A tape recorder became a tool for understanding the inner worlds of troubled youth. This is an account of an attempt to create dialogue with youth through recorded interviews. The author discusses the challenges of engaging troubled young persons in a circle of trust.
One of the truly fascinating things about the interview process is how much insight one gets about oneself while questioning others. This might explain the mix of excitement and fear young people feel when they are handed a tape recorder.
During an interview, teens sense a chance for mature interaction. They come forward, ready to strut their stuff. Before they know it, they are building community. Interviewing cultivates a spirit of inquiry and can renew a young person's interest in learning. At its best, it offers a chance to examine the values that surface when fact-finding blossoms into true dialogue. For those serving troubled youth, this is of particular interest, as the interview becomes a self-reflective tool, revealing how we seek the truth and how we respond to the truths of others.
The Interview Project was conducted during the summer of 2001 at CONCERN, a 19-bed, long-term treatment facility for adjudicated boys. My aim was reciprocal learning on various levels: in peer interviews among the boys, in interviews and discussions between the boys and myself, and in the boys” formal interviews with invited guest subjects.
A Sociological Perspective
At first sight, the residents at CONCERN are a rugged, irreverent group; but one quickly discovers that they are wounded. Like most delinquent kids, they know betrayal firsthand. Their antennae are up for insincerity in any form. Even here, in the world of treatment, adults play a disconcerting role – a parade of helping professionals who study them as cases, document their progress, and decide their immediate fate.
I was fortunate to be an outsider, neither an authority figure nor one who must force progress. I could freely exercise my belief that service to others is best when two-way exchanges of culture take place, and elitism is strictly avoided. From my vantage point, I could let the boys know me as a flesh-and-blood person, willing to risk myself, tell my story, even share my own internal conflicts. In addition, I could introduce various adult role models, showing how agents of change are created through service, activism, and personal healing.
I took on the role of ethnographer, hoping the boys would act as ambassadors of their world to mine. Young people can also be ethnographers by becoming aware that when teenagers interview each other, the potential is there to examine youth culture at large, discover how it came to be as it is, and realize its impact on society. Marking one’s place in the world this way offers purpose and meaning.
The ethnographer role posed some interesting challenges. Particularly, I would need to dignify, even celebrate, a subculture that is truly vital, resilient, and inventive, but at the same time, ruinous. Value judgments aside, delinquency is the stuff of movies, inspiring so much popular music and fashion. That delinquents are not only slackers, but also a charismatic element of our society, is no small irony. The cool irreverence of urban youth is packaged and sold to the world, while its local purveyors sit in youth detention centers, not unlike this one.
I took a chance on celebrating the boys and their lifestyle because celebration is empowering. I felt they would benefit by seeing themselves as an unmistakable force in a larger evolutionary process. I believed that this would open up the possibility to transform or “flip" survival skills into mainstream success. Rapper Ice-T (in one of our sample interviews) may have said it best: “All the skills you learn on the street – with a little changing and editing – you can transfer them into big business." He added sardonically, “If you’re a street crook, the best place to go is politics because you'll find all your friends there."
I hoped to explore these kinds of controversial ideas with the residents of CONCERN. I believed that decoding societal messages was natural to them, and that critical thinking was already part of their repertoire. My aim was to present situations for using these skills, giving them chances to rise to important occasions.
The Tape Recorder
The boys' initial love-at-first-sight affair with the tape recorder was a gift. Somehow, this little machine evoked images of the rap artists and other performers they respected. Interviewers themselves also have celebrity status. The interview was an opportunity to be publicly “in-your-face." The truth seeking, investigative reporter persona I wanted them to try on was a good fit.
We practiced interviewing in a number of different ways. The boys interviewed each other, I interviewed them, and they interviewed me. I asked them what music they liked and didn’t like and why, what they thought of their schools and of school systems in general. They all hated school. I inquired of them what it was like before this hatred took hold. They shared their memories of childhood exuberance and the sadness of losing their innocence. They asked me about my kids and my love life, about the 1960s, and my notorious “free generation." I found out what they already knew and filled in the blanks, separating the facts from myth.
Next, the boys interviewed each other. We used a standard list of questions and added as we went along. They wanted to be asked certain questions, and each had a story he wanted to tell, usually one of heroism or conquest. Then we interviewed staff members. The tape recorder helped the boys find ways to ask probing questions without being offensive. For example, a particular counselor was thought to be rude. The residents wanted to approach this subject but didn’t know how. What appropriate language would an interviewer use? I offered some ideas for questioning the counselor: “How did you develop your particular style for working with youth?" Or “Some of us notice you are strict in certain areas. What are you trying to accomplish, and is it working?" As the interview takes shape, a conversation might ensue. I encouraged the boys to seize these opportunities, put the tape recorder aside, and go with the flow. They might tell the staff member “I see where you’re coming from, but we feel your style is somewhat disrespectful." Before the actual interview, we asked the counselor to be open to dialogue. In essence, we were asking him to give up a bit of face-saving in exchange for the resident’s efforts to question authority in an appropriate, adult manner. The boys began to see the value of planning. They realized how thinking through their actions could put them in an advantageous position. They were learning diplomacy.
Next, we began to prepare questions for our invited guests. Our interviews with staff members had been good practice. The kids drew on prior knowledge about their subjects, with whom they interacted daily at CONCERN. I wanted guest subjects who could bring to the forefront certain issues with which the boys were dealing in their treatment. A few of the boys had recently asked to attend church services, so we decided to bring in a person from the clergy, with whom the boys could discuss their spiritual views and feelings about church. A local pastor volunteered to speak with us. During this interview, the boys addressed the subjects of faith, prayer, forgiveness, and the concept of evil. Chris, a known troublemaker, boldly asked the pastor why some Christians condemn those who do not accept the Bible. Chris was remarkably civil. He wanted to know how people who had never even heard of Jesus could be held accountable by going to Hell for not believing in him. At our next session, I showed the group this transcribed excerpt on the overhead projector, as an example of how to question the beliefs of others while maintaining respect for the believer. Chris was not only a troublemaker, but he was also someone who could skillfully assert himself. After I noted this to the group, he became more agreeable. During our next activity, I asked him to help me facilitate. As an interviewer and as a leader, Chris could creatively channel his boldness.
For our second formal interview, I chose members of the Philadelphia Police Department. A discussion with the boys about their bitterness toward the cops led to this decision. No one liked the idea. “How can we possibly be honest with the police about our feelings toward them and be polite at the same time?" The boys also felt that no matter what questions they asked or what opinions were expressed, it wouldn’t change the way the police viewed them or treated young people in general.
Matters were made even worse when the officers I invited agreed to come, but under one condition: They wanted us to take pictures of them with the boys. This would be an opportunity, the officers said, to show others the good work they were doing. When I shared their request with the group, the boys were irate. “They want to use us!" they protested. “Tell them to stay home!"
Vinny complained the loudest. He said the cops wanted a free ride; to get credit for something they hadn’t earned, a nod of approval; his nod. There they were, throwing their weight around again.
It was my turn. “But wait! What’s wrong with showing off your good work? I might want the same thing when I leave here; a few pictures to advance my career."
"That’s different," Vinny argued.
Some disagreed. Others sided with Vinny.
"Vinny’s defending his honor," I said. “He thinks people’s motives should be pure."
The group chuckled. Vinny was beaming.
"So," I asked, “is there such a thing as altruism?"
"What’s that?" the boys shouted in unison.
Aha! I had something they wanted to know. It was my big chance, and I savored it. “Doing something good with no reward. Or are there always ulterior motives?"
Everybody had examples. We were discussing a complex issue, and the boys knew it.
The following week, the police officers arrived. As part of our preparations, the boys gave testimonies of times they had been mistreated by the police. We showed highlights of these to our guests on the overhead. The police officers, in turn, shared stories of citizens who felt intimidated or “victimized" by brazen teens. The officers talked about neighborhoods taken over by gangs and drug dealing; elderly women afraid to walk to the corner store. When the interview ended, I pulled out my camera, and in a bittersweet moment, especially for Vinny, the cops got their wish.
For a while, the Interview Project appeared to be working. The tape recorder was a new toy, and the boys liked having new faces around. But soon the thrill wore off, and the boys got cold. They returned to a condition the staff called normal: cynicism, resisting structured activities or anything that resembled work. My sessions used up a portion of their free time, to shoot pool or watch TV, and this made them grumpy. Even the content bothered them. “It’s enrichment," I said. “It’s corny," they replied. The group was on guard for hidden agendas, especially those aimed at making them soft. At certain times, their negativity swept through the room like wildfire. At other times, their message to me was, “This had better be good or we’re going to sleep, right here in our seats."
The boys were losing interest in my project and in me, and I needed guidance. I wanted to find out what would engage them more, so I started holding focus groups. Focus groups, I explained to the boys, are a common event. They take place everywhere, in the private and public sector, from drug trials to opinion polls. Of special interest to teens – every product they buy, from sneakers to cigarettes, goes through the focus group process. Imagine being paid to try one brand or another. We took some time to discuss how corporations manipulate our tastes. Then, for our purposes, we used the focus group to decide the project’s direction.
With the project well underway, my group was becoming more vocal. On the surface, the interviews appeared to be going well; but during the focus group, the boys expressed their dissatisfaction. They stated clearly that, although our interview subjects were nice people, they had been long-winded, self-serving, know-it-alls.
To an extent, I had to agree. The minister came and said, “I never try to change a person's beliefs." Then he tried to convert us. The police officers came and said, “We’re here without any scripts." But for the most part, the officers lectured us and avoided our challenging questions. We had listened politely and thanked our guests. But in terms of the project, something was missing.
The boys' critique was insightful. Interviews were only interesting to them and worthy of “flow" if the interviewee could prove that he or she had suffered, taken risks, or witnessed some extreme event. Something in the subject’s tone or person had to meet the credentials for living hard. For the boys, an encounter is judged by degrees of intensity. They are accustomed to split-second images on television and sensationalism everywhere. They want something from themselves and others that resembles real life drama. They wanted the minister’s moment of doubt; the police officer’s fears or brush with corruption; a crisis from the staff member’s adolescent past. As one resident commented, “I need some harsh."
These comments revealed the boys' desire for authenticity, however sordid it sometimes seemed. The adults came with their agendas, stood before the group, and tried to teach the boys a lesson. But the boys were saying, “Impress us with your realness." We needed the mental discipline to steer the interviews in this direction. The boys also needed to examine their need for sensationalism. Maybe needing harsh is a result of trauma. Maybe it comes from video games. But regardless of where the need for harsh begins, it is not the only form of vitality out there. There is drama and honor in passing up harshness, giving a brother or sister a break, forgiving adult human error.
My first idea for improving our interviews was to change the way we used our physical space. We had been giving our subjects the floor, putting them in front of the group, as spokespersons, and encouraging a power differential we were trying to avoid. The room was large, and the boys generally spread out across it. I suggested that we meet in a circle to make our subjects part of the group, but the boys opposed the change. There were two things the circle brought to mind “one was elementary school and the other was group therapy. Neither represented an atmosphere of personal control. But now I asked them to consider the circle anew, in terms of getting the kind of results they desired: more honesty and self-disclosure from their subjects. To achieve this leveling out of the playing field, everyone involved had to give up his or her own space and posture. The group wrestled with the uncool circle as a necessary sacrifice. I asked them to consider if issues of power and territory played any part in refusing to change the space.
I urged the boys to talk about power. What is it, anyway? Territorial power wards off intruders, but look how it limits experience. Power keeps people in check, but it can turn coercive. Both crime and punishment work this way. And what about the deserving power sources, like our personal heroes? What gives them their power? Had the boys ever witnessed, I wondered, the power of knowledge, such as all the big and little skills they needed to get themselves out of the system’s grip? I told them it all started here, with the circle. They may have believed me, a little. But the stakes were high. I pushed them to try it. I preached and pleaded. It never happened.
My debates with the residents at CONCERN were, by far, the most dynamic part of the Interview Project. Their cantankerousness posed a daily threat to my project, but even worse were the times I couldn’t engage them at all. When they were disruptive, I was tempted to force my will. The better choice, more often, was to manufacture substance from their opposition. It was a painstaking task, going off the track, around the block, and back again. But it was worth it. They refused to sit in the circle, to give up their power, but this hardly mattered. There was so much satisfaction in drawing them out. Compliance was no longer the prize, as long as a meaningful exchange was taking place. In the same vein, getting a good interview gradually lost importance.
To some observers, my goals seemed ambiguous. But for me they were finally clear.
"Why are you here?" they wanted to know.
"To talk to the boys."
Beyond this, I was there to plant a seed of reflection. Something to put in those big baggy pockets of theirs, for later.
This feature: Coffey, A. (2003) Trading Power for Trust. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.11 No.4, pp.196-199