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Interview: Paul Griffin of The Possibility Project

Interview: Paul Griffin of The Possibility Project

I met up with Paul Griffin at The Possibility Project’s on West 27th St in New York City. What followed was the most interesting conversation I’ve had about education and youth development in a long time. Paul’s tone is animated and energetic and it’s not difficult to see that he once felt called to pursue his own career in the theater.

But something about pursuing his own career felt off to him. It seemed decidedly self-interested and he wanted something more. In the early 90s he began working with youth in Washington DC. He worked with them to use the performing arts as a way to explore the issues impacting their communities. At first, he didn’t think that he would do this type of work for very long, but he soon realized that the work combined everything he loves to do. Over 20 years later, I asked Paul what keeps him going.

Why do you think you continue with this type of work? Where do you get your energy?

That’s a good question. There are a lot of answers to that. If it were one thing, I probably wouldn’t continue to do it. I think that the thing that keeps me going is that it works, seeing the impact that we make. There’s no greater satisfaction than watching one of our young people, seeing the light bulb go off, and them getting with it and getting out there in the world and being confident. It’s just an exciting process. It’s an exciting process to watch, really satisfying. I think also, just the idea that I never had a moment in my life, in 21 years, where I ever asked myself if what I was doing is important. I’ve never asked myself whether it was making a difference or if I was making a difference. I never ask myself, ‘should I be doing this?’ On just a purely instinctive or intuitive level, from the moment we started, it’s just kind of been that way.

What’s unique about The Possibility Project?

I think it’s a combination of things. Every time we do a show or often when we do a show, someone always says, ‘Who thought of this thing?’ A friend of mine who was Chair of the Sarah Lawrence theater department, he brought me up there to teach, he’s in his sixties, and he came to see a show. He said, ‘you know, I thought I had seen every kind of theater in the world.’ He’s been all over the world, he’s directed everywhere and when he saw the show he said, ‘I realized this is a different kind of theater.’

I think the thing that makes us unique, more than anything else, is the youth leadership and youth empowerment pieces of what we do. They lead the program. They’re not the directors of the program, that’s just not feasible with them being in school and work and all of that. But it’s the fact that the production teams act like a board of directors for the program. The fact that they write their own scripts. The fact that they share their stories and then write their scripts from that. The fact that they do their own community action projects. The amount of responsibility they’re given, I think, is totally different.

One of the things we realized early on is that young people need to solve young people problems.

When young people walk into The Possibility Project, they recognize very quickly, ‘oh, this is our house. This is not like a bunch of adults telling us what to do. We get to do this.’ The peer-to-peer relationships are huge. I think that’s the most important thing we do.

We always say in our program, when we’re training Artistic Directors, remember the action in the program is not from you to the young people, it’s amongst the young people themselves. Your measure of success is not whether you have great relationships with them, it’s whether they have great relationships with one another. So, if you walk out at the end of the year and they respect you, and love you and all of that, which they will, they’ll look up to you if you’ve done a good job. If they forget about you two or three years down the road or you kind of fade but, they hang on to relationships they built, that’s ok.

Most people try to manage groups to a result and what we’re saying is, we’re not going to manage you. We’ll organize, we’ll give you this, we’ll help but, you have to do it. They have to do all the work. I think that’s the single biggest difference, and I think that’s why this is very risky and why it works.

What type of program is this anyway? Is it a youth development program? Theater program? Social justice program?

Yeah, youth development social change, combining those two, and the performing arts are the vehicle. That’s how I think of it. And I think the ultimate goal on the youth development side is confidence and on the social justice side, is around leadership and agency. It’s combining those two things, it’s saying, if we’re going to have a better world, we need young people to be on point. They need to be aware, they need to be educated and they need to, over decades, be studying these things so that when their turn comes, they’re prepared for it and know which direction they want to go to.

One of the things we realized early on is that young people need to solve young people problems. They have to rally around, they have to raise their voices. They need to be empowered, challenged, supported, inspired, motivated, to address all the problems of their community.

I think engaging in social justice accelerates the youth development process. It suddenly brings importance and relevance to their development, and then I would also argue, stepping back from that, that positive youth development, particularly for poor kids, particularly for poor kids of color, is a social justice issue in and of itself.

We’re moving away from raising our children in communities to raising our children on the principle of choice.

One of the things about the programs we run is that excellence is taken very seriously, and so is integrity and accountability. This is not ‘come in when you feel like it and we’ll play.’ This is like, ‘we have very specific things we want to achieve and you have to get on board with it’ and the demands are quite high. We see that as a social justice issue. Like, they deserve that experience as much as anyone else, do you know what I mean? And they deserve as much room to screw it up. People of color who screw up, sometimes the stakes are very high, a privileged white kid has more room to screw up and that’s a social justice issue.

What’s the relationships between school and community, between poverty and academics?

Let’s take it back. I think there’s a bigger problem than the nuts and bolts of the education debate around this issue. I think that we’re at a point in time where we’re seeing the fruition or culmination of a ‘unique evolutionary moment,’ as I refer to it. We’re moving away from raising our children in communities to raising our children on the principle of choice, right? I think that’s a good thing, I think that’s a positive, and I think what’s happening is that, we’re preparing our kids for the world their going to inhabit and that’s a good change. Because our kids are not going to grow up in communities anymore, they don’t. They grow up as individuals. So, when I was growing up I was raised to be a citizen and a community member. To be a good person, which meant treating the people around me as a good person would. Children today are being raised to be individuals, economic actors and agents who are going to be making choices. Who are going to decide where they want to live in the world. I’m talking about those who have privilege and everyone who aspires to that. So across the board, when we’re talking about young people we’re talking more about choice.

So for me, when we’re talking about schools, they haven’t caught up with that. The curriculum as such and their role hasn’t caught up with that. And what I mean by that is, they’re now being asked to serve a lot of the roles that the community used to serve. The character of young people, their inner life, social-emotional learning. Before that was done at home and in your community, and for a lot of people, in the church. Now we’re asking the school to do all that. Because the community doesn’t exist in the same way, because they’re being asked to make choices now, and because mom and dad are working. And they’re working really hard.

Everyone also knows that, from a scientific perspective, when you test things they fail, and you try again and they fail, and you try and try a thousand times, but when students fail here, we kick them out. That’s dishonest.

School is a very important place because it’s one of the only places young people gather as a community. If I was running a school, I would extend the school day but wouldn’t have it be school. From 3:30-6:00 run programs explicitly around social-emotional learning (SEL), and over high school it would go from fun to serious to independent study. And not just performing arts as the vehicle, a million other things.

Now, what’s important about doing that well. Because a lot of the time when people talk about doing SEL what they do is…

Garbage.

Right.

It needs to be experiential, young people need to be in control of its fate. It needs to have a goal that their working towards, and it needs to be fun, exciting, it needs to be compelling.

What should the impact of that type of programming be? What have you seen the impact be?

Confidence. I want them to be 100% confident that they can resolve the conflicts around them, 100% confident that they can do something about the world, 100% confident that they’re going to be OK. You know what I mean? I want them to feel capable and confident in everything they do. Because I think there’s this mistake…

Young people think, because they’ve been told, that there’s this mastery they need to have of life and then everything’s OK. And I think they need to understand that, there’s no mastery of life. There’s a mastery of confidence, if you want to call it that. The mastery you need is understanding ‘I can deal with this. I can figure this out.’ And that, by the way I think is a function of testing. If you test everyone, if there’s a test at the end, then everyone thinks, ‘oh, I have to master all of this so I can answer all the questions.’ But, do you know how often I’m tested in life, in my job in 21 years? Never. No one has ever made me fill out a bubble hole. So, how is doing that useful? It’s so old school, I’m floored. And to the point about preparing these guys for the world they’re going to live in, we all know that the idea of ‘the test’ is not how it works in the world.

And everyone also knows that, from a scientific perspective, when you test things they fail, and you try again and they fail, and you try and try a thousand times, but when students fail here, we kick them out. That’s dishonest. That’s teaching them, on some macro level, a very unscientific method, for all of our emphasis on STEM research. And the lack of integrity in education in that sense, is crazy.

Now, you’re not going to eradicate poverty and then have great schools, right. Because we all see schools as the mechanism for eradicating poverty.

I understand why testing is done. Testing is done so they can manage results like a business. But education is not business, it cannot be business anymore than a mother and father can come home and treat their children like their employees. Education is closer to parenting than it is to business. I understand why the system needs to be managed like a business, but the classroom and the individual schools needs to be managed much much much more closely to parent, family and household than like a business. Every teacher knows this.

The payoff with kids is often time a long way away. You don’t know when a kid’s gonna (snaps) get it. And a lot of it is beyond your control. It’s where their brain is, and nutrition, and the social forces that are going on in their lives, and I do believe that the single biggest destructive force in their lives is poverty.

If you try to engineer a teacher you’re going to fail.

Now, you’re not going to eradicate poverty and then have great schools, right. Because we all see schools as the mechanism for eradicating poverty. You use education to move up. But I do believe there’s a way for schools to address those forces in their kids’ lives so that they deal with them honestly. And then they need support from everybody else. So, if you go to east New York, south Bronx, Jamaica-Queens, and you have a poor community school. They need more than just being a school and we need to reconfigure that. We need to rethink that.

Internationally, the United States is one of the only developed countries that gives less resources to schools in high poverty areas.

That is so unfair it’s not even funny. That is the most unfair thing in the world.

(The conversation shifts to how adults who work with young people are trained)

If you try to engineer a teacher you’re going to fail. Young people can smell inauthenticity and irrelevance (snaps) like that. So a teacher, an adult, anyone working with young people has to be authentic and relevant in their lives, and be bringing something relevant to them as far as a teacher in terms of subject matter. Or make a subject matter relevant for them.

When you start teaching, we call it painting by the numbers, when someone starts teaching by the numbers, and they say something like, ‘what’s my response to that question?’ It’s like OK, pause, the response to that question has to be your response to that question, first and foremost, or they’re not going to buy it. I mean you have to digest the material, but then you have to get in there. And that’s really a theatrical technique. Given a script, digest it and then make it authentic.

How would you describe the philosophy of The Possibility Project?

So, we don’t have ‘a philosophy,’ but there’s a lot of things we’ve learned that we hang on to. So, I’ll tell them to you as we remember them over the course of the year. One is that every time we meet a young person, when we first meet them, we try to imagine them as positive, powerful, productive people as adults, and then we ask ourselves, ‘ok, what do they need to get there?’ We never ever take a pathological or deficit model. We never say, ‘ok so they’ve got these issues or those issues,’ it’s just not how we look at them. We envision them, imagine them as excellent. We know that they’re incredibly capable. They can do amazing things, just period. Not matter who they are. We have kids who have very serious deficits and all that and for us that’s no excuse not to be able to achieve, certainly in our context. I mean, acting, singing, dancing, anyone can do that if they want to, to some degree of success.

We see creativity as the highest form of empowerment.

There’re so many philosophies right, I think another one is that the key to unlocking everything for a kid is social-emotional. It’s not just cognitive. It’s not just educational. In fact, I would argue that it’s almost all SEL. And it’s funny right, because everyone says if we want a kid to go to college, we’ve got to give them tutoring, and SAT prep, and this and that, and the other thing, and I’m like well, if that kid gets lit up, if he gets motivated he’s going to figure out how to do all that for himself, she’s going to figure out how to do all that for herself. Which is one, more efficient. Two, you didn’t need to put in all these new dependencies. And three, it’ll probably stick. If they figure things out for themselves now, they can figure out everything else for themselves in the future, rather than have to find the next professional service for them to hire so they can take the next step in their lives.

Also, we see creativity as the highest form of empowerment. If you live your life reacting to what happens to you, muddling through, that’s one way. If you understand that your life is yours to create, that the future is yours to make, then you’re in a great place. You’re going to get busy making that future happen, confident, motivated, all of those things. But I think how you understand how to do that, is by practicing, studying and creating things.

In our environment, the idea of creativity is not like, ‘ok, here’s some colored scarves and colored paper, let’s create,’ do you know what I mean? That’s exploring, and exploration is a part of creativity, but creativity is a long involved process. It involves discipline and commitment and accountability, and muscle and sweat and tears.

We believe in a lot of things I mean there are so many things we believe in.

It was the strongest indictment of education I’ve ever heard. Them saying, ‘a big part of the reason I love The Possibility Project is that it’s not school.’

We also believe in not exploiting our kids’ experiences, and we make sure we never ever author their story for them. We don’t do it in the program. We don’t do it in fundraising. We don’t do it, ever. That’s part of the integrity. That when you peel what we do back to the center, the center holds.

What do they tell you about school?

They don’t like it. We did a three year research project with teachers college at Columbia University, Michael Hanson and the National Center for Children and Families. One of the most consistent responses in the whole survey was how they answered the question about why they like The Possibility Project. They said, ‘because it’s not school.’ It was the strongest indictment of education I’ve ever heard. Them saying, ‘a big part of the reason I love The Possibility Project is that it’s not school.’

Why don’t they like school?

I would say, the reason they don’t like school, God there’re so many reasons. One, they have to sit all day long. They sit in chairs, which I think is crazy. Two, their teachers are not exciting or compelling. Most of their teachers are boring. Three, they don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning. I think the biggest reason they don’t like school is that they have no idea why they’re there and no one’s even talking about that question.

I just looked at a series of evaluations from last year’s program. We ask a question about our program as it relates to school. “Did this program make you more interested or excited about school?” And every single one of them was ‘no.’ On a four point scale, four being ‘a lot,’ one being ‘none at all,’ it was ‘none.’ Now mind you, we’re trying. I just think they’ve given up on it. School sucks.

It is harder to get people excited about solving systems of equations than performing a musical.

Yes yes, but if those are happening in the same community. If the musical community is the same community that’s sitting next to each other in the classroom, it would change. And if the teachers that are teaching math were instructed to make it relevant. Not like ‘ok 3 hos meet 9 pimps. 3 hos and nine pimps makes how many fucked up people?’ that’s not what I’m talking about, not that sort of ‘cool hip-hop relevance.’ I’m talking about, let’s talk about why math is important. Spend the first week just giving them the history of mathematics. When you’re a child, not so much, but by the time you’re a teenager, that question of ‘why’ needs to be answered.

 

To read about the evening we spent with the teenagers and artistic directors of The Possibility Project click here.

(Young people from TPP’s Foster care program also wrote and acted in a real feature film titled Know How. You can stream it on Netflix.)

Community and Purpose: An Evening with The Possibility Project

Community and Purpose: An Evening with The Possibility Project

On Wednesdays The Possibility Project meets in a small rehearsal studio in New York City’s Lower East Side. A dozen teenagers and four adults cluster into various groups. Some sit on the hardwood floors, others sit on metal folding chairs, and others stand, acting out the words they’ve just written. The youth lean forward into one another’s comments and ask questions. They come to agreements and put pen to paper. Their conversations are intense. They talk about how to bring to life to scenes of domestic abuse, sexism, and the tensions of being an ambitious young person on the streets. They’re in the process of creating a musical inspired by their own lives.

The adults float around the room to ask clarifying questions and encourage indecisive groups to stand and ‘act it out’ to see if an idea lands. Everything about their body language communicates a feeling of collaborative deference toward the youth. Some teens roll away from their group, kick their legs in the air, walk out of the room without notice. None of these actions are acknowledged or ‘corrected’ by the directors. This isn’t that type of program.

“It’s the relationships with one another that are the mechanism for all the positive change.”

The show’s narrator is by himself in the corner. He wears sweatpants, a white t-shirt, and a du-rag. He lays on his stomach to write, occasionally looks up with a pensive expression, and then returns to the page. He’s been writing like this for about 30 minutes when I introduce myself. He explains that he wants the narration to have a spoken word poetry feel. I ask if he can share one of his poems and he smiles:

I was raised by killers,

I wanna’ be a king.

They forgot about their soul,

Chasing material things.

The poem is a powerful statement about rising above the static of one’s environment to become the person you know you can be. When I stand up, he offers his hand and thanks me for taking an interest in his writing.

The Possibility Project is many things. It’s a performing arts program, a youth development program and a social change program, but most of all it’s a community of young people. This is by design. As Paul Griffin, the founder and Executive Director, explained to me earlier in the day, it’s the “relationships with one another that are the mechanism for all the positive change.” This idea that the most powerful impact doesn’t flow from adult to young person, but between young people, was one of the earliest insights of the program.

“But there ain’t no power til we all have it.”

It’s interesting to think about this in the context of many high-performing district and charter schools, where teachers and administrators are more committed to containing and minimizing the social nature of teenagers than tapping into it. What would it mean to instead see this as teenagers’ greatest asset? What could that look like in a K-12 environment?

When I talked with the youth during their break and after rehearsal they were remarkably consistent on the point of community. Each of the five youth I talked with mentioned the importance of ‘trust.’ The thing about writing a musical inspired by the most difficult challenges in your life is that you need to share what those challenges are. “It’s made me less angry. I keep everything bottled up always. It’s helped me be open and trust people but the best part is learning to let go of the past cause I like to cling to it,” said A. She went on to say that the scene coaches are the “most important people in the world. They never judge you. Kenny and Elizabeth saved my life, literally.”

A first year cast member, JC, told me, “It keeps me calm. I talk my feelings out instead of keeping them in. And there’s lots of people I can trust. You can express life and feelings and no one gonna judge you because everyone has their own story. Everybody has love for people. We have a voice and we can be heard. All of these parents don’t want to listen cause they think they have the power. But there ain’t no power til we all have it.”

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The Possibility Project’s Artistic Directors (left to right); Meagan Baca-Dubois, Elizabeth Howard-Phillips, Kenneth Phillips, and Niquana Clark

Of course, the youth in The Possibility Project don’t bear their souls to one another as an end in itself. If TPP is most fundamentally a community of young people, it’s most visibly a high-octane performing arts program. Their performances are a powerful mix of song and dance, revolving around scenes that depict the most gut-wrenching experiences teens in the city experience and overcome. They leave audiences slack-jawed and sometimes unbelieving that every aspect was created by the youth themselves. “We don’t recruit for talent but at the same time we expect the sky in terms of talent,” Paul Griffin told me. “We take excellence very seriously.” It’s this kind of nonchalant, yet intensely focused belief that, all young people are capable of rising to previously unimagined expectations, which brings authenticity and depth to the social-emotional and community building parts of the program. Expectations are everything. Earlier this year, they even released a movie, Know How, that was written and performed by students in the foster care program. You can stream it on Netflix.

At the end of rehearsal, the group circled up and gave each other shout outs. After the shout outs the rehearsal was over, but the teens still ran up to one another for their ‘three hugs,’ which is basically what it sound like. It’s an impressive sight, a room of smiling faces. Outside, most of the youth milled about on the sidewalk. I approached a pair of them to ask about the difference between The Possibility Project and school. “School is just to do work that’s not really helping you,” they said, “working hard for credits and a degree. Here you just come as who you are. It’s all encouragement. All good vibes. You work to speak your voice. It teach you how to deal with emotions. How to understand your point of view on life.”

The Possibility Project is different from a K-12 environment. But still, I wonder what lessons classroom teachers and administrators could learn from the work that they do?

– Will

Over 99% of The Possibility Project’s cast members stay in High School. High School GPAs rise .5 points on average and over 90% of students go to college. Maybe even more impressive, over 90% of cast members report resolving conflicts in their lives differently because of their experience with the program. There are no photos or names of youth in this article because, unlike teens in the Tuesday/Thursday program and the Saturday program, all of the youth in the Wednesday program are in the city’s foster care system and are subject to clear laws prohibiting publication of their photos.

For a more in-depth discussion of The Possibility Project’s history and approach, look out for my extended interview with Paul Griffin.

Here’s a Netflix link to the movie Know How.

http://the-possibility-project.org/