Interview with Meade Palidofsky
"These are kids who have enjoyed risk-taking -- the thrill of drugs, the thrill of being in a street gang. One of the things we are trying to teach them is that there are healthy ways to take risk. A lot of the kids are scared before they go on stage, and then it's thrilling to hear other people applaud you, particularly for kids who have never really been applauded before. So you are trying to transfer the feeling of thrill into something that's healthy."
-- Meade Palidofsky, Artistic Director of Storycatchers Theatre
For more than 30 years, Meade Palidofsky has been helping young people find their voice and tell their stories through performance art. In 1990, she started working in prisons. She says that was a real turning point because she felt like she met the population that she was meant to work with. Since that time, she has helped hundreds of incarcerated youth heal from past traumas and pave the way for a brighter future. I learned about her incredible work through the powerful documentary, "Girls on the Wall."
TB: I was so moved by your work when I saw Girls on the Wall. What inspires you to do this work?
MP: I have always been interested in working with teens, especially teens from challenging backgrounds. Many people want to write this age group off, which is why you can be tried as an adult in some states as early as 12 or 13! I think it's an amazing age to work with. They are still capable of so much insight and change and mature enough to be able to process their lives.
The first time I walked into a detention center and saw the teens incarcerated there, it struck me that it was a tremendous opportunity to reach kids who are not easily reached otherwise. You will not find this population in schools or park programs. Locked up, they have plenty of time on their hands and a desire to fill that time, often volunteering to do things they wouldn't on the outside -- like writing and performing in a show about themselves.
TB: This is intense work. There must be some challenges. What are they?
MP: Prisons and the justice system are political. Some places can be hard to work in. They are full of corruption or just believe more in punishment than rehabilitation. I have been fortunate to work in a state [Illinois] that has established a Juvenile Justice Department -- and recently, the Governor took this department completely out of Corrections and put it in the Department of Children and Family Services. Hopefully, this will be a good move and the system will become evermore child centered.
The Aftercare system (or lack thereof) is the biggest challenge. We work with these kids to make better, healthier decisions and then they are released to the same dysfunctional families and neighborhoods -- but with no services to mentor them.
TB: How have you overcome some of these challenges?
MP: The biggest thing I have learned is to only work in institutions where there is a champion -- someone in administration within the institution. It's important when we leave -- and on the days we aren't there to have people support the teens. My staff and I go early to the program in order to spend time with the institutional staff. It's important to know everyone from security, dietary, and on up so that everyone supports what we are doing and helps us to accomplish it.
TB: Why do you think a girl or young woman telling her story is so healing?
MP: A lot of the stories that the girls tell are being told for the first time. So it's not just telling a story, it's like telling a secret. These kids have been sexually abused and assaulted, and that in particular is often an unspeakable trauma. What we do is provide a safe way for the girls to tell their stories.
If you've held on to something forever, it just festers and you don't heal. But once you tell the story, then you let it go. By sharing stories, you also hear that there are other people in the room who have had similar experiences. This is strengthening and empowering.
I think the biggest thing is that you are able to let it go. You tell the story on stage, so it's formalized, it's universalized, and other people relate to it. Then it becomes a story that exists in the world outside of yourself and so, you can kind of walk away from it. Furthermore, it becomes not just a story but a song or a scene in a show -- and then it becomes artistic. It's something that, although it reminds you of a time that was painful in your life, it also becomes beautiful.
TB: You are a woman helping young women tell their story. Do you find a healing and empowering element for you?
MP: Oh yes. Even though I am hearing a lot of trauma, it's enjoyable because I see kids who really seize the opportunity to tell their stories to work out trauma in their lives. I see kids who go from being scared to be on stage to feeling good about it and feeling good about telling their stories. You see them change. It's really a remarkable thing to watch. When you see a light go on in somebody's eyes and they understand, or they feel safe to tell something for the first time, when they reach out to other people and support them -- it's a wonderful feeling. When everybody gets on stage together and they become a team and really support each other -- especially kids in jails that have been tearing each other down -- when they begin to empathize with each other, it's kind of a high for everyone.
TB: I noticed in "Girls on the Wall" that you have great instincts about when to push the girls and when to back off. Where does that come from?
MP: I love to solve problems. If I have a kid where something isn't happening, I go home at night and think about it. The next day I try a new approach. You have to be patient. I think what's important is patience and realizing that everyone comes around in their own time. You can't predict exactly when it will happen for everybody.
These kids need love. They have been abandoned by everybody in their families and have been left behind, and so they don't trust people. So you really have to build their trust. And you have to love them. They really need to feel like you care about them. Even when you are disciplining them, you have to do it with love. I use a lot of terms of endearment, like "Stop it sweetheart." They have to know you are doing it because you care about them, and not just because you are ordering them around. They don't like to hear harsh tones in people's voices.
It's important to be the adult in the group. These kids are not looking for peer friends from you. They are looking for someone who will be a guide, and will assume an adult role in their life that has been missing.
Tabby: What are some important leadership lessons you've learned in working with these girls?
Meade: When I first started working I was really absorbed in it being my own work and absorbed in all of the one-on-one stuff with the kids. What I learned over time is that the more people you bring into the process, the more you get the staff involved and the administration involved, the better off the kids. You really need to do that to support the kids. You need to have a bigger structure. You also need to work in institutions where you have a champion -- where people believe in what you are doing so you are not fighting the system.
Tabby: What are some of the common misperceptions about the work that you do?
Meade: I think when people think of kids that are locked up they think of them as bad kids, evils kids, or dysfunctional kids. They think that for anyone who is locked up, there is something wrong with them. I think what people learn when they come in to work with the girls is that what's dysfunctional is our system. What's dysfunctional is that we don't have a lot of systems that work for kids on the outside. They learn that these kids are kids. They have potential. They learn that these kids are really likeable and smart and could be somebody if society helps them out.
When the girls tell their stories, it becomes so clear why they are locked up. It usually starts from a trauma they have experienced causing them to be angry and depressed, which causes them to drop out of school, do drugs, join gangs, and eventually become incarcerated. It's a pretty clear cycle. It can be surprising for some who come and work with the girls since they've never thought about it before.
TB: How has this worked changed your life?
MP: Well, this is my life. [Laughter]. It's my mission in life. When I first started doing this work it was more with kids out in the community and in high schools. When I started working in prisons in 1990, it was a real turning point because I felt like I met the population that I was meant to work with. From that point on it's been a personal journey figuring out... I feel like I've been given a gift that I am a playwright and a lyricist. It's a real gift to be able to use what you love to do to get other people to not only learn playwriting and songwriting, but to actually use that process to heal themselves. That's joyful for me to do that.
TB: What's your best advice to other women who want to follow their mission in life, but are scared to for one reason or another?
MP: My best advice is that if you want to do something, you just have to do it. I grew up in Flint, Michigan with a father who always said 'no.' I used to tell him, "I'm not going to ask you about this, I'm just going to tell you because otherwise you'll just say no." My advice is don't allow yourself to accept 'no' as an answer when you want to do something. Ask yourself the question: "What's the worst that's going to happen?" If you can live with the answer, then you should do it.
TB: What's the best advice someone gave you in your life?
MP: When I was a kid my teachers always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. Having been told that, I believed it. I feel like that is one thing I have to do in life is to tell other young women the same thing: You can do it. Believe in yourself, and don't be afraid of failure -- see failure as an opportunity to learn.
To learn more about Meade's work, visit www.storycatcherstheatre.org.
To see Girls on the Wall, visit www.girlsonthewallmovie.com.
Follow Tabby Biddle on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tabbybiddle