With summer approaching fast, now is the time to start planning for summer programs. With this in mind, SOWA’s Clifford Armstrong III sat down with Siobhan Whalen, Youth Program Manager at the Coalition for Refugees from Burma, to learn about what inspires her as a youth worker, her thoughts on summer planning, and working with a diverse group of youth and families.
Siobhan (center, front) with the youth of the Coalition for Refugees from Burma
What did Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB) do for Summer Programming last summer?
Last summer, we had two summer programs. One was in partnership with East African Community Services in Seattle. We helped them with some of the organizing. They had a curriculum that they used the year prior, and we were able to help with outreach, connecting them with youth in Seattle Public Schools who were not able to access SPS’ summer programs. That program with EACS was for K-5.
In Kent, we partnered with Kent-Meridian High School to put on, we called it GOAL (Global awareness and local Outreach for Academic Learning). That program was focused on secondary school-aged youth. Kent-Meridian has their own secondary school program for students that are new to the US or low English language learner level. So they would go to school in the morning, then in the afternoon we would provide an enrichment component for about two hours after they finished their summer school day.
When did you start planning for summer?
That’s a great question! Planning for summer is kind of always in the back of your mind as a youth program manager or coordinator. And if you’re working with youth you’re always looking forward to summer. One thing I really like about summer programming is that students, especially high school students, are much less stressed. During the school year, you’re competing with homework and high school projects, tests and standardized testing and there’s just so much white noise out there in their lives that you have to work with. In summer, there’s just so much more freedom to really push students in things they might not have otherwise had access to and you can be a little more creative. So I love summer programming and I think about it all the time. I would say for last year, we really began mapping out the logistics of things around this time (the beginning of March). This is when we really kick it into high gear.
So, from last year’s summer program, and you kind of have two to pick from, what are you most proud of?
So most proud of…our Kent program, I really have a soft spot for. It’s something that I’ve created and it’s my baby and I love it very much and I love our students there a lot. So I think the thing I’m most proud, well I have two. The first was we went to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year. It was a part of our unit on social entrepreneurship. Our students got to look at some of the inventions that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding and some of the innovative things that people their age are doing, and other social entrepreneurs are doing all over the world. So that was really cool. They were also charged to create a solution for a global or local problem and they came up with some really creative ideas. One was to match older students that are refugees or immigrants with newly arrived students and have a mentorship program. That was really smart. Another they had, their problem was access to medical information in native languages. So they came up with this idea of having people in the library who could interpret and help people understand their prescriptions and doctor forms and things. And I thought that was really smart too.
Then the second thing I’m proud of, at the very end of the program, the students organized a showcase. Each week of the summer program covers a different topic and at the end, they worked in groups to highlight what they learned in each of the different weeks. They did a whole range of things, but one group of students wrote some haikus and then put music to the haikus. So they sang these beautiful haiku songs and it was so cool because they did everything. They designed the menus, they came up with who was going to say what and when. I was really proud of how hard they worked and it came out really beautiful.
What was the most challenging aspect?
I think the most challenging aspect with any summer program is logistical. It’s making sure that you do outreach and making sure that everything is running smoothly and on-time. The logistical things you might otherwise not think of.
What was the feedback you received from the youth and their families?
They really liked the week with the haikus. We had an assistant instructor from Highline Community College come and talk to students about different forms of expression. He’s a theater instructor, so he brought some improv games that the students did. The second day he taught the haikus. All of the students enjoyed his kind of teaching style and have since asked me “Where is that guy? Is he ever coming back?” So I think they really enjoyed his portion. The students (from Kent) always love the opportunity to go to Seattle. I think the trip to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was really profound for a lot of the students because they got to see, there were some exhibits in the visitor’s center that students recognized as things that they had experienced in either their home countries or in the camps or areas they came from before. So that was something that a lot of students were chatting about on the way home and throughout the rest of the program. Like, “Hey remember that thing that we saw…” That kind of thing.
What impact, has professional development of staff had on the summer program?
It’s definitely had an impact. I’ve attended a couple of different professional development opportunities about global competency and also around 21st century skills and project-based learning. Professional development provided by Seattle University, I believe they partnered with Facing the Future, they did a couple trainings a year ago that I attended. And then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did one on Global Competency and Project Based Learning, which was really incredible. And School’s Out Washington’s Bridge Conference, as always. I love going to the Bridge Conference because it always gives me great ideas and people to get back in touch with later on. Shout out to Bridge!
What is something about CRB’s youth that I, and anyone who listens to or reads this should know?
I think that our youth are incredible human beings, and a lot of times there are assumptions made about their backgrounds or their intelligence or their commitment to education because of biases and more often than not they are entirely incorrect. I think I work with some of the brightest young people and I really enjoy working with them. They teach me more things than I could ever teach them.
Being a refugee-oriented CBO, what suggestions would you have for the field when working with communities of color? You kind of just alluded to some of the issues that they face….
I think we’ve been branching out to newer communities, not just from Burma, which has really been enlightening I think. It happened organically that we saw this need, there were students that were coming to our afterschool programming and our summer programming that weren’t from Burma, and we just felt like it’s important for those students to have access to information and access to help and support. We aren’t going to bar them from being participants. And so, I think, in working with these newer communities we’ve learned a lot of discrimination in different communities about the hijab or assumptions made about peoples’ background. I think there’s so much more work to be done both within the school and outside of the school. I think more conversations need to be had. There should be also a focus on professional development and cultural competency training. There is a lot of work being done both in Seattle Public Schools and Kent Public Schools, and they’re trying to incorporate more trainings, but there needs to be even more.
As a white woman, what has been most helpful for you working with the Burmese community and communities of color in-general?
Yeah, it’s not an easy thing. It shouldn’t be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be a constant reflection. There is no one simple way to make a person empathetic. Its hard work and you have to do it all the time. You have to be constantly questioning, “Am I coming into this situation with a bias? Am I seeing this situation differently because of my position? Am I asking something unfair of my family or of my students? Am I putting them in a position that is unfair by asking them to do something?” So it’s like I appreciate that question because I think it’s important for anyone working in a non-profit or in a school or working in the frontlines, whether they’re white or a person of color, to constantly be questioning where their biases lie. And it could be because my race, my ethnicity, my religion, my social position, or my privilege, you just constantly have to be questioning, “Is this coloring how I’m interacting in this situation?”