I wonder what passersby at Westlake Mall were thinking when they saw a gaggle of high school students solemnly rising up by the escalator, in black and white striped t-shirts, their hands clasped behind their backs with handcuffs. Signs on their front read such things as “12 years old; Incarcerated for unruly behavior; ordered to pay court costs.” Their backs each revealed another message: “We do not deserve this.” Although this sight may have been taken differently depending on the eye of the beholder, the intent was to evoke the question: is youth incarceration the answer? This act of guerrilla theater was one of many types of activism practiced by this year’s Peace Activist Trainees.
This summer the topic of youth incarceration was hot. In order to “address” the fact that over 60,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed over the border between Mexico and the U.S., many have claimed the answer must be building better walls, beefing up militarized security, and housing the children in barracks and detention centers such as that of Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). In Seattle, the debate over funding for a new youth detention center has been centered mostly around what kind of bells and whistles should be added to the facility. The dialogue has not centered as much around why the children are being forced to flee, why youth are acting out or missing school in our communities, and what kind of programs and policies will actually feed to a new cycle.
A large part of the PAT program that we hope the students will take away with them is the idea that activism is a spectrum, and that there are many different ways to be an activist for peace and justice. An important role movements must play is addressing the root causes of an issue. The PATs brought to light some important questions around youth incarceration through their project, survey, meeting with a political figure, and speeches. On Monday July 28th, they went to Westlake and Pike Place Market dressed as convicted youth (wearing true statements about youth at the detention center). Former PATs and staff helped pass out pamphlets the youth had made giving more information challenging the new youth jail. Later that evening, they hosted a rally downtown with speakers from Washington Incarceration Stops Here (WISH) and No New Jim Crow. Megaphones and banners in hand, they stood for “money for books and education, not for youth incarceration!”
They also conducted and compiled results from a survey downtown asking people’s thoughts on the possibility of 600 children and mothers being housed at JBLM. They brought their pie charts as well as heartfelt personal stories to a meeting with Rep. Adam Smith’s aide Debra Entenman later that week. They share with her their analysis that the system discriminates based on race and class. Entenman was impressed. Other highlights of the month included Skyping with Palestinian-Russian-American young activist Laila Abdelaziz on the day that the ground invasion on Gaza began, going on an Inequity Tour, and going out for ice cream with Ruth Yarrow after a sunny, successful, and larger-than-ever soapbox speech day at Victor Steinbrueck Park. See their exit interviews.
The program has grown and evolved over the years. We look forward to the program continuing to evolve – with new facilitators, a new format, new partners, and/or new possibilities. Many PATs, in their evaluations, talked excitedly about continuing to work together, with FOR and other organizations they were exposed to such as Casa Latina. There was even talk of starting a monthly youth group. However the program manifests itself next year, I hope WWFOR feels the same inspiration that many of the youth came out of the program feeling: that it is possible to pull things together, that successes do happen, and that something can be done!
I heard about the Peace Activist Trainee Program through my brother, Hussein, who completed the training in 2013. He explained to me that if I had specific passions in anything, that program is for me. Going into the program I really didn’t know what to expect. This program turned out to be a great experience where I learned a lot about myself. I gained confidence in myself while talking in front of strangers about a topic I was passionate about. I made a personal connection while Visiting Casa Latina and Tent City, which was genuinely a life-changing experience for me. It allowed me to see a newer perspective on people who have next to nothing but are still trying to get by, and still have hope in their lives. It also made me make a personal connection to myself. Seeing how living conditions were so different has sort of opened my windows to see an important lesson: No matter how rich or poor you are there’s always going to be a person who is less fortunate. This PAT program was like a breath of fresh air, and I will never forget about it.
The Peace Activist Trainee program was recommended to me by one of my teacher after having conversations with her about wanting to get more involved in activism because I am so interested in it, but was never really sure how to do so. I was finding myself frustrated at the lack of peers who showed equal interest to mine, and at the lack of opportunity I found trying to get involved at a young age. I talked, thought, and researched a lot about social inequities, but wanted a way to directly get involved with social movements. Going into the PAT program, I was mostly excited to meet kids my age who were as interested in activism as I am, and I could not have met a better group. We all had a range of different ideas, skills, and interests, and I learned so much from each of my peers and grew close with them to create hopefully lasting friendships. I also went into the program wanting to know ways to get involved. By meeting many different organizations for different social movements, I learned about things already happening that I could get involved with. By learning and practicing all the steps to create nonviolent campaigns, I gained confidence in my ability to help make a difference through many different kinds of activism, including rallies, guerrilla theatre, and even just how to have better conversations with people. An unexpected thing I gained from this program was a newfound voice and a newfound confidence. After meeting people so passionate about solving our societal problems, making huge decisions and holding our own rally against the new youth jail, and, especially after giving speeches on soapboxes at Pike Place Market, I am not afraid to speak out. I now know my opinion and my voice matters, and that I can voice it more clearly and confidently when I see something that I feel the need to contribute to. I am no longer afraid to call out inequalities that I see and to have conversations with people about them. I have the confidence to have and share a strong opinion and I know that my voice means something. I know my voice can make change. I had this strong voice in me somewhere, and the PAT program helped me find it. I am ready to make powerful change.