Creating Precious Conversations With Youth

written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Bianca I Laureano

With all the critique, reviews, praise, and discussion around the film Precious: Based On The Novel By Sapphire there is little 3106_cc937a11e797db689c61d71da1e47256information on how the film can be used among parents, mentors and educators working with youth. After viewing the film last week , I saw that there were several ways the film can be used to begin discussions with the young people in our lives. As I wrote, I realized I’m posing more questions than giving answers. That’s because I think these questions can be used for many, if not all, families and relationships many people have with youth. There is also room for readers to add or include their family’s own personal values and beliefs into their conversations.

If you do have a young person in your life that sees the film I’d encourage you to get them the book as well. The book provides an entirely different representation of communal survival and healing that the movie does not touch upon. Discussions around the book and comparing it to the film may be more fruitful and may also be an important opportunity for both of you to become media literate .

Sexual Violence, Rape & Incest

I went to see the film on Wednesday in Times Square at 5:45pm. The theater was huge and 98% filled. The majority of people present were youth of color. I realized from their reactions, side conversations, and call and response that youth are craving conversations about intra-racial violence. The violence in the film was extremely blatant and the audience had communal gasps while watching. How do we prepare youth to respond to violence? Do we make assumptions that youth will not encounter violence because we hope to protect them? How does this perpetuate their lack of ability to effectively respond to violence they experience and/or witness?

In the film we witness rape and incest. How will you define rape for a young person? How will we explain any differences (if at all) we may see between rape and incest? How will you define sex? How will you define abstinence for a young person? How will you define consent? In what ways can we make it clear that consent for one activity or interaction does not mean consent for multiple activities or interactions? How will your information be different or the same based on the gender identity of the young person you are speaking with? How are your ideas of safety and violence different or similar based on gender?

One of the main topics that came up for me was that Precious has several adults in her life, but none that she trusts or believes values her. How do we create a space for a young person to confide, trust, and know what they tell us will be believed? How do we realize the ways we may create a space for young people to distrust us and not seek our support/guidance/assistance? Are we, as adults, aware of how our questions/concerns may be interpreted as judgmental and accusatory? How are we willing to alter our approach to provide support/safety to our youth? In what ways can we hold other adults in our life accountable for how they interact with youth in both of our lives? How will we respond when those actions are reciprocated towards us by other adults or even youth?

If you are seeking to further a discussion I highly recommend purchasing Aishah Simmons’ movie No! The Rape Documentary which explores intra-racial violence, sexual assault, and rape in the black community. Her film is interdisciplinary, and has several popular culture references that remain relevant today. She also has a free curriculum with discussion questions to further dialogue. Other resources include RAINN, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network which provides free online training and resources.

Literacy

One central theme of Precious was literacy. Not just reading, but also how to write and share one’s story. Precious is encouraged to write everyday. She creates a dialogue with her instructor. How can we use technology and good ole’ snail mail to encourage literacy among youth? I have 15 years of letters that my mentee (who is now 21) and I wrote back and forth to one another that are great reminders of how we have both evolved. How do we expect youth to be literate? In what ways do we encourage reading and writing? How does media literacy fit into our understanding around literacy?

When I was working in Harlem part of my job was to promote literacy among the youth in the school through the health center to connect literacy to optimal health. I purchased 30 books and Push was among them. Youth who visited the health center could choose any book of their choice. Young women immediately selected Push and passed it along to other students to read. Some teachers were upset we/I offered this book and that the students read it and shared it with other students. As a group, health center staff decided we would create a lunch book group of students who read the book and the health center psychologist would lead it. Very good and important discussions about the book and its contents emerged.

One of the reasons I share this story is because even though many people disagreed with my decision to provide the book, students read the text. They knew what was going on in the story and wanted to discuss the book. The goal of increasing literacy was met. I write this also because I had to fight to purchase some graphic novels that the young men requested. Although I was not allowed to use the grant money to purchase comic books, I was able to purchase trade paperbacks (series of comics bound in a book) and the young men in the school picked them up. My goal in writing this is encourage us to consider all the ways young people can increase their literacy. There are amazing comic books and graphic novels that have engaging texts and imagery. Being able to read what is going on in a scene is also a part of media literacy. One of my favorite comic book authors and artists is Ivan Velez. He has created one of the first all queer youth of color graphic novels, Tales From The Closet, and has worked with Marvel, DC Comics and the like. If you have youth in your life (or if for yourself) are interested in reading his comics Ivan is now publishing and distributing his own work.

Relationships

An aspect of the film that I was extremely disappointed in was the omission of how the young people in the pre-GED class created a community and relationships with one another. Often I heard young women come to my office when I worked in a middle school complaining about a female “friend.” How do we speak to youth about building friendships with other youth? How do we teach young women to create friendships with other young women? How do we help them understand what a “friend” is and what type of friend they want to be? What friendships in our own life do we think are strong examples for the youth in our lives?

My personal research on how heterosexual men of color create and sustain relationships with heterosexual women, showed me that for many young men, being involved in various groups, clubs, activities, and/or sports was one of the main ways they created friendships with other young men. I remain in awe that many websites about health, relationships, and sexuality have a focus on young women. I have yet to find a resource that is specific to young men, but I do know of a few books that the young men I’ve worked with have found useful and these include:

Handbook for Boys (a novel) by Walter Dean Myers
From Boys to Men: All about Adolescence and You by Michael Gurian
The Kid’s Guide to Social Action: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose-And Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action by Barbara A. Lewis
They Broke the Law-You Be the Judge: True Cases of Teen Crime by Thomas A. Jacobs

If you have found resources specific to young men please share them as I’ve been searching and have yet to find some that I think meet the same needs they do with young women.

Writing Testimonials

One of my favorite quotes by Gloria Anzaldúa quotes is to “put your sh*t on paper.” It was for this reason that I appreciated how Sapphire ended her book Push with the young women writing their own testimonies, telling their own stories. I find this a useful discussion to have with teenagers: how do they want to tell their story? What ways do we support our youth telling their stories? How can we create a space that embraces various forms of expression?

One of my favorite Web sites for youth is Brainpop. They have great lesson plans for youth around health, science, English, arts and music. The creators of the site have also begun a site for youth who have English as a Second Language at BrainPopESL  . Writing our own stories in whatever language comes to us is a source of power.

Finding Trustworthy Adults

One of the main parts of the story is that Precious has limited adults she trusts in her life. We know she is surrounded by teachers in her school that ignore her, a principal that blames her for her pregnancy, a grandmother who ignores her abuse, and parents that neglect and abuse her. How do we help youth recognize adults they can trust? How do we help youth interact with law enforcement? Do we know what rights youth have? What do youth know about the child welfare system? How can a conversation about adoptions, foster families, and group homes be introduced in your family? What do youth think will happen to Precious and her two children at the end of the film?

If you have yet to see the film America, which stars Rosie O’Donnell, and follows a young man of color in the child welfare system, I’d encourage you to consider it for a discussion. I’ve worked with youth, group home staff, and have been trained to be a foster parent in NY state and know there are many conversations that are just beginning to occur. Many of the youth who “age out” (usually at 18, but in some states, like NY, at 21) of the foster care system because they are not adopted, age out without some of the life skills that are needed to succeed. Many researchers have made connections between aging out of the foster care system and incarceration. One of the videos I teach when discussing “deviance” and the social construction of crime is a film by the organization FlexYourRights called Busted! A Citizen’s Guide To Surviving Police Encounters. Not only do young people find this film useful, but adults who have been in the room when I show this film have also found it extremely useful. The film can be seen in full below:

Parenting

One of the storylines in the film is that Precious does not parent her first child who is born with a disability, yet chooses to parent her able-bodied son. In the book and film, Precious has goals of one day parenting both of her children. How do we discuss creating a family and parenting with youth in our lives? How can we create a dialogue about the challenges of parenting in general and the increase in those challenges when we are not prepared to parent? What challenges do you think Precious will encounter at the end of the film? How are her challenges presented differently in the book? What assumptions do we make about the gender identity of a person who is pregnant? What assumptions do we make about a pregnant person’s sexual orientation?

One of the things I notice as I work with families is how youth at a certain age begin to negotiate with their parents about privileges they have earned or ones they believe they can acquire. How does parenting shift and evolve as youth age? Do we make time to hear/see/understand what parenting styles works best for our youth?

The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has added adults over the age of 18 to their list of “youth.” It is one thing to experience a pregnancy as a teen and not be prepared, it is another thing to experience a pregnancy as a 20 year old and not be prepared. Being a parent as a teenager and as someone in their early 20s may have more similarities, as The National Campaign has found (they call it The Changing Twenties). What life skills do we provide youth to have as they age? What discussions do we have with youth regarding parenting? The National Campaign has created a short video called Too Young about the experiences of young parents. One of my critiques of The National Campaign is that it is very heterosexist and does not recognize that some teens may become pregnant as a form of protection because they fear how family will react to their sexual orientation.

Smoking

I was pretty overwhelmed by the smoking that was presented in the film, and not just by characters who were written in as smokers in the book. Almost every single young person presented in the film smokes cigarettes. I know in the 80s my parents smoked (they no longer do), but among my peers I don’t recall such an interest in smoking cigarettes. The youth in the film smoke all the time, everywhere: in class, in a museum and when walking down the street. If you are interested in having a conversation about tobacco use with the youth in your life this would be a great opportunity. How was smoking represented? In what ways do the characters use smoking as a coping mechanism? How can you begin a conversation about alcohol and tobacco being “legal” substances in our country and your families values about their use?

One of my favorite media resources is the youth-led advertising called The Truth Campaign. You may have seen these advertisements where thousands of people fall on the ground at a particular time to represent the number of people who die from tobacco use or the new ads where a tobacco executive interviews potential employees. Their site is extremely youth friendly and provides a great list of resources, including all the videos they’ve created, which were recently on MTV’s show Made. BrainPop also has a great set of resources regarding addiction, smoking, HIV transmission, the flu, and other such topics. They often have free videos (currently the free videos are Swine Flu, Asthma, Nutrition, and CyberBullying) and depending on the month/time they offer videos that are specific to that month (i.e. next week I’m sure they will have their HIV videos for free to view for World AIDS Day).

Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

One aspect of the film that nobody is talking about is the anti-immigrant rhetoric the character “Consuelo” exhibits toward Jamaican-born Rhonda. In the book this is not part of their discourse, so I find it troubling that it was included in the film. Consuelo calls Rhonda an “illegal immigrant” (she may have said “alien,” but I don’t remember exactly). How do we discuss the privileges and challenges of having a certain citizenship status? How do we define what citizenship is to youth? When we think about how words have power and how they can wound others, do we include anti-immigration discourse as well? If not, why not?

One important part of that scene is Rhonda’s reaction. Rhonda does not give Consuelo any reaction to her anti-immigrant comment. She looks at her and continues her conversation with the class. Why didn’t anyone else in the classroom say anything to Consuelo when she spoke to Rhonda? How can we compare this lack of “standing up for” Rhonda or showing support for Rhonda’s existence in the class to bullying? It may be useful to brainstorm options that students in the class could have said to support Rhonda. What are useful and supportive comments? How is safety assessed when youth witness bullying?

If you want to find out more regarding immigration reform in the US visit  The Sanctuary. Other resources can be your local chapter of the ACLU.

These are just a handful of topics that came up as I watched Precious. What topics arose for you and how would you discuss them with older children?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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