NUMBER 473 • 26 MARCH • HAVING AN EFFECT
Childsavers take on their own shoulders the full weight of families and communities that are violent, neglectful, and beset by problems. They start out believing that they can reverse the harm that hardship causes and that they can transform children who perpetuate the brutality of the environment in which they are bred into model citizens. Typically, childsavers end up angry, frustrated, and flooded with despair. Often the fallout is directed toward the object of their original noble intentions — the children they aimed to save.
The people I interviewed maintained hope by avoiding the pitfall of viewing themselves as childsavers. Realists who know the recidivism rates, they entertain no illusions about their own power to produce change. Nor do they peg their own self-worth to far-fetched standards of success. While they all wish they could save the children in their care, they know they cannot. So they set a more modest goal for themselves: having an effect.
Mr. B uses a gardening metaphor. As he says, he can “plant the seeds of change.” He talks to his students who are headed for a stint in jail, no matter what, every day. And he encourages them to take an interest in their cases, to learn about the court proceedings in which they will be involved, to develop a relationship with their lawyers and ask questions. He challenges them to find out what their options are (for example, boot camp versus intensive probation), how they can influence the length of their sentence, and whether good behavior in the temporary detention center where he sees them can affect the disposition of their case. His goal is not to help his students get off easy. As I pointed out earlier, he believes that most of them need to be in jail. He wants to pry them loose from the illusion that there is a quick way out and start them thinking about the reality of the sentence in front of them. Mr. B believes that if his students can take responsibility for themselves at this point in their lives, he has planted a seed of responsibility that can flower in the future when they are released. That’s it. No more and no less.
Gloria Vasquez is equally realistic. When an inmate she has worked with is released and returns to jail not long afterwards, she feels let down, but she is not daunted. Nor is her own self-worth diminished. She does not get angry or frustrated and burnt out as a result. She does what she needs to do in the present and leaves the future, which she knows she cannot control, to other forces. To an inmate who was embarrassed to face her when he came back to jail, she said, “I am disappointed, but I’m going to treat you exactly the way I treated you before. I still think you can turn yourself around.” Her work is based on the rub-off theory. She believes that hope is this prisoner’s only ally. If she keeps hoping, there’s a chance that her hope can rub off on him.
Wolin, S. (1999) A Mindset of Hope. Reaching Today's Youth. Vol.3 No.3 pp. 39-40