The building was isolated, far upstate. Its residents lived in small dorm-style rooms whose doors had small windows on them. Each hallway had a staff member on one end and a staff member on the other. Everyone had to be accounted for and in their place; one wrong move and the staff would physically restrain you.

It may sound like I’m describing a minimum-security prison, but actually this was the residential treatment center where I lived for several years as a teenager.

To understand my story, you should know that I’m the product of a 14-year-old mother. When I was born I was shuffled around, but luckily I got sent to my family, which made things good. In my community growing up, there were a lot of resources to help me — community centers with after-school programs, caring teachers, churches.

But then as I got older I started going through a lot of abuse. Instead of trying to strengthen the network I had in my community by providing more resources that could have helped me, the court system convinced my family to put me on a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) warrant, saying I was acting out of control. That’s how I wound up in a residential treatment center.

Looking back, I should have known I was always systems-bound. Black mother, 14 years old, with behavioral problems? My mother also spent time in a group home and a residential treatment center. So they looked back at my history and said, “Oh, he’s just like his mother.”

The residential treatment center was similar to jail in more than just the way it looked. You had kids beating up on other kids. Some staff would overdo it with the physical restraints and kids ended up with broken arms. They saw medication as the solution to most kids’ issues. And one of the worst things was the education. It didn’t matter whether you were in 8th grade or 12th grade, you learned the same thing every year. When I went back into the regular school system, they put me in special education classes even though I shouldn’t have been there, because I was so far behind.

In one of the most horrific experiences of my life, I was almost raped by a staff member. Luckily, I was not your average-sized kid, and I got away from it. When I told the other staff members about it, they laughed at me. And I just broke down in tears, thinking “Y’all really laughing at me?”

Due to everything I was going through in those years, I became very violent. That’s the case for a lot of the kids who end up in these systems — they become violent because of the trauma that they’ve been through. It took me a long time to face up to that trauma. I didn’t get to where I am now until I was in my 30s. I had become a product of that environment, where it seemed like everything negative was right.

Part of facing up to my trauma included participating in the Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM), a semester-long training institute focused on helping me use my own experiences to mentor others going through similar challenges. As part of my work with ITM, I wrote the poem below, “The Face of Change,” to reflect on my journey from childhood to becoming a force for healing and strength in my community.

The Face of Change

I am the face of change

I have been through drama and trauma

From my peers and my Mama

I am the face of change

I have been inflicted and convicted to pain

Before the development of all parts of my brain

I am the face of change

Through assault and brutality

Abusers made me question my own sexuality

I did not lose focus on the harsh reality

I am the face of Change

I have sat down and cried and wish I died

My own fears have lied

Arrested my development, no matter how much I tried

I am the face of change

With the realization of my life that was god willing

I began the process of my own self-healing

It was a struggle, filled with tears and difficult feelings

Shedding my cocoon, I saw my trauma peeling

I learned that my vulnerability and emotional dealings

Are critical to my own personal healing

I am the face of change

And since life has granted me an opportunity

You will be proud of what I am soon to be

That is, I am the face of change

Gerard Campbell is a graduate of the Institute for Transformative Mentoring, a program of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. He has done outreach and violence prevention work with young people in New York City. This article was originally published by Urban Matters

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