Thursday, August 2, 2007

"Dear Mr. President..." - letters to our President from the kids at the Bryant Ave. tutoring house

[This year a group of Urban Neighbor' s organized a weekly tutoring night for neighborhood kids in an Urban Homeworks house in north Minneapolis. Thank you Kristin, Katy, Matt, Jessica, and Stacy for your amazing efforts, dedication, and inspiration!].

"In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it." ~ Marianne Williamson

Over the summer, the face of our make-shift tutoring program at the 2902 Bryant House shifted and changed a bit in order to accommodate the fact that the kids wouldn't be in school, and thus, wouldn't have homework to bring to tutoring. Although we love planning fun outside activities, we decided to do something academic (but fun) each week to impress upon the kids that "learning never ends". However, the kids were not as keen to our idea. They caught on quickly that we were trying to "trick" them into working during their precious time-off from the pressures and stresses of grade school. Week after week, we cajoled, bribed and weaseled the kids into writing an imaginative story, doing "fun" math worksheets or playing trivia games. It was becoming quite frustrating for both us and the kids.

The week after the Fourth of July, someone had the idea to have them write letters to the President of the United States. It seemed like a good patriotic activity to engage in with the kids, but as Wednesday night tutoring approached, we all expected to go through our regular routine of begging and pleading to get them to write to Mr. George W. Bush. And, as usual, there were a handful of kids who simply would not have it. We let them draw pictures instead. But, to the surprise of everyone, there were two girls who took this activity on as a way of expressing their frustration with their circumstances. The two girls came from different backgrounds. One was African-American, and one was Native American - but they ended up with letters that were strikingly similar - a plea to the President to help their families out of poverty.

I had the pleasure of staying with these three girls after "writing time" had run out. They willingly missed playtime, to come up stairs with me to finish their letters. At the end, as they read their letters out loud to me, I felt a strange sensation - a mix of beaming pride, righteous anger, upper-class guilt, and heart-felt empathy. Kameja's* letter was filled with humor and wit, with sentences like, "Hello Mr. George Bush, I almost wrote George Washington, but that would have been a mistake, you ain't as good as him" and "There are too many baby's momma's still living with their own mommas. They need help getting their own houses for their babies." The other girl, P.J.* let me copy down her letter to share with you all. Here's what she wrote:

Dear Mr. President,
How are you doing? My name is PJ. I live in Minnesota. I am 10 and I am from the Mille Lacs tribe. I speak Ojibwe and English. I used to live on the reservation but now I live in Minneapolis. Here in Minneapolis I have less friends than on the reservation. I was 8 when I moved to Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, it's harder to get from place to place, one time I had to walk over 4 miles. I walked from my mom's boyfriend's house to my aunt's house. I'm tired of going place to place to place. My mom has no house and she is very busy. She has to watch kids all the time. Can you please make prices lower and give my family $1 million dollars so my mom can buy a house and a car? I said please. Sincerely,PJ

This one experience with PJ and Kameja made up for all of the Wednesdays when the kids left tutoring, and we were left standing in the ruins, with growling bellies, dull head aches and surrounded by a stunned silence.

It made up for the many snacks I have prepared that the kids complained were "too healthy" and "didn't have enough sugar".

It made up for the dirty fingerprints that line our hallways, and the beads and glitter from Christmas crafts that we are still sweeping up.

This is why I came here. To empower.

And if it takes week after week of stressful, loud Wednesday evenings of crazy crafts and vaguely controlled chaos to get results like these - I'd do it again in a heart beat. Because it was through those weeks that we were able to build relationships with these kids - relationships strong enough that two of them would trust us to help them write down some of the deepest most painful issues of their life, and demand that things change.

We helped the kids address their own envelopes, and sent all of the letters and pictures the kids made to the President of the United States, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500. What a powerful lesson in citizenship, and what a better way to reinforce the meaning of our country and its founding. For as Marianne Williamson said in The Healing of America, " ... the inherent goodness of the average citizen [is] the crown jewel of American democracy."

* Names have been changed to protect the far too innocent.