Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Father Knows Best: The Railroad Street Youth Project

Presented to the Club by Erik Bruun on December 14, 2009

1. Still Learning

The topic of this paper is the Railroad Street Youth Project of Great Barrington, Massachuetts, the youth empowerment organization that I have devoted more passion and energy than any other enterprise in my life other than parenting. As the title implies, the meaning is about fatherhood, something I learned a lot about in my role at RR Street. As my 16-year-old daughter is only too eager to tell me, fathers don't know best. In fact, according to her, we know virtually nothing at all. This, however, does not stop her from turning to me for support on an almost daily basis.

My experience is that as fathers we are called upon to know what is right and carry ourselves in certainty, but in reality our job is to prepare our children to trust their own judgments even in the face of our own doubts. In short, this paper is about love.

It comes from the place of having two teenage children who are starting to experience life’s joys, pains and disappointments as they embark upon independence. It also comes from a place of watching young people with virtually no credentials or privileges accomplish greatness that I would have never predicted through courage and determination. To leap to the conclusion, I am still learning and I imagine I always will be.

2. Why Don’t You Ask the Kids?

Ten years ago this fall community leaders and adults formed the South Berkshire Heroin Task Force to confront the increasingly visible and dangerous problem of drug addiction and substance abuse in downtown Great Barrington. Over the previous year, more than a dozen young people in South County died of drug overdoses, suicide, and alcohol-related car accidents. Many people were understandably freaked out. They gathered on a regular basis to try and do something about it. Amanda Root was one of those people.

Amanda was 19 years old. Her younger brother and best friend had become heroin addicts. Amanda was a high-school dropout and had first-hand knowledge of the at-risk behaviors of South County adults and youth. She watched her friends’ lives careen out of control or come to an abrupt end. She went to the meetings, but quickly grew frustrated. Many adults talked about what the kids needed, very little of which resonated for her. She raised her hand to speak: “Why don’t you ask the kids what they want?” she asked. Nobody answered and the meeting continued.

After the meeting, however, several adults approached Amanda. She soon became the nucleus of a splinter group that produced a play called Suburbia overseen by Julianne Boyd, the artistic director of Barrington Stage Company. Suburbia is about the dead-end lives of teenagers who hang out at a 7-11. Amanda and another 19-year-old named Althea Root (no relation, amazingly) worked with Julie Boyd to change the characters in the play to better fit the lives of Great Barrington teenagers. They put the play on with several other young people to sold-out audiences. The talk-back sessions afterwards lasted as long as two hours. It was a huge success and when it was over a person who helped fund the play asked Amanda “What are you going to do next?” Her answer was “I don’t know.”

Julie gave Amanda $2,000 from ticket sales to do another project of her choosing. Amanda started a fund at the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation where she worked with Carter White to write a mission statement for her new organization whose purpose was “to empower each other as young people by creating youth generated activities that build intergenerational communication, responsibility and self worth.” Therein was born the Railroad Street Youth Project.

3. What Color Should Our Police Cruisers Be?

The Railroad Street Youth Project will celebrate its 10th anniversary on May 16, 2010. Governor Deval Patrick has said he will be there, as well he should. The mind boggles at all RR Street has accomplished with $2,000 of seed money started by a high-school dropout with a shaved head. It is a very different organization today than it was in the summer of 2000 when it was housed in the back of a dusty second-floor art gallery on Railroad Street with a single desk.

RSYP’s current executive director, Lannie Moore, is a first-rate professional who has implemented a comprehensive overhaul that includes professional training for staff, internal reviews, and an evaluation tracking system to monitor the effects of RR Street on young people who get involved in the organizations many programs. There is a mentoring program that has matched more than 75 young people with adults in long-term weekly relationships over the last five years. RR Street formed partnerships with The Red Lion Inn and Pearl’s Restaurant for a culinary program in which chefs train young people on professional etiquette for working in high-end restaurant kitchens. Well over 100 youth have done the program, several of whom went on to culinary schools and professional careers as chefs. There is a similar cosmetology program with area beauty salons and spas. Starting this fall, RSYP launched a pilot apprenticeship program with Hancock Shaker Village.

RR Street has a drop-in center in which as many as 100 teenagers a week will congregate in town in a safe environment. Every Tuesday afternoon the Youth Operational Board (or YOB) meets to consider proposals from young people or adults for RR Street to do. This is the mechanism we use to ensure that young people have programmatic control of what RSYP does. More than 300 events and projects have gone through the YOB process, touching the lives of almost every young person in South County over the last decade whether it is with dances, skateboard tournaments, CDs for young musicians, or (my favorite) The Joey Ramone Memorial Concert performed to an audience of seven people at the Barrington Bandstand. YOB serves an advisory role on a very wide range of issues. Last year YOB took a lead role at Monument Mountain high school to respond to bullying that was going in school and in Housatonic. Last week, Great Barrington Police Chief Bill Walsh went to YOB about a new design for town police cruisers. They advised going back to the classic black-and-white look.

The United Nations has given RR Street Youth Project a seat on its international planning committee to organize events for the International Day of Peace each September 21. This came about after a young man donated $1,000 he made working for the summer at McDonald’s five years ago to show his appreciation for how the agency had (to use his words) “saved my life.” He designated the money to be used to pay for a trip to the UN for the youth celebration of the International Day of Peace. When the kids returned they reported back to the UN that it was a good event, but suggested it would be a better if they had young people help plan events intended for youth around the world. The UN said “What a great idea. We want you to be our advisors.”

RR Street Youth Project has spun off three major initiatives. One is Project Native, a native-plant nursery on a 54-acre farm in Housatonic with a $600,000-a-year budget, that then 19-year-old high school dropout Raina Weber started as a RSYP project in the very early days. The second is the South Berkshire Youth Coalition which has received more than $1 million over ten years to help reduce substance abuse in South County, which is substantial. RSYP started the Berkshire Youth Development Project, a countywide network of youth-serving agencies that meet regularly to broaden programs in the Berkshires and has successfully secured nearly $2 million of state and federal money to support youth programs over the last five years. In addition, Lannie has launched a South County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force that is likely to be yet another spinoff of RR Street’s work.
These are the kinds of programs that have happy stories, but none of these represent the hardest work. Young people in the Berkshires lead difficult lives in often incredibly challenging situations. Domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, drug use, alcoholism, questions of sexual identity, harassment, violence, girls cutting themselves, suicide, are all part of the daily fare of young people and the work of the RR Street Youth Project, which serves as a conduit between young people and the social service network. Many, many times young people go to the drop-in center simply to hang out, develop a connection to a staff member, and end up being served in very intense, personal ways. Staff members have pulled teenagers out of crack houses and accompanied girls to doctors to determine whether they are pregnant. They have counseled close friends of teenagers who committed suicide and provided shelter to 14-year-olds who have been kicked out of their homes by their parents. The list of circumstances is almost endless.

The best single-sentence description of what RR Street does came from a consulting therapist at Austen Riggs [a psychotherapy center in Stockbridge, Massachusets]. She said the RR Street Youth Project helps young people move from one place in their lives to another. It can sometimes be very small, or it can be a very lengthy journey. It is a one-person-at-a-time enterprise that meets people where they are and helps them get to where they would like to be.

4. These Things Never Work

It has been my great good fortune to be chairman of the RR Street Youth Project board for the last nine years. Although I beam with pride at being associated with the accomplishments I just described, my role in making them happen has almost exclusively been indirect. Aside from the coalition and Berkshire Youth Development Project, I cannot take credit for a single project or idea that has come out of the RR Street Youth Project.

Further, I had nothing to do with its origins. When it first started Julie Boyd and another woman named Louann Harvey asked me to get involved. I said “No! These things never work.” I had been a newspaper reporter for several years and had seen one doomed effort after another to start a youth group die a quick and merciful death. Julie Boyd called me a second time, and for the second time I said no. She answered “You can’t say no until you meet Amanda Root.”

Literally 10 minutes later I left my desk to get a cup of coffee. When I stepped outside the building, Amanda was standing right there. We looked at each other, paused, introduced ourselves and said that everyone has said we should meet. And it turned out everyone was right!

Amanda invited me to attend the first board meeting to be held later that day. It was a beautiful meeting that by all normal standards of protocol was a disaster. The agenda was a mess. Ideas were flung around the room with no regard to their feasibility. Everything was about possibility, but Amanda held the center and was clearly looked upon as the leader. There was so much passion and idealism that I agreed to meet with Amanda the next day.

One of the biggest problems she faced was the huge number of adults who wanted to help with either ideas of their own or projects that they thought kids should do. I suggested a three-tiered organizational structure that had a Board of Directors consisting of adults she trusted, an all-youth board (the YOB) that decided on programs, and a large group of friends that would meet once or twice a year that she would report to and be available for advice.

Amanda returned a couple of days later, having started to carry out my suggestions and wanting to know what she should do next. I kept offering advice and she kept taking it. She pulled together a board of adults to serve as directors. I joined the board and spearheaded a fundraising effort to launch RR Street with Amanda as the paid full-time executive director. Within a couple of months I was president of the board.

Amanda and I were a perfect team. She had a very wide network of friends and relationships among young people and had enormous credibility as a fun person. She was passionate about RR Street's mission and absolutely determined to make it succeed. My currency was knowledge and access to resources. Project Native was a perfect example, matching Amanda's friend, Raina, with The Nature Conservancy, Berkshire Enterprises, and George Wislocki from Berkshire Natural Resources Council. Behind the scenes I did the administrative work that Amanda did not have the training to accomplish. I was equally determined to make RR Street succeed. Part of what drove me was anger at people who tried to trip Amanda up — or more accurately take advantage of her when she made mistakes, which she did time after time. But Amanda never gave up, the real mark of a champion.

RR Street’s mission of empowerment spoke deeply to me. Here was a collection of young people who many adults wanted to discard as at-risk troublemakers. The young people of RR Street wanted to define themselves differently and have a voice in their own lives, without giving up their youthful enthusiasm. When I was a teenager, I did not make trouble, but it didn't do me any good in terms of feeling as though I could be heard. The RR Street Youth Project was a perfect vehicle to apply my unfulfilled but very strong rebellious anti-authoritarian streak to good purpose. In fighting for their voice to be heard, I found my own voice.

5. Three Trillion Years in Hell

I could fill many Monday evenings with stories about RR Street. I used to be in the news all the time engaged in complicated, controversial fights. Public adversaries (all of whom I am now friendly with) have included Great Barrington Selectmen, District Attorney David Capeless and Richard Stanley with his "Mosquito" electronic gun to disperse teenagers and children alike with piercing, painful sonar waves. Some of the most intense challenges never hit the press (thank God!) but definitely tested my patience, intelligence, and faith. I will limit myself tonight to one story.

In the winter of 2001 Amanda and Raina decided to hold a big event at the Mahaiwe Theater involving a group named Bread and Puppet. The performance was called An Insurrection Mass for the Burial of a Rotten Idea to be performed on Sunday, April 8, the only day Bread and Puppet had available on its schedule. They sent us materials to promote the event, including a pagan-like image of a two-footed wild animal scampering through the title. Amanda and Raina made posters, took out ads and convinced the board to advance more than $5,000 (a princely sum then) to book the show and reserve the Mahaiwe. They were so excited.

That is, until they started getting telephone calls from people objecting to the event as being anti-Catholic. Conservative Catholics were enraged at the title, the images promoting it, and the date of the event which turned out to be Palm Sunday. Having covered the controversy around the movie Last Temptation of Christ as a newspaper reporter, I knew what we were in for and had Amanda forward calls to me.

The first call I got was from a very, very angry woman who could not believe we would let these street kids organize such a heretical event. "You are going to go to hell for three trillion years," she said with a hint of concern. "And that's just the beginning!" I was determined not to hang up on her, and after an hour agreed to let her meet with the Board of Directors to make her case. "Can I bring some friends?" she asked. "Yes," I said wavering for a moment. "But not too many!"

Well, she and others called the police, town hall, our funders, the chamber of commerce, the Mahaiwe, even the Knights of Columbus to try to get them to shut the performance down. None of these groups turned against us, but they also didn't support us. We were going to have to handle this controversy on our own. Plus, practically nobody was buying tickets. The stakes were very high.

We met on their turf — St. Peter's Community Center. The room flooded with more than 30 people who surrounded me, two other board members and Amanda, whose hair was dyed purple. The irate former Egremont police chief was there, as was the local priest, the mother of Amanda's first boyfriend and her old school librarian. It was pretty scary. Just before the meeting I suggested to Amanda that we let them voice their objections. I and the other board members would defend the performance. When the discussion started to flag, Amanda would offer a compromise solution: the performance would go on, but if they could write their objections to the performance as being anti-Catholic, and we would hand it out to every person who came to the show. I left the decision up to Amanda's discretion.

It got very heated very fast, but Amanda remained silent for an hour. She then jumped into the fray, offering the compromise. The Catholics were very pleased and we came to a quick agreement. It hit the newspapers and tickets all of a sudden started to sell through the roof. The Catholics put an ad in the paper to announce a prayer vigil in front of the Mahaiwe to repair the performance's spiritual damage. Even more tickets sold. On the evening of the performance, Amanda greeted the people in the vigil and offered the few remaining tickets available for free.

We were hailed as heroes. Even the woman who damned me to hell wrote letters to Amanda and me complimenting us on how respectfully we responded to her concerns. This was a make-or-break event in RR Street's early history and we made it.

6. In the Name of the Father

It was brilliant ideas like this compromise solution that gave me demi-god status within the organization. For a year and half neither Amanda nor anyone else questioned anything I did. If I said it, it must be right and true. I discovered that Amanda had a file in which she kept every word I had ever written to her, including agendas for subcommittee meetings. I was stunned when she told me I was her role model. Beautiful women in their 20s adored me. It was very flattering.

But the secret truth was that I was often wrong. As I mentioned earlier, I didn't think RR Street Youth Project could succeed. When Amanda introduced me to Raina to start Project Native, I thought Raina was a loopey-doopey space cadet, but Amanda convinced me to give her a chance. Raina has proven to be one of the shrewdest and hardest working people I have ever known. What I did do, however, was support young people despite my doubts and often in the face of evidence that their ideas would not work. I learned to trust young people and they in turn trusted me.

And then quite suddenly, the dynamic reversed. Nothing I did or said was right or true, most especially with the staff and young constituents. The response to me was as irrational as before, but certainly not as welcome. A friend who is a therapist suggested I go to a conference called Tavistock that uses a psychoanalytic approach to studying group dynamics. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I learned that as the male authority figure in the organization, I was playing the role of father for people in RR Street. Unbeknownst to me I was fulfilling their wish to have a perfect father and when I fell short of that, they turned against me.

As all of us in the room know, my experience was the same dynamic of being a parent to children. They are dependent on us as infants and they worship us as children. And then the teenager years hit. They discover what we know all along--that we don't know what we are doing, at best educated guesswork. The future is as uncertain to us as to anyone else. We fall from grace.

7. Father Knows Best

One of the journeys I have taken at the RR Street Youth Project is to move from the precarious certainty of knowing to the more stable uncertainty of not knowing. I have given up my fevered efforts to be smart and right, having settled for the more comforting pursuit of wisdom and acceptance.

When Lannie became executive director nearly three years ago, she would often come to me with difficult questions hoping that I would give her the right answer. My usual response was "I don't know. What do you think?" To which she would boil with anger. As she often said, "But you know what to do!" It took an effort to resist the call of knowing, the one I used to respond to so reliably. Instead, I would admit that actually I don't know, but I would help her work through her challenge, setting a boundary on what I felt was dangerous to pursue and then vigorously supporting her on a solution of her making. As you might imagine, Lannie rarely turns to me for advice any more, which I confess I miss, but she also tells me I am a great supporter who knows I've got her back.

I think this is our job as parents.

As fathers we have a particular challenge. Society expects us to know the answers and to be resolute in our stance as fathers and knowing professional men. Financial experts cite numbers and charts as if they can do the impossible and predict the future. Doctors wear white coats as if the business of blood and guts is an anti-septic enterprise. Ministers have the word of God to share, but are bound by our humanity with all its weaknesses. Haplessness is not the image we are meant to carry, but we sometimes find ourselves in that place. We are called upon to be knowing figureheads who will right wrongs and solve problems. This is a tempting role to fulfill, much more satisfying than the reality, and one that often lures us, but it is a trap.

George Washington, the father of our country, is depicted today as wise, stoic and boring. In truth, he lost almost every battle he fought and wept openly when officers he commanded were executed by the British. But he was devoted to his men, and they in turn despite terrible hardships stayed loyal to him, and not to the abstract cause of independence. We do not have to be right as fathers, but we have to stay in the fight and be authentic even when there are so many signals that discourage us from showing our weaknesses and insecurities, much less our fears and sadness.

And so we are in a dilemma. Resolve is our charge, but vulnerability is the condition in which we reside. I imagine that each of us has experienced this both in our work and with our families.

8. What's Love Got to Do With It?

As some of you may have read, South County once again has a heroin problem. Young people are not dying, at least not yet, but consistent with a nationwide trend, heroin is making a comeback, this time as a glamor drug. The image of heroin being the drug of choice for freaked out junkies that most of us are familiar with has been replaced. You can now inhale heroin. Further, many prescribed painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin are in fact legalized versions of heroin.

Some people are saying that the return of heroin to Great Barrington marks the failure of the RR Street Youth Project. Those who say that completely miss the point of what RR Street is about. We were born out of a very specific problem, but our way of doing things is around a universal belief in each person's capacity to be an authority in his or her own life. My experience as president of the RR Street Youth Project (which will soon be ending) has not been about a great idea or organization, but rather being engaged in the real lives of real people who wanted adults who are not their parents to believe in them and support them in their goals and challenges. Amanda went on to Bryn Mawr College and graduated with an honors thesis. Raina has been selected as one of the 50 most promising young adults in the country for the environmental movement.

This is what Wendell Berry wrote about love: "Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, the least of these my brethren. Love is not, by its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble and unrewarded."

Each of us in the room is a father and has experienced the meaning of this quotation first hand. There are few things as anonymous, humbling or unrewarding as waking up at 3 a.m., bleary eyed and helpless in the face of a screaming baby. There is absolutely nothing abstract about it. And that’s just the beginning!

We cannot protect our children from harm or disappointment. We experience each of our children as the most fantastically important people in our lives. But we cannot live their lives for them, even as what they do may feel like a reflection on us as their parents. Our task is to be engaged in their lives, and if struggle is the realm of contact, then so be it. We have to trust them and believe in them, even when fear runs through our hearts. And when we do that we cannot predict how great or perilous the outcome will be, but we live in a place of faith. Our job calls upon us to be heroes even if we may never be seen as anything other than fathers.

Photo of "Ty [Whalen] at the United Nations" from Railroad Street Youth Project's Facebook page.


  1. Erik,

    Thanks so much for this paper, so eloquent and thoughtful, and really, so wise. I sometimes wonder if, in the end, we are measured by the matters we took risks for.



  2. Erik, What an extraordinary paper. Thank you for sharing this profound journey with us. What a difference you have made in a decade in the lives of so many of our young people, and in your own life. Very humbling.

    Laurie Norton Moffatt