I meet with incredibly resilient and strong youth every week. Many of the survivors we work with write or draw. Some of them keep journals, some of them free write on whatever paper they can find. Some write song lyrics or poems. One youth I work with has a certain spark and spunk to her — her strength radiates in every word she speaks and writes, and I even read it in her body language. I believe her powerful glow and radiance has helped her persevere through some of life’s toughest experiences.
This youth uses writing as a coping skill — no, a survival tactic. I have the privilege of hearing her writing when we get together. When she reads her writing to me it gives me access to her life experiences that I might not get if we had to rely on conversation alone.
The first time I met this youth, she read some of her writing that spoke to a very personal, hurtful, and traumatic experience. And it was haunting. Her delivery echoed in my mind for weeks.
Over time we were able to create a trusting and safe place for her to share more of her writing. One of the strengths of our long-term services program is that we get to be patient. We don’t demand or pressure our youth to share their stories, traumatic experiences, or any information until they feel safe and comfortable to do so.
I’ve learned not to ask questions in these situations. No “tell me more about…” or “you mention this; can you elaborate?” I honor and respect the dignity of the writer by not asking questions. As social workers and counselors, we are often trained to push the client to “dig deeper.” But at Love146, we cultivate a long-lasting relationship that models healthy boundaries and allows the youth to “dig” when they feel safe, trusted, and valued. Youth then allow us to bear witness to their stories in their own time, in their own way. They are in control, which is one of the most important things we can restore to their lives.
Not asking a lot of questions can obviously slow down the process of learning about our youth and their history as well as any future aspirations. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle to figure out where they’ve been and where they want to go. In all of this, however, the biggest learning piece for me is:
It’s not my story to tell, and it’s not up to me how I learn it. When youth choose to share their story with me I’ll be there to bear witness and honor their dignity and value through listening.
Staff name has been withheld for protection