Youth Communications: A Model Program for Fostering Resilience Through the Art of Writing

Al Desetta, M.A.
Sybil Wolin, Ph.D.

Lives are stories, and each person's stories hold the potential for many tellings. Every telling is an interpretation. Authors can draw themselves as they choose. From multitudes of events, they can select the incidents that impress them most to construct a plot that recounts defeats, successes, and possibilities. In turn, the story they tell exerts a powerful influence on their feelings and behavior. As they construct their story, it constructs them (Wolin & Wolin, 1993).

The narrative school of psychotherapy capitalizes on the inherent subjectivity in life stories to foster the process of repairing psychological harm. A principle technique of this school is reframing, opening up hidden themes that have been frozen shut in memory. This theory of therapeutic change holds that by recognizing previously unseen elements of their struggles, clients will reinterpret themselves - construct a new life story that will be the basis for living well in the present and regarding the future with greater optimism.

According to a study done at Project Resilience in Washington, D.C., the art of reframing and the psychological growth that results is not the therapist's provenance alone. Writers have known its power all along, and so do many youth who struggle ceaselessly and actively to overcome lives burdened by terrible adversity.

The Project Resilience study was based on interviews with 25 adults who had grown up knowing some combination of poverty, neglect, abuse, racism, violence, addictions, and family dysfunction. All 25 had bruises that attested to their experiences. But they were also remarkably resilient, breaking out of the cycle of troubles in which they began their lives. In answer to the question, "How did you do it?", many recounted how they relied on writing to gain insight into their lives and how that insight, in turn, was central to repairing the harm they had suffered.

Youth Communication: Fostering Resilience through Writing

The process of repairing by writing described by many of the participants in the Project Resilience study is being actively taught and promoted at Youth Communication in New York City. A non- profit youth development organization, it publishes two magazines written by teens for teens, Foster Care Youth United and New Youth Connections. The program is a model of how courage and hope can be fostered in youth who struggle daily to prevail.

By teaching the craft of writing personal essays and by publishing their work in two magazines, Youth Communication offers young people the opportunity to discover, affirm, strengthen, and expand their resilience. In turn, thousands of teens who read the magazines are encouraged by their example.

Youth Communication's stated mission is to use writing to help teens "reflect on their lives and acquire the skills and information they need to make thoughtful choices." Although fostering resilience and producing therapeutic effects are not explicitly stated goals of the organization, both are implicit in its mission. The heart of the program is the extended process of engaging youth in revising drafts of their stories repeatedly, sometimes six or seven times. Revising in this context is the equivalent of reframing in the therapist's office.

Working one-on-one with adult editors, the young writers at Youth Communication aim for publishable stories. In order to do so, they must master the basics of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. They must also learn to accept criticism, engage in explorations of truthfulness and fairness, and accept responsibility for doing their work, for its final quality, and for the effect it will have on its readers. The editor-writer relationship at Youth Communication goes beyond the mechanics of writing to the deeper purpose of reconstructing and re-envisioning the self's experience and relationship with others. The stories that have emerged from Youth Communication, while often laden with pain, also reflect the remarkable resilience it took not only to live them but also to commit them to writing.

A close look at how one Youth Communication writer crafted her story reveals the learning, self awareness, and personal growth that occur when a young writer speaks to an audience of peers.

Wunika Hicks: Facing the Problem

Wunika Hicks was one of the very first writers to join the magazine Foster Care Youth United, and she worked on the staff for five years. When she joined the magazine, she was 16 and had been living in foster care for eight years.

In an essay she wrote as part of her application to join the program, Wunika spoke about her anger at having been separated for several years from David, her only sibling, who had been adopted out of foster care while she remained in the system. "How can they take the only real blood that you have away from you?" Wunika plaintively asked.

She chose to write on this topic for her first article. Her first very brief and handwritten draft began with the scene of her hearing the news that David was going to be adopted. She went on to describe her despair over the separation, her unsuccessful attempts to see him (it was a closed adoption), and her frustrations with social workers who came and went but never helped her locate her brother. Wunika ended her first draft on what seemed to be a false note: a "Kool-Aid" smile and an appreciation for her foster mother's promise to help her locate David. In actuality, her foster mother had virtually no chance of finding Wunika's brother, and Wunika knew it. Nevertheless, she stated:

My [foster] mother came to me and said, "Wunika, I am going to get a lawyer to look into this further."

Even though I had tears running down my cheeks, I put on a big Kool-Aid smile. It showed me how much she cares for me. I'm glad I' ve come in this house because she understands me!

How many foster mothers can you say that about?

In addition to the compromised integrity of her ending, Wunika began her story without the background context needed to understand her family's history. Enter her editor, who began the necessary revising process by pointing out the flaws in the story. In the therapist's lexicon, the story revealed "denial," a psychological symptom of dysfunction. It was ripe for reframing. In the editor's vocabulary, it was unauthentic and incomplete; it would not convince a reader. The difference is more than semantic. It introduces a third party, the reading audience, whose presence can diffuse the tension of confrontation that can develop in the therapeutic dialogue and is often the major stumbling block in treating teens. No longer does the teen need to "own" his or her denial to get better, to please the therapist, to conform to the therapeutic contract. Now the point is to write a story that others will want to read and believe.

To set the process of revision in motion, the editor used an exercise called "Guidelines for Composing" that aims, like reframing, to get below the surface of the story and uncover hidden themes. The exercise begins concretely enough by posing questions about the content. In this case, the editor asked how Wunika felt about David's adoption. He then zeroed in on the stuck quality of her writing by asking these questions: "Set aside what you know and take a fresh look. What's at the heart of this? What's important that you haven't yet said? Look at it whole and find an image, a word, a phrase to capture your difficulty [in moving ahead]."

In response to the exercise and out of motivation to tell her story well by honing her writing, Wunika's denial began to lift, and her insight began to blossom. In response to her editor's questions, she wrote the following:

I guess I feel it was my fault that he's being adopted. Being I was eight years old and stuck in the house to watch him, I hated him for a while. I feel it is coming back to me now because I don't have him at all, and I want him.

Writing as a Vehicle to Personal Honesty

Clearly, the Guidelines exercise enabled Wunika to gather her strength and give voice to something that had not been expressed in her first draft nor in her conversations with her editor: her guilt that her brother's adoption was somehow her fault. It also revealed a crucial detail. Wunika had to care for her brother before he was adopted (she was "stuck in the house" with him because of this). The recognition of her burden opened up the emotional core of the story, and in essence, provided the basic three-part structure it would assume during revision: 1) I was mother to my brother; 2) I resented him for it; 3) He was adopted, and now I feel angry and guilty.

Through several more revisions, Wunika's insight and ability to be honest with herself grew as she added previously omitted background material to her story. She wrote about how her mother, who had been left to raise both of her children after her husband's death, would be gone for days at a time, leaving Wunika home alone to care for David. She developed, in greater detail, her complicated emotions toward her brother when they went together into foster care - how she rejected him once she was relieved of the burden of being his "mother." She was able to express her previously suppressed feelings of guilt that her actions had caused David's adoption.

The end of her final draft, completed after many weeks, reflected her personal progress. No longer was it a tribute to her foster mother, made with a false "Kool-Aid smile." Rather it was transformed into an honest and fully articulated description of her difficult emotions related not only to being separated from her mother and father but also from the only family remaining to her while she had been in foster care.

"I Lost My Brother to Adoption" (published in 1993 and reprinted here on p. 22 with permission from Youth Communication), Wunika's first published story in Foster Care Youth United, was followed over the years by a series of inter-related essays in which she explored her complex feelings about her biological mother, her foster mother, and her long years in foster care.

Wunika' s stories can be found in The Heart Knows Something Different: Teenage Voices from the Foster Care System (Persea Books, 1996), a recently published volume of the best stories selected from Foster Care Youth United. In each of these essays, her brother and his loss to adoption are constants, sometimes mentioned briefly, sometimes viewed from a new angle, but always there. The entire body of her work, though laced with pain, shines with her resilience - her courage and her persistence - to break through her denied feelings and speak the truth.

Generalizing the Process of Writing to Other Parts of One's Life

Our belief is that the process of writing and revising in which Wunika was engaged and the results she acheived can be generalized to other aspects of her life and become a source of the strength and hope she will need to overcome the stumbling blocks life has strewn in her path. It is a belief based on the the knowledge of what has happened to large numbers of youth who have participated in Youth Communication. Years later, many report that working there was a turning point in their lives that helped them gain confidence and skills required in their subsequent education and careers. Some have overcome tremendous obstacles to become journalists, writers, and novelists. Hundreds more are working in law, teaching, business, and other careers. Undoubtedly, their success has been determined by many factors, but among them the personal growth achieved through writing for an audience of readers cannot be overestimated.

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