“We are all part of a shared humanity that transcends race, socioeconomic background, and location.”
From the moment I step into the Life Pieces to Masterpieces van that picks me up from the metro station each day, I am enveloped in a warm, familial bond that Life Pieces has to offer. After making easy conversation with my staff members, I climb the four long flights of stairs to Life Pieces. Walking down the hallway, I hear choruses of “hey, sis,” and “hello, sister Claire.” As I enter the office, even the executive director takes time to ask me how I’m doing. This isn’t an anomalous day; every single moment at Life Pieces to Masterpieces affirms the belief that we are not just coworkers and the apprentices are not simply clients. We are all part of a shared humanity that transcends race, socioeconomic background, and location. For the eight or so hours each day that we have together, we are one family, and we create a caring, comfortable atmosphere that leads each one of us, from staff to students, to succeed professionally and personally.
Before leaving for my internship at Life Pieces to Masterpieces, I assumed it would be similar to previous work with children I had done in the community of Lexington, Virginia, near Washington and Lee University. Life Pieces to Masterpieces encourages African-American males ages 3-25 from Wards 7 and 8, the most impoverished neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., to create their own destinies through good choices. During the school year, three programs are offered: a regular school program, Saturday Academy that prepares students for life after high school, and teacher’s aide training to help men ages 18-25 pursue careers in teaching. The summer program of which I was a part works with boys aged 3-13. The organization’s focus on family, where everyone is called “brother” or “sister,” creates a safe space for the gentlemen to reach their full potential and feel cared for and loved.
During every staff meeting, a staff member with seniority led us in a reflection. This reflection isn’t strictly based on the work we’ve been doing through the organization, but was focused on our personal lives, dreams, and aspirations. One of the questions he asked us was, “What is stopping you from pursuing your dreams?” Someone threw out “stubbornness,” another said “fear.” Our elder encouraged us to focus on our own dreams because we also are being changed through the organization. Life Pieces to Masterpieces doesn’t just encourage young African-American males to create their own destinies, it urges us all to follow our aspirations and to not stop until we’ve achieved them. Instead of treating the educators simply as people who are teaching the children, Life Pieces realizes the humanity of the educators and works on attaining the mental and physical health of all who come through our doors.
Since the educators are inspired to bring their whole selves into work, they are much more likely to be able to affect the apprentices in a real way. The educators strive to find teachable moments throughout the day. They treat the apprentices akin to their own children, and yet also regard them as gentlemen. It’s so easy to fall in love with the children, but it’s much more demanding to show them the expectations, especially when some of them are as young as 3 years old. Nevertheless, I’ve found that even the toughest of the boys comprehend the love of their educators and love them in return.
Throughout the summer, I’ve realized how much of an impact this type of atmosphere actually makes on the gentlemen and how it can truly change the value of the work each staff member does. I listened to a friend of mine explain constant tense situations at her workplace where coworkers would yell at each other for miniscule problems. She couldn’t stand to work there and asked to switch to another site. My experience at Life Pieces makes me wonder why every place can’t provide a supportive work environment. Through positive connections between people of all ages, ethnicities, and income levels, I have seen how productive, rewarding and simply enjoyable a work experience can be. Life Pieces made it seem so easy. Why can’t we create that atmosphere everywhere? Why can’t we bring our civic engagement model of a community from our Poverty 101 classes into the workforce?
An atmosphere with African-American male role models is essential because only 2 percent of teachers in the United States are African-American men, and the students need to see someone like them in that role. However, female role models are also vital. One situation where this became apparent was during a ride in the van to a field trip. Our usual driver had taken the older apprentices to a university for a few days, and so one of my female coworkers was driving the van. The apprentice I was sitting next to declared, “I didn’t know she could drive. Women can’t drive.” I retorted, “Of course women can drive. I can drive.” While he seemed surprised, he didn’t respond. His assurance that women can’t drive made me worry that Life Pieces didn’t have enough female educators to change the mindsets of the apprentices. Even one of my male coworkers once told an apprentice to stop sucking his teeth because only women did that. While another male coworker told him he probably shouldn’t phrase it like that, these small instances and the lack of many female educators in charge or in disciplinary roles makes me wonder whether the apprentices are able to see women as equals. An environment built up of men and women, or at least one that treats men and women equally, would not only challenge the beliefs of the gentlemen; it would also stimulate development of new ideas and foster their confidence to see when unequal situations should be changed. While a supporting environment is crucial, a diverse but equal atmosphere would ultimately change the way these young men see themselves in relation to women.
I believe some changes need to be made, no place is perfect – but Life Pieces comes close. My experience left me with the assurance that Life Pieces to Masterpieces is an amazing organization that empowers young African-American males to reach their full potential—a potential that everyone at the organization knows they have.