By Katherine Dittmann
[Editor’s Note: Only the first names of juveniles have been used in order to protect their privacy.]
Shannon was just 16 the day the gavel came down, sentencing her to five months at Juvenile Hall. Even though she was about to be jailed in Alameda County’s detention center where she would spend the majority of her time alone, contemplating her mistakes, that was not the worst thing that had ever happened to her. Growing up in foster care, Shannon was in the system from the start and already had developed keen survival instincts. Filled with anger and feeling hopeless about her future, she simply assumed she’d live her life in and out of jail, as had several family members.
Survival, for Shannon, meant reading as much as she could. “Truthfully, I don’t know what I would’ve done without those books,” she says. “It was like my little secret, a place I could go when everything else was going wrong.” The year was 2001 and she was in luck; the Write to Read program at Alameda County Juvenile Hall had just begun.
Unlike some of the other detainees, Shannon had always been a reader, she says, but never like this. “I didn’t have just one type of book I liked,” she continues. “It could be about almost anything, as long as it kept going, it had a flow.”
Alameda County Juvenile Hall is a veritable petri dish for exploring this question: Can you create a culture of literacy in an unlikely place, and will it make a difference? Thanks to some stalwart librarians and a small grant, the Write to Read program is showing that you can, and it does.
Juvenile Hall is home to some 40 female teenage residents at a given time, as well as a significantly greater number of their male counterparts. The Hall feels like a prison might, with many doors that lock and multiple gated entries. There are few windows, but it is surprisingly warm inside beneath harsh fluorescent lighting and none of the stale, dank odors one might expect. The kids who normally end up here haven’t simply run amok or fallen in with the wrong crowd. Like Shannon, many are products of gross familial dysfunction leading to anger and low self-worth—a recipe for acting out and making bad decisions.
Conceived in 1999, Write to Read today is the culmination of eight years of persistent work by Juvenile Hall Librarian Amy Cheney and Director of Adult Literacy Sherry Drobner, who recently left the district to continue her career at the Richmond Public Library. The initial funding for Write to Read was directed at the young women detainees. Over time, the program has touched the boys (especially through access to books) but the heart of Write to Read still lies among the girls.
Cheney has the sort of integrity and vision required to be successful in a challenging 18-hour-per-week position fraught with budget constraints, bureaucracy and a population of troubled teens. An unassuming woman of blunt wit and seemingly tireless dedication, Cheney recalls the moment that set her on the path: “My friends and I were anti-nuclear activists,” she says of her life nearly 20 years ago. Inevitably, some of her fellow activists landed themselves briefly in Santa Rita Jail after performing civil disobedience. “They came to me and said, ‘Amy, you’ll never believe this: There were no books!’” Cheney found this intellectual void inconceivable and thus began her mission to bring not just books but a culture of literacy to Alameda County’s jail and prison communities, complete with high-profile author visits.
In the early days of the program, the culture of literacy was still a phantom concept. The Hall had a few books about George Washington and copies of Reader’s Digest, but no library. And forget about writing your troubles away in a journal. Pencils were and still are banned for fear the kids might harm themselves or others. Pens might be used for graffiti.
Speak to me: Regina Louise, author of a memoir about a girl growing up in the foster care system, talks to teens at Juvenile Hall. Photo courtesy Alameda county/©Lori A. Cheung.
Cheney used the grant to purchase books, but her real challenge was figuring out how to inspire the teens to read. Some of them had never read a piece of literature in their lives. She realized that you can take a kid to the library, but you can’t make her read—unless, of course, you bring the library to her and she has a whole lot of time on her hands. “If you know anything about a small concrete box that locks,” reminisces Shannon, “then you also understand the necessity for books.”
The first step was to boost accessibility. The detainees now have daily access to hundreds of books stocked in 13 to 15 small libraries scattered throughout the various wards. It is not unusual to see teens perusing the shelves throughout the day. The honor system allows for four books at a time, but some are so hungry to read that they will often break the rules and keep up to nine books in their rooms. Cheney is particular about the books she allows on the Hall’s library shelves; only certain books make it past her scrupulous eye. The success of her selections is due to an uncanny sense of what works, much as a good cook knows how to balance flavors. In practical terms, this means the right mix of content with substance, language with culture. These have to be books the teens will want to read, but they should provide something more than a diversion.
Cheney only selects books she is certain will resonate with many girls or boys. Usually that means true stories of people overcoming hard times, such as The Coldest Winter Ever by hip-hop artist Sista Souljah and Haters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.
With luck, this preliminary foray will hook the girl on reading and encourage her to expand her interests to other types of literature, such as poetry or even sociology. The books are carefully labeled with colorful dots according to broad genres, such as “African American biography,” in order to help with selection. Sometimes, Cheney will bring a stack of books with her as she meets with the girls in order to promote various titles. Koko’s Kitten, The Kite Runner, George and Martha, Assata, Upstate—each gets a personal introduction and passes into the hands of an eager reader.
Cheney’s attitude about getting the kids to read is, “Let’s push ’em. The goal here is to inspire and motivate the youth to read books they wouldn’t normally read,” she says. What’s more, during a time of angst and uncertainty about their young lives, teens can look to books as “a way to pursue their individuality,” and learn about people, issues, places or ideas that would not otherwise be readily introduced to them, says Cheney. In other words, literature can provide these young people with a context for their situation, perhaps giving them insight into their history, illuminate cultural struggles or depict portraits of people they can relate to in a broad range of categories. This is where the author visits come in handy.
“There is definitely a difference between inviting authors to come and speak to the kids versus just having a speaker,” affirms Cheney. Her years spent cultivating relationships with authors and publishers improves the chances of getting sought-after writers to participate in the program. Ideally, the publisher sends 35 or 40 advance-reader’s copies for a group of girls or boys scheduled to meet with the author. “They even learn about publishing this way,” Cheney points out. “How many kids know what a galley is?” The teens read the book before the author’s visit so they can ask questions during the seminar. Often the author will sign the books and allow time to meet the girls or boys individually, which can be a profound experience for some, when a book has hit home particularly hard. “The best part is that the kids have an actual book they can walk away with,” says Cheney, “a guidebook in some cases,” something that doesn’t happen with just any speaker.
And Cheney doesn’t bring just anybody to the Hall. She seeks authors the teens can relate to, sure; but she also brings authors who provide hope and inspire, who help kids look inside themselves or beyond themselves, to see outside of their world. She recently brought Ishmael Beah, author of the new work A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a raw and poetic account of growing up in the ranks of civil war in Sierra Leone. Above all, she finds authors who are consistent role models. Most of them are Latino or African American, reflecting the population at the Hall. Recent scheduled visitors have been San Francisco Poet Laureate devorah major, writer and filmmaker Elisha Miranda (aka E-Fierce) and the Freedom Writers.
When Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, visited the Hall, she offered a $500 grant to any of the detainees who decided to go to college. It was the push Shannon needed to complete two years as an English major at a community college and set her sights on a transfer to Mills College.
Not all kids who grow up under less-than-desirable circumstances end up in juvenile hall, just as an idyllic upbringing does not necessarily protect one from going astray. Kate Holden, author of In My Skin, is a reminder of this fact. It would be easy to suspect Holden’s presence at the Hall as being off-target. Her bio places her in Australia, college-educated, from a loving, white middle-class suburban household. Yet her story is one of loneliness, sorrow and self-discovery played out in an arena familiar to the detainees, who listen to her with restless intrigue. At least half of the girls have brought copies of the book with them for signing, clutching them as if sacred tomes.
As Holden relates her story of falling in love, discovering heroin and life as a prostitute, a deeper story emerges that ties the room together—survival. We find that there is always a backstory, events leading up to how you got yourself into this mess, emotions to process and analyze, what-ifs and reasons why. But in the moment, you do what you have to, to get by. This is universal and these young girls know it well.
The teens have a million questions. “Did you ever see James again?” “How did your life affect your family?” “Are you married with kids?” “Do you ever think about going back?” “How did you get started writing your life?” It is almost as if, after having read this very intimate account of Holden’s life, they feel that they somehow know her and can ask her anything. Some even offer friendly advice: “That was your past. It doesn’t matter now.”
But others are critical: Why did she repeatedly go back to the drugs after attempting to get clean so many times? Holden explains that she kept expecting to hit the proverbial rock bottom, and that every time she thought she had, she realized it was just a shelf with yet another precipice from which to fall. The emerging theme from the session is that these girls are terrified of relapse and are groping for an answer to how to stay on the path and not revert to old ways and so-called friends. If reading these accounts of recovery and transformation inspires these teens to change, even in small ways, that’s worth the price of admission.
Realistically, it would be a mistake to assume that all these young people enter the facility jaded, street-hardened and explosive, and exit as hopeful and insightful young adults ready to take on the world simply through reading. This is not a charming place. There are more sullen faces than smiles, more harsh words than kindness. There is irony in the Hall-issued pink sweatshirt worn by every girl that seems to recall a more innocent time in her life. Outside of school time, the girls spend the majority of their stay alone, looking at the four walls of their “rooms,” a poor euphemism for cells. Personal items—aside from the books—are not allowed. The advantage here clearly lies with those who read.
But literacy alone is not enough. Teachers at the Hall use Character-Based Literacy, known as CBL, to modify behavior. The hope is that through examining a character’s choices and thought process during a story, the kids can apply this cognitive experience to their own lives, evaluate the choices they’ve made and begin to question their own thought patterns and habits.
Some of the girls figure this trick out on their own. “When I read those books and understood the structure of thought, then I used the tools to learn from my mistakes, which helped me reach the stage where I’m at now,” says Hannah, a former detainee. In fact, Hannah is working toward a degree at Sacramento State University; her long-term goal is a doctorate in child psychology. It is no wonder that she was selected to represent the program in 2006 when the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities honored Write to Read with the Coming Up Taller award. Hannah was held up as a model of how resources and an effective program can improve and change lives.
Because the present building stands on a fault line, a new detention facility is being constructed just a stone’s throw from the current Hall in San Leandro. When it’s fully operational (with luck, sometime this spring), all staff members will be trained in basic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. Cheney is pleased about this change because it puts all the staff on the same page, so to speak. CBT is a method of identifying negative or “wrong” thinking and replacing these thoughts with new phrasing in an effort to ultimately change behavior. Cheney says it’s about providing a positive model instead of punishment; recognizing a teen’s positive actions and giving affirmation.
Ron Glodoski, author of How to Be a Successful Criminal, makes CBT accessible for at-risk youth all over the United States. Glodoski bears little resemblance to his former gangster-drug kingpin self. His gaze carries the wisdom of one who has plunged straight into his darkness only to find light on the other side. He embodies a hint of his time spent with the Sioux Nation, wearing a long, colorful patterned coat and tying his white hair in a small knot at the base of his skull. He speaks with an accent that’s hard to place. The root is Milwaukee, but there are remnants of a speech disruption from a gory early childhood accident that left him with minor brain damage.
Glodoski tells a woeful story of severe abuse which he survived by fleeing home to a life of crime and repeated incarcerations, culminating in a 180-degree turnaround in attitude and behavior—as well as a $2 million per year business selling affirmation teddy bears for use in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions. These days, Glodoski tours the country crusading against verbal abuse and teaching kids practical tools to help change their lives. So far, he has visited the facility at least five times. Cheney says she must have purchased hundreds of copies of his book over the years. At the moment, not one can be found.
“Where do you get your attitude from?” Glodoski asks the group of 40 skeptical girls. They are meeting in a stark, nondescript room, energized with the hum of so many vending machines lining the perimeter. Glodoski is used to breaking through ice this thick and jams the pick right in. “It’s the lies you’ve been told,” he says bluntly. Using his own life as a model, Glodoski explains how kids aren’t born with a bad attitude. They’re not born stupid, lazy, worthless or ugly, he says. They only start to believe “the crap” other people, parents, so-called friends or peers, or teachers, tell them if they hear it often enough. “Thoughts shape your reality,” he tells them. Suddenly, the girls are very keen.
Glodoski identifies three dream killers: 1. Drugs and alcohol; 2. Negative people; 3. When you quit believing, which is often caused by physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The girls begin to connect the dots.
At the end of the presentation, the participants perform a writing exercise. They identify some of the earliest incidents of verbal abuse they can remember and report how they felt about those words then and how they feel about them now. Glodoski collects the papers and begins to read the responses aloud, to the pained chagrin of his audience, all moans and shudders. “‘Fat, ugly, dumbass, lazy, worthless, slut, ignorant, fool,’” Glodoski calls out in the new silence. He continues, reading their feelings about the name-calling: “‘I felt angry, mad, depressed and betrayed,’” said one. “‘I was hurt and confused. I didn’t understand why I was called such horrible things,’” read another.
“‘They hurt me and to this day I can’t see myself as beautiful. I’m a cutter and I’ve tried to kill myself twice. I know I’m capable of many things, but I have no urge to do anything,’” he read on. “‘I truly believed that I’m useless and ugly and that I’m not worth anything. This led to depression and drugs, then to abusive boyfriends and jail.’”
The room is silent, all eyes cast down. “‘I dropped out of school. I ran away from my family. I became very addicted to uppers.’” Finally, “‘If someone today called me a name, I would shoot them or stab them with a knife.’”
On completion, with theatrics, Glodoski throws the papers into the air, shouting furiously, “All those names they called you? They are all lies! Don’t you ever believe a word of them again!” Shrieks erupt as panicked girls giggle nervously, snatching up the pages, fearful that someone might peek at what they wrote, eager to read others’ hearts, as theirs are no longer safe. He issues the girls new pieces of paper for writing the truth about themselves.
Cheney cuts in. “You can’t write, ‘I’m a gangsta’ or a playa,’” she warns. “This is about who you are inside.” One by one the bravest girls stand to reveal the truth: the room is full of creative, smart, beautiful, kind, unique young women.
As a matter of course, along with the reading comes the writing. Many of the girls get hooked on writing as well, thanks to another program, The Beat Within, that meets once a week. Participants are given a choice of four topics or can select their own. The pencil-written pages get typed up by the program staff and published into magazine-style volumes that the girls can keep. This is important for it requires the writers to share their work with others and get feedback.
A bright-eyed girl with cascades of black hair, Emalijah, asks a visitor to read something. “It’s not very good,” she says, but she is dead wrong. It’s a poem describing her pain, her anger in vivid, helpless detail.
Melalina, a soft-spoken girl, perhaps 15, finds inspiration in true stories of survival and overcoming challenges. She, too, loves the Haters book, but is also enraptured by the Lost Boys of Sudan. Taking a cue from the authors she loves, Melalina says matter-of-factly, “I’m writing my autobiography right now.”
As is true for many of these girls, Melalina’s story is not one of great emotional security. Hers is wrought with abuse and characters who make her feel small and vulnerable. There is good reason for the soft and tentative voice. Writing, for Melalina, is a way to talk about difficult feelings or events “without having to actually talk about them.” As any diarist knows, relief often lurks between the pages. It feels so good to get it out of you and onto the paper.
This cathartic experience is also a source of empowerment. “When I write,” says Melalina, “I get to write what I want to write,” effectively taking back control. Seated next to Melalina is Dana, who says, “Writing is a way to express myself.” Dana, with long red hair and a bright demeanor, is mostly interested in writing poems and short stories, often creating hybrids of fact and fiction using her unique experiences to fuel her imagination. This method enables her to turn her pain and, often, unsavory experiences into something new, and create something that wasn’t there before, perhaps even something beautiful. “I write for myself,” says Dana, declaring that it’s inconsequential whether other people like her stories or not. Melania disagrees. “I write everything from the heart.” Writing is her voice and she wants to be heard.
Raven and Calisahia—whom Cheney identifies as “just gotten turned on to reading”—talk about some of their favorite books and how they feel about them. “I feel different,” Raven shares, having read God Don’t Play, by Mary Monroe, a novel in which the lead character reveals incidents of childhood sexual abuse and teen prostitution and how these experiences have affected her adult life.
These girls have plans for the future, beyond the Hall and beyond college. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” they are asked. “Pediatrician,” says Raven, without hesitation. “A lawyer,” affirms Calisahia.
Perhaps their next page should be taken from young singer Natasha Bedingfield: “Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten.”
Katherine Dittmann is a graduate student who works with youth and eating disorders.
Checking it out: Librarian Amy Cheney offers stories about overcoming adversity. Photos courtesy Alameda county/ŠLori A. Cheung.