By Rebecca Hargraves, AmeriCorps Youth Program Specialist
I have been serving as the AmeriCorps Youth Program Specialist at the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center since September 2018. Before taking on this position, I had volunteered for a year with the Youth Program while I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University. When I heard about the Youth Program at the WDRC, I was eager to be a part of it!
I was excited about being in the AmeriCorps position here, because it would give me the opportunity to learn more about conflict resolution, and to work with youth of all different ages, backgrounds, and from many different areas in Whatcom County. While in college, I loved working with youth in schools in Bellingham, and being in the role as a mentor for youth. In this position, I have been able to continue that work as well as develop skills as a facilitator in both classroom and small group settings. Also, I love that the position is focused on helping others shift the ways they see conflict - from something negative and overwhelming, to something normal and natural that can lead to positive change.
One of my favorite parts about serving in the Youth Program, has been connecting with youth, and especially helping youth realize that they are not alone in dealing with difficult conflicts and there are ways we can learn to handle conflict so it can help us rather than hinder us. Youth often come to our classes feeling that some conflicts cannot be solved. Through asking the right questions, and guiding youth to begin opening up and talking about these issues with each other, they usually can come up with amazing reflections and solutions to problems all on their own! I love the moments where youth feel heard in our classes, when they open up, when they have their profound realizations, when they realize they are not alone in their suffering, when they learn to connect with each other in deeper and more authentic ways, and when they realize there are ways they can figure out conflicts that felt once hopeless. I love when I see youth leave our classes with what looks like a weight lifted from their shoulders.
What has been difficult, is that by asking youth hard and vulnerable questions about conflict, we often hear about some really big conflicts youth may have going on in their lives, whether that’s conflict at home, with teachers, or with peers. It always breaks my heart to hear from some of them that they might not have the support they need at home or school to have figured this out, and they feel there’s no way to solve it. As a teacher only working with these youths for three to eight hours total, I can’t always be there for them. I see this as a sign that we not only need to talk to youth about how to deal with conflict, but teachers, counselors, school staff, and parents need to continue listening to youth and role modeling healthy approaches to conflict for youth every day.
Though this magical and dynamic service is often difficult, I think I have made a big difference in my community. In these ten and a half months, I have reached about 750 youth in Whatcom County. With our workshops, it is not only the number of students we reach, it’s about how we are making the tools we have to share important, applicable, and fun to learn about! In our workshops, we play games and try to have students up, moving, and having discussions with each other throughout the class. Conflict is hard to talk about, and moving our bodies and connecting with others in both fun and serious ways helps us feel more comfortable sharing. We also focus on helping students start a dialogue with each other about how to solve some difficult and tricky issues. We get them talking so that when we leave from our short time with them, they can continue these conversations amongst each other now that they’ve broken the ice. This year, I also focused on developing some materials in Spanish for youth who speak Spanish as their first language and are still learning English. I have created many new worksheets, and dozens of conflict scenarios to add to the program. Most importantly, I helped keep this important program alive the entire year to reach the hundreds of youth in Whatcom County who need it!
As they say, you need to practice what you preach. Teaching about conflict resolution skills every day, and encouraging youth to try new and different techniques to solve their problems, it is only natural that I would be trying to use these skills every day, too. Through learning about conflict resolution all year, I feel much more equipped to deal with any conflicts at work or in my personal life. It has helped me keep relationships healthy and happy. I am also much better at advocating for myself than I used to. Many people think that being direct is always being mean and pushy, but it is actually really important to feel comfortable being direct – and you can do it in a kind way!
The most valuable skill I learned this year, was how to listen to people and hold space for them. The youth we serve often have many great ideas and struggles all at once. By asking the right questions, and then listening attentively, youth have been able to find the answers to some of their most difficult conflicts on their own. At the end of the day, youth just want to feel heard and seen. With the skills I have been learning and developing here at the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, I think I have been and will continue to be the extra support youth sometimes need to feel confident facing some of the scarier conflicts in their lives.
It is with so much gratitude that we say goodbye to Rebecca as she embarks on her next journey. Thank you for all that you have given in your year of service at the WDRC. We will miss you and wish you well!