By: Dean Bossenbroek
Listening to six teenagers talk about their experience working for Briarpatch’s Madison Street Team (MST) during the summer of 2016 is kind of like turning on the Letterman Show expecting Madonna to talk about her latest pop-icon endeavors. Instead of providing another vanilla answer to what it was like working with her current collaborator, the next thing you know, Madonna starts describing how she battles foot fungus by peeing on her feet in the shower. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s intriguing. It’s a non sequitur.
The particular group of MST participants I spoke with in August began dutifully answering my questions about their summer employment highlights and lowlights. In addition to the traditional MST work of picking up trash on the streets of Madison, they spent the majority of their summer assisting custodial staff at various Madison Public Schools with building scouring. Their supervisors, Bryce and Selena, were also in attendance. It was the last week of MST programming, and they were celebrating with pizza. The kids names below have been changed; their responses are real.
What’s the weirdest thing you found, while cleaning school buildings this summer?
The group generally agreed that the sheer amount of gum stuck to the undersides of tables was weird and nasty. They were also taken aback by conditions inside some school lockers.
Louis – “I can’t chew gum anymore.”
Sue – “The lockers were so messy in the high schools. The kindergartners were cleaner.”
Adam – “There were boxes of shoes and clothes.”
Robert – “Yeah, and the clothes were unhealthy.”
What was the greatest part about the summer?
Making money was the unsurprising, consensus answer.
What did you do with the money you earned?
Sylvia – “I opened a bank account, and saved $800.”
Clay – “I bought a new laptop and saved some in the bank.”
Adam – “I spent a lot on food, and saved about a hundred bucks.”
Robert – “I helped out with family expenses. I want to buy a car.”
Louis – “I bought football equipment – mouth guard, visor, cleats – and clothes for school.”
Sue – “I saved about $400.”
What was the worst thing about your summer job?
Adam – “Getting locker-cleaning bucket water in my mouth.”
Louis – “The window thing.” (There was an unfortunate window shattering incident involving a Briarpatch van. Thankfully nobody was injured.)
Sylvia – “When I smashed my hand.” (She wore an ace bandage the last week of work. This was not related to the broken window.)
Robert – “The heat.”
This is where the conversation veered off its predictable course.
Clay – “Having to remind people to use preferred pronouns – I wish I had been better at that.” (Clay’s preferred pronouns are they/them.)
I was impressed with Clay’s willingness to broach this topic in a group setting with an adult (me) in the mix, whom they’d met just 30 minutes before. As our society becomes more in tune with the fact that gender identity is not as simple as referring to others as only either him or her, we at Briarpatch have been working at being more inclusive. More and more we are asking members of the various groups facilitated within our walls, which pronouns each person prefers to have directed at them.
As one might imagine, a common initial reaction to this sort of conversation is one of confusion and then discomfort. And then confusing, uncomfortable silence.
I thanked Clay for bringing up the topic of preferred pronouns. I pointed out that even though they felt like they should have said more during the summer, they should give themself credit for doing so now. Sylvia was seated next to Clay looking confused and uncomfortable. I asked Clay to explain to the rest of their MST teammates, what they were talking about.
Clay patiently began to offer insight into how individuals sometimes do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. As a result, referring to someone as he or she may not be accurate and/or how the person would like to be addressed. Hence the more neutral they/them. Clay introduced the group to the terms cisgender and cisqueer. MST Crew Supervisor Selena jumped in, and offered some simplified background on these concepts. Then we all went around and stated our preferred pronouns.
It was an educational opportunity I would not have predicted, and Wow! Was it ever valuable. So yes, a bunch of kids participated in Briarpatch’s summer youth employment programming, learned job skills, met new people, and earned paychecks. Like all of the programming at Briarpatch, the obvious things are often superficial, and the deep stuff happens because we provide the time, space, and attention for kids to stretch their brain muscles in addition to flexing their bodies’ musculature.
Dean Bossenbroeck is Youth Restitution Program Coordinator, Intenstive Supervision Program Team Leader, Counselor, and Neighborly Ambassador.