J: At the Dane County Juvenile Shelter I’ve been meeting with kids caught up in the juvenile justice system. Some are here for delinquency issues, but most are here for reasons beyond their control, such as those they may be experiencing at home.
B: The group dynamic and limited space inside Shelter sometimes made things chaotic. So many different conversations going on, and people trying to talk over one another, the environment was often noisy. These kids were animated, spunky, and full of life.
B: I learned that a lot of kids were in Shelter because of concerns about their safety and well being in their home environment. Shelter was a way to protect them.
One of the girls I spoke with talked a lot about her relationship with her mom. She told me the story of how her mom got pregnant with her at age 16. When she was born her dad moved away and started another family, and her mom returned to partying. Her grandparents were the ones who raised her until she was 12. For all those years growing up, she barely heard from her mom or had any relationship with her. But after 12 years, her mom decided that she was ready to be a part of her life again, and asked her to move to Madison to live with her. She explained how she resents her mom for being absent all those years, and how the tensions in their relationship seem to be reaching their peek now that she is a teenager:
“Yea, we’re friends, but when she tries to be a mom it’s like…I feel like I’ve earned the freedom I have, I don’t disrespect you, I don’t skip school, I have a job, I earn the freedom that I have now. She thought different…”
B: I discovered that the meaning of family is different for everyone. “Family” isn’t limited to relatives, it often includes gang members. But that doesn’t take away from its importance.
“Family, yeah, not friends, I ain’t got no friends, I ain’t trying to make no friends…”
“My brothers and sisters…they’ve learned how to be more cold-hearted. They used to be really warm-hearted just like me, but that doesn’t really take you nowhere. If you’re nice to people, it doesn’t really matter. My mom the one who taught me, she told me when I was a young kid, if you keep lettin’ people step on you, you’re goin’ to be stepped on for the rest of your life. You’re the one who’s supposed to be doin’ the stepping.”
J: Each week we had the kids do an activity that revolved around the theme of the night. Race made its way into the conversation most nights…often with a Bob Marley, Rastafarian influence.
“The main reason my family cares so much about race, would be because race is still a big problem. Considering how black people are more likely to get arrested, most of the prisons are full of black people, stuff like that. My mom didn’t want me to become one of those statistics.”
“Well, if you was white, you would not be here…[laughter] yeah, think about it. [She white, and she here!] Well, her dad wanted her to be here. She got sentenced here.”
J: Racial terms could be a form of endearment between friends, known as flaming, that increased social cohesion within Shelter.
“Flaming is basically when you talking about somebody…Dissin’ each other, you’re basically talking about somebody, but in a cool way, it doesn’t have to make sense. If I said your head looked like a nugget, doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t black, how does your head look like a nugget, but it makes you laugh [laughter]…sometimes my friends say I look like a “black a… this, or “black that,” and they were naming off everything that had to do with a person being black, but it wasn’t racist.”
J: When these comments occurred between strangers, there was a whole new meaning.
“So there was a time I was walking with my friends, a group of black people. And a car full of white people drove by and said ‘You Black Niggers!!!’ We yelled back ‘Fuck You Bitch.’ So then as we still walked they came back and said ‘We’re gonna lynch you Niggers.’ Then we said ‘Come do it Bitch we’ll beat your Fucking Ass.’ So then they pulled the car over and I had a pellet gun. So then I shot them…”
J: The kids told me that racial biases don’t get in the way during their time at Shelter, because the staff there care about getting their lives back on track.
“Life is one big road with lots of signs
So when you riding through the ruts
Don’t complicate your mind
Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy
Don’t bury your thoughts
Put your vision to reality
Wake Up and Live!”