“You don’t understand what it’s like.”
“You never listen to me.”
Most teenagers make these over-the-top complaints to adults at some point during those angst-filled years. But for some troubled teens, these emotional statements aren’t hyperbolic. And those are just the kids that Richard Gold wanted to help.
When Gold left Microsoft 18 years ago, he started the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a Seattle non-profit that connects with troubled teenagers who are in jail, homeless, in the foster care system, or being treated for mental illness, and teaches them to write poetry to express themselves. Since 1992, Pongo has served 7,000 teenagers, providing them with volunteer writing mentors and publishing their work in anthologies.
Gold told Jeffrey Brown of PBS NewsHour, “What so many of us struggle with is the unarticulated emotion in our lives, and when poetry serves that, it’s doing something essential for the person and for society.”
Through one of Pongo’s programs, writing mentors visit juvenile inmates individually for an hour, asking questions about their lives and emotions to guide them toward writing poetry about their experiences. The mentors transcribe what the inmates express, collaborate on revisions, then give the teenagers a chance to read their work aloud to the group.
Pongo volunteers do similar work at the New Horizons homeless youth center Seattle, helping homeless teens write poems, and hosting poetry reading events.
The workers in the juvenile justice system attest to the difference Pongo makes in the lives of the teens it works with. Warden Lynn Valdez at the King County Juvenile Detention Center, once an incarcerated gang member himself, said that after the teens write their poems, “the reward is, I think that they have actually released something that they have repressed inside.” King County Juvenile Court Judge Barbara Mack said that the young people she sees in her court “have never really learned how to express themselves. And Pongo gives them the opportunity to do that in a way that’s not threatening.”
It’s clear that poetry can be a powerful tool to make teenagers feel valued as they try to move past their rocky adolescences and become productive adults.