these people convey come from the heart. Often, they are not politically or grammatically correct, but they emerge with a power of expression that comes from a deep understanding of wounding and struggle.
For me the question becomes “how real do we want to be?” Do we want to get entangled in the nuances of the intellectually-driven liberal elite? Or do we want to, first and foremost, connect with the person in front of us from the heart? To understand their experience as best we can, often by mirroring it back to them through the experiences that have brought similar emotions up in us?
It is a question of connection as opposed to one of indoctrination. I have worked with kids that come from similar backgrounds to my own. Children of single-parent, immigrant families that have witnessed the worse of violence and trauma. But I have also worked with kids that come from affluent families that seem lost in similar cycles of despair and self-destruction. I have had parents, teachers, and service-providers approach me baffled at how I was able to make an impact on the lives of young people that no one else seemed to reach. They ask me how I was able to connect with their teen in a way that no one else had.
My answer is always that I have a willingness to drop the external conventions of social propriety in order to speak to them as human beings. When I am working with a young person that is struggling I could care less about what society at large deems proper in the way we speak, because underlying their words are the universal emotions of fear, isolation, and the feeling of being rejected by others. It isn’t until we address these underlying emotions that we can start to help anyone in any way.
To use one of the popular catch-phrases of the day, it is about vulnerability. It is also about understanding that young people need mentors. They need people that are not bound in their social circumstances as parents, teachers, or conventional authority figures that they can speak to from the heart, without a fear of being corrected or made wrong. As a mentor, it is my job to be willing to listen while also being vulnerable and open about my experiences when I have been in similar situations to them.
We currently live in a society that is guided more by the head than it is by the heart. We have created elaborate agendas for how to interact with one another that come from cerebral notions what is and isn’t proper. In this we demand that others conform to our definitions of propriety, which shuts down communication when and if a person has a different life experience or perspective. But the emotions that people that speak differently than we do are the same as ours. They are coming from similar places of fear, of judgment, and of projection of both of these things onto outward circumstances and onto others.
Until we learn to listen to others from the heart instead of the head, we will continue to perpetuate the same fears and wounds. To call someone out on their language without first understanding where they are coming from creates an immediate barrier to communication. This perpetuates the conflicts we face across gender lines, across political divides, across religious and economic divides. If instead we realize that each person has a need to belong, to not be ostracized, then we hear from them why they feel they are most understood by the social and political stance they take, we can speak to their need to belong by finding our common threads of humanity with them. I have seen this skill break down affiliations with racist, sexist, and classist groups.
This skill is one we all can cultivate, one that will guide us towards greater unity while allowing us to release our desire for opposition toward each other. When we learn to listen from the heart, then speak from it, we find what makes us all united in one human community. This can change our world.
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