What happens when you bring together a group of teens, remove the conventions of a classroom, encourage openness, and support everything from creative projects to emotional growth?
No Box Society
Since finishing grad school, I haven’t set foot into anything that resembles a classroom. When I heard Jennifer Wong speak about her non-traditional after school group, I knew I had to see it for myself. So, I broke my fast to learn how one woman hoped to positively impact the lives of youth around her.
It’s 2:45pm on a Tuesday and I’m rushing, on the hunt for parking in South Central Los Angeles. Once parked, I bolt out of my car – worried that I’m going to be too late. My frenzy is calmed when I spot exactly what I’m looking for: a group of 10 teens milling about in the backyard of a South Central home. They’ve arranged chairs in a circle. Some have already taken their seats, while others grab food and chat. Mentor Jennifer Wong spots me, brings me in and welcomes me to the group. Just when I’m sure the kids are beginning to wonder who this stranger is, they make a spot for me in their circle. To start the group, Ms. Wong goes over their core values:
One of three other adults, volunteer Dave Brubaker, has prepared a speech. He says, “Just so you know, I prepared something. I’m going to read it – but this goes to show, I was thinking about you even when you weren’t here.” Any doubts about his commitment to the group’s success were quieted. Brubaker’s speech, about finding your passion, make it clear that he aims to help these kids find their love and start pursing that, without fear, now.
As part of the group share, Ms. Wong asks the students, “What do you struggle with?” Before visiting, I was warned that I would be asked to contribute. As promised, 30 minutes in, there are 20 strange eyeballs looking at me – and they’ll know if I’m BS’ing. I’ve just been put on the spot when one teen asks me, “What do you struggle with?” Well, at the moment, I’m struggling to come up with an honest answer that these teens will find acceptable, coming from a 20-something. After 5 seconds, I drop the pretense and confess.
This is No Box Society.
Jennifer Wong, a former teacher in the LAUSD, was looking for a better way to reach her students. A perfectionist, her job was difficult. Among the 230 students in her 9th grade class, she had kids with anywhere from a kindergarten to 11th grade reading level – and this one just one of many problems. “Someone’s needs were always not being met,” she lamented. Ms. Wong quit her job and created No Box Society (NBS) as a way to address these issues. She explained, “After I quit, I wanted to see what it would be like to invest more intentionally into a smaller group of students…to see what could happen if I worked closely with individuals who exhibited intense creative, intellectual, or emotional giftings, students with strong potential rather than spreading my attention and resources so thin.” She recognized that maximizing their education and socialization extended beyond the classroom. Each of the kids shares common threads: they feel disconnected from their communities and as though they’re perceived as weird or too different. At it’s inception, the goal of No Box Society was to create a safe environment where students could feel comfortable discussing their struggles, come together, “speak good into one another,” and encourage growth. Ideally, NBS is a judgment free space where students help each other achieve and work through personal barriers.
Since last spring, the group has met every Tuesday and Thursday (sporadically during the summer months). With the help of 5 other adult volunteers, Ms. Wong provides mentorship and takes the kids on field trips to explore potential areas of professional interest. The group has been as much a learning experience for Ms. Wong, as for her students. Since Ms. Wong insists that the adults involved be as open and honest as the kids, mentors find NBS equally rewarding. One of her volunteers commented, “Every time I visit the kids, I am forced out of ‘robot admin mode’ and into the present.”
Ms. Wong jokes that her former co-workers refer to NBS as “Wong’s emotional afterschool group.” Whether or not this is the case, she has created an environment where kids feel comfortable being themselves, they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, they are exposed to new opportunities, and they’re learning what it means to “lift as you climb.” NBS is young, so they’re still working out the details, but it’s refreshing to know that there are people willing to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves. And, who doesn’t find comfort knowing that someone is thinking of them, even when they aren’t around?
As for what Ms. Wong is thankful for, well I agree:
I am thankful that no failure is ever final, that there is always hope, and that I can have the strength to get back up when I fall. I am thankful that each minute, each hour, each day offers new opportunities to create new beginnings.
If you’d like to find out more or learn how to contribute to No Box Society drop me a line!