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At-risk youth learn new life skills through healing and emotional literacy
San Diego Union-Tribune - 8/1/2020
Reginald Washington realized he had a lot to learn — from how to process his emotions, to how to think things through, and about how to turn his life around. After 20 years of being involved in gang activity, he found himself serving a life sentence plus 15 years in prison because of his involvement in a gang shooting. It was there that he began to find his way, joining healing circles and finding a therapeutic community where he could learn to live life differently, in a more emotionally healthy way.
"I got involved in gangs to feel accepted because of low self-esteem and because of the trauma that I suffered as a child," he says. "When I was younger, I lacked emotional literacy skills and, as a result, when I got mad, I got violent. I didn't know how to express myself any other way."
While serving time at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in the Level IV yard (the area with the highest security), he began the work on the organization he runs today, Project A.W.A.R.E. (Attitude When Angry and Resolving Emotional issues non-violently). His organization works with youth and families to help develop social development, emotional literacy, and problem-solving through various workshops, group sessions and speaking engagements.
Washington, 54, is the founder and CEO of Project A.W.A.R.E. and lives in La Mesa with his partner, Shanika Spearman, and he has two children, Renise and Seth. His organization contracts or is affiliated with San Diego County's probation department; San Diego County Office of Education; the Carlsbad police department; the school districts for San Diego, Oceanside, San Marcos, and Vista; and he holds various certifications in gang intervention, restorative practices and conflict resolution. He took some time to discuss his own past and the work he's doing in the community today.
Q: Why was Project A.W.A.R.E. something you wanted to create?
A: As a young man, I was emotionally illiterate. I was not cognizant of how not knowing how to express my emotions in a healthy manner impacted my choices. When I was sentenced to life in prison, it forced me to deal with some harsh realities about myself. It was in the healing circles in prison where I learned more about myself and my emotions. I then made it my life's mission to teach others the importance of emotional literacy.
While involved in the prison system and serving a life sentence I got involved in a therapeutic community and started taking a look at my trauma, and also realized that I would never have an opportunity to be in my child's life if I didn't work on myself.
Q: Can you walk us through how your Project A.W.A.R.E. program works?
A: We get referrals from schools, probation and the community; we then assess the youth to see how we can be of service to them. Then, we get them involved in an eight-week program that focuses on emotional skills, problem-solving skills and social skills. We like to consider ourselves as helping young people take charge of their lives.
Q: What emotional literacy and social skills are you teaching the youth you work with, specifically?
A: As far as emotional literacy, it includes teaching them that anger doesn't have to result in violence, and that disappointment doesn't have to result in drug use. We help the kids through a trauma-informed care process to become emotionally literate. As far as social skills, we believe at starting off with the basics because we understand that some of our young people haven't developed these skills. So, the basics includes skills like active listening and things as simple as saying "thank you," "you're welcome" and "excuse me."
What I love about La Mesa ...I live by the trolley station and like watching all the activity going on outside my window. It's like watching the movies from my balcony.
Q: What kind of difference have you seen the program make in the youth you've worked with?
A: Our participants report that they've received skills to control their anger and resolve conflict. They have also learned some positive ways of coping with their moods and feelings. They feel connected with their community and some of them are open to having a positive relationship with law enforcement after participating in our program.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the work you do with Project A.W.A.R.E.? What are some of your biggest concerns in keeping your work effective during this pandemic? And are there any new or heightened issues you've been made aware of because of the pandemic?
A: Initially, COVID-19 put everything on hold for us. Then we familiarized ourselves virtual platforms, like Zoom, and slowly began running groups virtually. Our biggest concern has been losing the human touch and human aspect of being together. Another concern is our ability to keep the youth engaged in virtual groups. One of the heightened issues we have is the mental health of our youth. During our virtual groups, we bring in mental health experts and try to do this often.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: This work has taught me that I am capable of being an inspiration to others, that I still have a lot of learning to do, and that I am a valuable part of my community; at one point, I never believed that.
Q: What is the best advice you've ever received?
A: When I was in prison, a counselor told me that my best thinking got me a life sentence, so "for once in your life, allow others to think for you until you learn that skill."
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: People would be surprised to know that I have blue eyes and that I collect comics.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Before this pandemic, I was going to the movies with my partner, eating fish tacos from Rubio's, and coming home and watching a good action/superhero movie.
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