Six girls – 16-17 years old – are currently being held 9.6 miles from the UN Headquarters at Rikers Island. These teenagers wake up not knowing how long until they will be tried or sentenced.
Gigi Blanchard leads a biweekly writing workshop with these young women. “With my men’s and women’s classes, they all know their future, their sentences and release date, so they are more able to apply themselves to the writing process. These girls are not in the same position. While awaiting sentencing, they don’t know their futures at all. That haze of uncertainty is a major distraction.” Gigi herself was sentenced from 15-21. for stealing a car. She now works to bring her medium – writing – to girls who remind her of herself.
Gigi founded The Kite, a series of writing workshops by and for young people in prison and we were connected through Books through Bars on the topic of UNICEF’s Climate Comic Contest. The contest invited children and youth to create a planet-saving superhero. The winner will collaborate with UNICEF, Comics Uniting Nations and a professional artist to develop their own comic book.
As part of the contest, we developed the workshop toolkit to inspire educators and young leaders to bring the contest to the classroom and community. The workshop leads participants through a lesson plan and super-hero building activity, giving youth a platform to creatively solve climate change. Gigi decided to bring the workshop to her classes and invited me to co-facilitate.
Having never been to Rikers, I was surprised by how much it resembled a town. We took a shuttle bus through multiple gates, were guided through security points, and finally escorted to the girls. Seeing Gigi and I arrive at our final checkpoint the girls approached the glass. Due to infighting, the girls had to be split up at all times so we had an hour with each group of three. Choosing one group to start, meant the other girls pressed their hands on the glass with disappointed expressions. “I’ll be there soon!” Gigi mouthed to them.
I wasn’t sure how to bring a climate lesson to Rikers. I had prepared remarks, but on the bus in, Gigi had told me “no speeches. Think of this as just hanging with some teenagers.” I was struck immediately by their small builds and young, childish features. Their vibrancy was invigorating after a long, quiet commute. As we started the activity, however, one of the girls remained disengaged. She sat at the table quietly and occasionally got up to walk around the room. I learned that her best friend in the group had turned 18 the day before and was moved to the women’s unit. Gigi mentioned that this girl was an artist, so I approached her to share some examples of artwork we had received from youth around the world. She sifted through them for a while and finally joined our table, starting to quietly draw.
We showed the World’s Largest Lesson video featuring children identifying creative solutions to achieve the Global Goals. “Imagine if you were high watching this,” one of the younger girls said. Another was curious: “are these stories actually about real people?” (They are). I half expected climate change talk to be met with the idea that these girls had more immediate challenges. But that wasn’t the case. When asked what came to mind when they thought about climate change and what problem they would solve if they had a superpower, each group started throwing out ideas, talking loudly over the music (one of the perks of attending Gigi’s classes). They decided on a character and continued to collaborate and troubleshoot. Their stories twisted and turned with intertwining storylines. Two of the girls were originally from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic where the recent Hurricane Maria caused massive devastation: their heroes were born from that storm. One group developed “Zapman and Miss Green Machine” who together took down a tornado that was dispersing garbage and turned it into a recycling gust of wind. The last group came up with their own heroes but related the character’s stories to each other. One of the girls found that her hero needed help so she suggested that another girl create a side-kick superhero who could join her in fighting pollution.
On the bus back to the city, Gigi remarked that she could tell by the way the girls dove into their character sketches and storylines that they would embody their characters when confronted with the environmental issues they had chosen to combat.
Gigi encouraged me: we had activated the climate warrior within those six teenagers – young people society often forgets to engage because they have been in conflict with the law. At the same time, I left with a feeling that I, and society as a whole, need to do more. Reaching girls and boys in these situations isn’t easy – there are barriers – but leaving no child behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals must include removing those barricades.
Assuming that disadvantaged and vulnerable children don’t care about climate issues, don’t want to be involved, don’t see themselves as creative change agents or don’t think their ideas should be heard, is unequivocally false. I was profoundly reminded of this on that day at Rikers.
We may think we are bringing these messages to children – which we are and should – but there are also messages from children. These six teenagers lit up because they knew these issues – pollution, waste, degraded or absent green spaces – because they lived them. Their stories came from what they had seen in their own communities. Giving these six girls a platform to engage was just the first step.
When the girls were saying goodbye, one of them turned to me with a question, that I, in turn, want to ask the world. She asked us, “Will you be back? Or do we scare you?”
Callie King-Guffey is an Agenda 2030 Public Partnerships Consultant working on the Sustainable Development Goals in the Public Partnerships Division at UNICEF HQ. Her thesis was “The Socialization of International Juvenile Justice Norms in the U.S. Through State-Level Policy: Reform through Acculturation.” This blog reflects her personal experiences.