Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who Are You?

Post by NCW member Duane Noriyuki

My most important lesson in writing was learned in jail. It was taught by Los Angeles street gang members.

In 1996, while working as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I found myself standing in front of a small group of young men in orange jumpsuits. I handed out paper and pencils, looked at them and gave my first assignment, “Tell me who you are.” The pencils began to move.

I was brought to this moment by a profile I had written about Sister Janet Harris, then chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall. To this day, she is the most noble, graceful, tenacious and intelligent person I know. She is my hero. The story was about how she had dedicated her life to young people on the verge of hell, not in a religious sense but rather in the context of graveyards and prisons.

After the story ran, she telephoned and said she was starting a writing program and asked if I might be interested in participating. Long story short, I found myself standing in the day room of Unit M-N, one of two units housing those charged with the most serious crimes.
“Tell me who you are.”

Initially many of them began with: “I’m a 16-year-old Hispanic male.” “I’m a 17-year-old black male.” I found this tragic. They defined themselves in the ways they were described in police reports.

It is my nature to listen more than speak, and it turned out that’s what they needed. They were desperate to be heard. That, too, kept the pencils moving, leading them to deeper understanding of themselves and their lives.

It turned out, they, more than I, understood the power of words, for on the streets words can get you killed.

"Where are you from?” Translated, it means, which neighborhood, which gang are you from? From those words, gang signs and bullets fly. People die and kill.

“Guilty.” Another word that would shape their lives.

“Unfit,” a term used to determine whether they would be tried as children or adults.

I understood that many of them had committed horrendous crimes. They were not the victims. I knew the courts would deal with the crime in the systematic ways that justice and injustice are determined. In separating the person from the crime, my role was to deal with the person--not to judge or save or even teach, but to hand out pencils and paper. And listen.

A young Asian-American student, in a piece titled, “I Am,” wrote:
I am a bird, without wings.
I am free, but cannot fly.
I can move, but cannot soar.
I can feel, but only pain.

As they wrote then, I am writing now. I read my words hoping to discover the answer to an unanswerable question: “Who am I?”

"How would you answer the question, "Who am I?"


Carol Kilgore said...

This is quite a strong piece of writing. And it should make everyone think. Good work.

Jenny S. said...

This is a great reminder about the power of labels, regardless of whether they are applied to us by ourselves or someone else. Thanks, Duane.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Very enlightening post, Duane. I can imagine you learned more than one lesson from this intense experience.

Wouldn't it be interesting to use the "Tell me who you are" exercise with students of various grade levels, elders in retirement centers, etc.? I bet you'd get the most amazing range of answers.

Amy Tate said...

Wow. This reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago. It's amazing how certain words have the power to unlock the mind and the heart, isn't it?

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