I entered middle school for the second time last fall, armed only with a multi-syllable title - eleven syllables, to be exact: "violence prevention coordinator." My AmeriCorps placement landed me at a middle school in inner city Seattle. I knew this was my site when my future supervisor mentioned sexual harassment as her major concern and expressed the need for female empowerment. It was as if I'd written the job description myself. I was in.
By this time, I've learned certain codes of conduct by trial and error: First, don't ever say "hi" to a student in the hallway unless she's alone. To acknowledge her existence is akin to labeling her a loser, because you're implying some sort of preexisting relationship on your part. Never say the word "sex," or any word that remotely sounds like it. And never lead a girls' group on Valentine's Day. Welcome to middle school. Variously referred to as a blip on the educational spectrum, "that awkward stage," or pure hell, it's an experience like no other. Thank God.
For seven hours a day, this middle school becomes a meeting place for 900 kids, predominantly African American, with White, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American students rounding out the mix. There's a rich assortment of religious and cultural differences that such a demographic mix implies, but little economic diversity; most students at the school qualify for the free-lunch program. The school reopened three years ago, after repeated instances of violence had forced its closure a few years before.
My job description encompasses a wide range of endeavors, but my pet project is developing an empowerment group for girls. I designed it to give voice to young women and to call out their leadership skills in an environment of supportive peers. Designing eight weeks' worth of curriculum was one thing, but naming my "pet" was the hardest part of the launching process. Thus, I enlisted the help of my site partner, Kelly. The only stipulation I made for naming my program was no cute acronyms. Hence, the cute acronym of SASS. Now, if only it stood for something... "Sisters Are SuperStars?" No, too corny. "Sisters Acting Super Supportive?" Too... Wonderbra. At long last, after I'd enjoyed an inspired power nap behind my desk, "Sisters Actively Supporting Sisters" was born. Launching the first meeting of SASS was akin to letting a baby bird fall out of its nest, praying it would flap its wings, while grudgingly giving it permission to fall. I couldn't sleep the night before. Eight weeks, nine girls, two real adults, and me.
Kayla Walker joined AmeriCorps after graduating from Seattle Pacific University and served as a Violence Prevention Coordinator in one of Seattle's toughest inner city middle schools. Her interests in conflict mediation and alternatives to violence were first nurtured by her Quaker upbringing. They were strengthened in Northern Ireland, where she worked with youth of disadvantaged families from both Catholic and Protestant communities through the Quaker Cottage. There, in Belfast, the depth of hatred and prejudice profoundly shaped her commitment to peacemaking.