Thanks to a nonprofit in Seattle, teens and adults who are incarcerated or homeless can participate in a program designed for them to heal from trauma, abuse and neglect by writing. In regards to adults they also work with homeless and chronically alcoholic folks at the Downtown Emergency Service Center. The Pongo Writing Project provides activities and support to teach how writing can give relief from the pain they’ve experienced and confusion they feel. Their mission is clear, “In our work we ask the teens(and adults) to speak from the heart about who they are as people, and the teens often respond by writing about traumatic losses that occurred when they were little children, losses such as the death of a parent, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and a parent’s addiction.”
What grabbed my attention about Pongo is my own experience of expressing myself to heal from childhood trauma. In my youth I survived violent conflicts that had long-term effects on my mental health. Journaling and creating art were two ways I was able to let my feelings out. This allowed me to analyze what happened, the chain reaction of these events and ways that were both helping me and stopping me from healing. I know that if we had more programs like this our society as a whole would be much healthier.
In addition to the in person writing programs, anthologies of the teens works are published and then both donated to other youth organizations and sold to help cover the printing costs. Pongo also trains youth leaders and facilitators in other cities to create similar programs. I am pleased to share the following interview with Eli Hastings, assistant director at Pongo.
Share a little background about yourself and any previous experiences that brought you to Pongo. I grew up with a mother who was extremely socially-politically active: a social worker, anti-nuclear activist, human rights observer, and many other things. As a result, by the time I reached college, her messages regarding service and social responsibility (and social privilege) had taken root in me, so I studied international relations with an eye to becoming involved in human rights work, but the siren song of creative writing kind of got me and I ended up going to graduate school for a MFA degree in nonfiction. I was fortunate enough to have a teaching fellowship, because what happened through that was that the young people (well, they were 19-22; I was 23-25!) taught me that writing about trauma and loss (in “Intro to Creative Nonfiction”) was meaningful and even healing for them. This was a lesson that stuck, particularly because I lost my father and best friend in the ensuing years and wrote my way through the traumatic grief of both (my first two published books). I lived in Europe and wrote for a few years, licking wounds, but came back in 2008 determined to use creative writing as a tool to serve and help heal.
What inspired you to get involved with Pongo? Luckily, instead of having to start from scratch, I found Pongo, which had a solid track record and developed methodology. Pongo was explicitly doing the work that I desperately wanted to do without even being able to articulate my vision: engage courageously in a trauma-informed intimate space with incarcerated youth through writing. But Pongo was doing more: it was also on the forefront of disseminating and describing what “trauma-informed” even meant; it was publishing these youths’ voices and bringing them into the public sphere; it was fighting stigma; it was empowering through underlining and highlighting resilience (vs. shame, guilt, injury) as a result of trauma, neglect, abuse, loss. Because of Pongo I went back to school for a MA in psychology to understand better why what we were doing worked (narrative integration); because of Pongo I found my way back to my original objective of true human rights work.
What obstacles have challenged Pongo? here are many hurdles to clear: navigating delicate relationships with institutions and agencies; finding, vetting and appropriately training the right people to do this incredibly difficult and delicate-powerful work; being clinically and ethically vigilant on all fronts at all times that nothing we do unintentionally hurts an author; navigating interpersonal dynamics and relationships with respect to team cohesion. I could go on. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two biggest—and connected—challenges for us: data collection/outcome measurement and fundraising. Because we work primarily with minors, our legal ability to do follow-up with them is virtually non-existent and because of this we have lacked hard data on outcomes, despite very respectable mini-studies by psychologists and psychiatrists over the years and more than 1,000 writer surveys that demonstrate, among other things, that 100% of respondents enjoyed their writing experience with us. Funders want to see data; we have seen funders moved to passionate tears over our work and then decline to fund us because their boards are demanding the outcome studies. While this is frustrating, it is reality, and Pongo is thrilled to be involved in research with the University of Washington with respect to our adult population that we hope will give way to a formal, randomized controlled trial of our methods.
All of that said, the biggest obstacle to always be vigilant of—that it to say, to make sure that we are constantly clearing—is the issue of secondary or vicarious traumatization. Everyone involved in mentoring Pongo authors has to possess excellent self-care plans, write their own poetry in response to what they are experiencing, and participate in team building for emotional safety and cohesion. Even with all of this in place, carrying the weight of young people’s significant traumas can often feel overwhelming. The ultimate antidote is to witness the joy and pride in the faces of youth after they have created art from their pain.
What is your proudest accomplishment during your time at Pongo? For me, personally, it’s difficult to own any particular accomplishment—the work is ultimately done by our authors. My pride comes from not only sticking with this work—from volunteer mentor to project leader to consultant to development to associate director—but evolving with it over the past eight years.
How can people get involved with Pongo or start a similar program in their own community? The main thrust of Pongo’s mission is to propagate our model, which means supporting those that wish to establish Pongo-inspired projects in sites around the country and indeed the world. As a small arts-nonprofit, we simply cannot administer more than a total of 4-5 core projects, each of which represents significant fundraising bandwidth and serious budgetary burden. As a result we want to pass on our model. We do this in the following ways:
Our website—it is a dynamic, interactive source for Pongo poetry, writing activities, resources and anecdotal blogs about our history and mission; also, authors can submit their work directly to us, which will receive a personalized response from me! http://www.pongoteenwriting.org
Trainings: Pongo offers trainings at affordable and sliding-scale rates to individuals/agencies invested in doing this work.
Richard Gold’s excellent book, Writing With At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method, which compiles virtually every piece of information/knowledge necessary to jumpstart this work (the book is available online http://www.amazon.com/Writing-At-Risk-Youth-W-R-I-T-E-Expressive/dp/1475802846)
Free phone and email support and consultation