Guest blog from Executive Director, Steve Handoyo
There is hope
But only if you have faith
Accompanied by courage to take what you already have and become something great
Adversity is our biggest asset
And once you understand that
You have taken back your power.
- Noah Schultz, Reach Farther
“Adversity is our biggest asset” may ring trite to those who have endured trauma, neglect, abuse, addiction, and mental health disease. This belief can unleash immense power, however, when embodied by those who have overcome similar demons. We have seen a deluge of public trauma with the #MeToo movement culminating in Dr. Ford’s Senate hearing last week and survivors confronting Senator Flake in an elevator. The adolescent residents of Drury and Sequoia House hover nominally between the societal labels of children and adults. And yet, the challenges they have already overcome dwarf those of many adults in our community. On September 8th, Drury and Sequoia Houses welcomed three young men incarcerated as children who have used their adversity as fuel. The residents released painful stories into that space of compassion and understanding to continue the process of healing and empowerment.
The Verbal Escape team includes Noah Schultz, Stephen Fowler, and Guy Mattaliano, childhood friends from Portland, Oregon. Noah and Stephen were sentenced to the maximum of 7.5 years in juvenile detention at the ages of 17 due to mandatory minimum laws. Guy was incarcerated for a shorter time, but both he and Noah overcame a past in gangs, dealing drugs, and partaking heavily. While at the MacLaren Correctional Facility, Noah rebuilt his life and completed his GED, Associate’s Degree, and two Bachelor’s degrees. He co-founded Verbal Escape and gave a TEDx Talk while still incarcerated. His story was captured in the fascinating short film Perceptions: From Prison to Purpose available free on YouTube.
Since their releases, the three young friends have been touring the country and speaking at correctional facilities, high schools, and colleges. They work to raise awareness of the effect of trauma and the success of human development programs on the prison pipeline. We jail our citizens, young and old, at an astounding rate, and are the most carceral nation on the planet. Indeed, while only 5% of the world’s population, the US accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population.
After screening the film that depicts Noah’s drug use starting before his teen years, his early involvement in gangs and dealing drugs, and eventual violent crime and conviction, the writers led the houses separately in writing workshops. The Drury residents were boisterous in their appreciation for the poetry performed by Noah, Guy, and Stephen. After discussing the concepts of anaphora and use of verbal emphasis to bring dynamics to their poems, each resident performed their writing in a room of compassion and enthusiasm.
The young women of Sequoia House followed and were more subdued in their responses to the poets’ performances and prompts. Yet the poems of trauma that poured forth were brave, raw, and indelible. Their fellow writers met each piece with admiration and support. Stephen, Noah, and Guy were able to respond to these vulnerable stories from a place of shared experience. Asked by a resident how they could overcome addiction, confront their violent pasts, and deal with loss, the three emphasized writing of their pain as the first step to healing. They pointed out the strength each woman had as survivors of tragedy, and urged them to use their resilience as evidence of their agency. One Sequoia resident thanked the group for the respect shown the young people treated not as children, but as the mature warriors, they are.
Our community is stronger when we listen to young people. In their short years, many have endured a lifetime of loss. In addition, representation matters. Stephen, Guy, and Noah have taken control of their lives having lost so much, and their ability to speak from shared experience was critical for collective healing. We have seen that with the testimony of Dr. Ford last week, empowering so many women to tell their stories. Dealing with trauma privately for so long, the survivors are reclaiming their stories. Through your support, we are able to provide spaces to create, listen, and collectively heal.