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Young, Bright and Incarcerated

Our Weekly, News Report, Shirley Hawkins Posted: Jun 24, 2009

Theyre young, theyre brightand theyre incarcerated.

Actress and writer Akuyoe Graham is buzzed through the electronic gates of the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, California and walks to a concrete complex where she instructs at-risk youth three times a week. Haunted and troubled by the crimes they committed, the juveniles look forward to Grahams class, where they unleash their innermost thoughts through her Writes of Passage program and calm their nerves through meditation techniques.

Through the mighty power of the pen, Graham, who is the chief executive officer of the Spirit Awakening Foundation (SAF), motivates the 13 to 18 year olds to face their troubled pasts and explore avenues that can lead to redemption and healing.

Graham, who also teaches Writes of Passage at Santa Monica High school, John Muir High School in Pasadena and Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley, said, I encourage these youths to write their innermost thoughts. It helps them to really let go of being victims so that they can become empowered, said Graham, who started the nonprofit SAF 14 years ago.

I would say 70% to 80% of the youths in juvenile detention are victims, Graham pointed out. They have been physically, psychologically and emotionally abused. These are kids that have not been listened to or cared for, said Graham. They have lashed out at themselves, each other, their families and their communities. Writing is a way to free them from the limitations of their past.

Teaching at the facility has been an eye opener for Graham, who said many of her students are high risk offenders who are awaiting trial for murder and robbery charges. While younger offenders face going to a youth camp, others have already been sentencedsome to 25 years to lifeand are waiting to be transferred to state or federal penitentiaries.

The professional consultant who has worked for 20 years with the L.A. County Office of Education revealed that many of the young men and women in her classes have suffered horrific abuse. They have a lot of pent up anger and rage directed at anything and anyone at any given time. Theyre angry at the guards, their teacher, and their family members.

Pausing, Graham added, Many of the youths find it hard to forgive themselves for their crimes, so I lead them in a lot of forgiveness work, said Graham. I think all forgiveness starts with self-forgiveness.

Through the writing exercises, Graham encourages the youths to unmask their authentic voice.
I teach a lesson called the Land of Healing where I get them to think of all the attitudes, emotions and ideas that they carry in their minds and hearts that are burdensome to them. And then I invite them to write these things down. After their emotions are on paper, we have a symbolic releasing and letting go ceremony so that they can create a space inside of their hearts and minds for something new to emerge.

Graham has seen remarkable transformations in the youth during her classes. Ive been touched by the number of young men and women who have shed their tough exteriors through their writing to reveal that they are actually vulnerable underneath, she said. My goal is to help them write mission statements so that they know their purpose for being alive and creating road maps for their own success.

One 17-year-old who is facing a 35 year sentence, Graham reports, wrote that he had been abused since he was three years old. He said that ever since he could remember, he had been knocked out physically by his entire family. This young man did not know anything of love. Graham said the young man turned to the streets to alleviate the pain. He wrote that the gangs were the only family he had ever known and that they provided him with food, shelter and support.
Another young man, 18-years-old, who had been sentenced to 81 years in prison, touched a cord with Graham. He wrote about the pain and suffering he experienced growing up. He, too, was a victim of abuse.

And Graham said that the girls in her classes have also led troubled lives. One angry young woman wrote that from the time she was five years old, her parents arranged for her to meet with men for sex, recalls Graham.

But there are success stories, too. Some of these kids who are incarcerated have served their time and moved on. One young lady who went through the Writes of Passage Program five years ago graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She is now getting her masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins University, Graham said proudly.

Putting a young person away for 45 years to life is not the answer, Graham maintained. There definitely needs to be more arts and athletic programs in the community for these young people to keep them out of trouble, programs that can engage their minds and imaginations.

Graham will be hosting a fundraiser entitled Voices of the Unheard at the Agape International Spiritual Center on Sunday, July 12 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The event is to raise funds for the graduates of the Spirit Awakening Program. We are having the scholarship program because these young people have to have some reason to continue to do good, said Graham. We are not rewarding them for bad behavior, but because they need a reason, hope and inspiration to support them in their road map to success. Graham will also be performing her one-woman show entitled Spirit Awakening. There is a fee of $35, but no one will be turned away because of lack of funds, said Graham. Call (310) 348-1250 or go online www.agapelive.com.

Related Articles:

Alameda County Pioneers Restorative Justice for Youth

Stimulus Dollars Lift Hopes for Teen Jobs This Summer

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