PITTSFIELD — The Justice League Club at Reid Middle School is giving seventh-graders a chance to represent themselves for who they are, not who other people think they are or expect them to be.
Some of the middle school students involved say they have been characterized by people in various ways, from being the quiet girl in class to being the son of a man whom police arrested. But guidance counselor Kristen Shepardson said she selected students to be a part of the club to help their true potential shine through those perceptions.
Regardless of the students' past mistakes, experiences or missed opportunities, the Justice League program operates on what's known as the "restorative justice" model for discipline, which holds students, schools and the community accountable to creating a positive outcome from a negative experience.
The club formed last school year in partnership with a student organization called Converging Worlds, affiliated with the Williams College Center for Learning in Action. Converging Worlds, in its mission statement, says, "We believe children are our future, and are deeply invested in combating the school-to-prison pipeline and giving our students every chance to thrive."
During a spring partnership pilot, Williams College students joined Reid students on field trips as a group to places like Berkshire Humane Society and Jacob's Pillow. But, Converging Worlds Co-President Anna Pomper said, "it wasn't enough time to build real connections with the kids."
So this fall, both the college mentors and middle school mentees made the commitment to meet with each other after school at Reid every Thursday, with an emphasis on "changing the narrative" or "reclaiming the narrative" they've been living with. It's a broad concept that can range from making personal changes, to changing attitudes about the community the students live in.
Each meeting begins with a "check-in," where, in confidentiality, everyone can talk about their highs and lows of the day and/or week. This fall, the middle school students were then asked to work with each other and on their own to tell their stories and come up with a presentation that demonstrates their passions and interests. The mentors also asked the middle school students to think about how their personal stories, passions and interests could impact the community.
"It was fun to get to know somebody," said seventh-grader Tatyaina Curtis. She said at first, she was hesitant to participate, but changed her mind. "I figured I might as well give it a try. When else do you have an opportunity to do something like this?"
To get ideas flowing, students asked each other questions like: What are the three steps to make change in the community? Why is this issue important to you? What's the solution, and why will it work?
"We want them to figure out how to take care of themselves and how to be a hero to themselves," Pomper said.
She said that in the club, the mentors teach the younger students a process called "HERO," which encouraged the Reid students to "Hold-up" or take a moment to "Empathize and Express," what's happening in a situation, "Restore" themselves to gain control and take the "Opportunity" to learn and "Overcome," what could have been a negative outcome.
Converging Worlds Co-President Keiana West, a 2014 graduate from Taconic High School, said that while these ideas were formally directed to the younger students, the middle schoolers often took an informal, unstructured route to arriving at answers for themselves. "As older people, sometimes we like to overthink things, but they reminded me that sometimes things can be more simple and fun."
The first "O" in the HERO acronym, for example, was developed by seventh-grade club member Wes Ahoussi, who said, "it was the first thing that came to my mind, that I wanted opportunity to happen for us."
As a group, the Justice League ultimately identified two key issues they'd like to see the Berkshire community address: "improved police accountability and oversight" and "a revitalized mall." The students met with A.J. Enchill, a Reid alumnus who now works as a legislative aide to Sen. Adam Hinds, and learned about community problem-solving and how to make change.
Together, the middle school students made posters and speeches about things that could be done to, in these examples, restore positive relationships with police, and revive a former shopping and social hub at the heart of the region.
Last Tuesday, despite most after-school activities being cancelled or postponed due to inclement weather, the Justice League showcase went on as scheduled at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, in front of an audience of school and legislative leaders, family members, teachers and friends. They shared their personal stories through art and videos, in addition to their posters for change.
At the end of the program, their college mentors presented each student with certificates and praised them for their "honesty," "insightfulness," "deep thinking" and "universal kindness," among other characteristics.
"It felt good. It felt like we were listened to," said seventh-grader Steve Patch afterward.
Rosanna Ahoussi, who attended the showcase with her other children so they could see Wes' presentation, said she was proud of the students and pleased by the program. "They need it," she said. "It helps especially with their attitude and perceptions and working with each other. It's helped my son big time."
The 2017-18 Justice League Club
Reid Middle School participants: Wes Ahoussi, Sincere Johnson Lopez, Tatyaina Curtis, Amar Jones, Gracie Samrith Friend, Makai Shepardson, Aniyah Moody, Steve Patch.
Williams College Converging Worlds mentors: Maria Hidalgo Romero, Tricia De Souza, Ally Alvarez, Anna Pomper, Keiana West, Claudia Reyes, Emma York, Eli Cytrynbaum, Louisa Kania, Sydney Myong.