CLTL Juvenile Programs: What They’re Up Against

by Tam Lin Neville


A few years ago I visited a Changing Lives Through Literature Juvenile class in New Bedford, Massachusetts.   The kids were only 14 – 16 years old but when PO Stella Rebiero asked how many in the class had lost someone to violence, every hand went up.  In other programs, I found a similar history of violence, with students wearing “R.I.P.” T-shirts bearing dates that told the story of a young person whose life was cut short prematurely.  In the women’s class that I teach, composed mainly of African-American single mothers, many talked of the necessity of keeping up funeral insurance for their sons.

With the help of Yale Magrass’ post on Dec.6th, “All Quiet on the Prison Front,” I want to look at the implications of the wounds these adolescents carry as they pertain to our program.  Magrass says that there is an inherent contradiction in rehab programs, especially where men and boys are concerned. Ostensibly, the purpose of rehab is to help a client adjust to our society and return to it as an active, productive member.  But Magrass asks a question that is seldom raised:  “Is this a society to which we should adjust?” 

He doesn’t think so:

A militarist state must raise boys, ready and able to commit violence, ideally enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies….Rulers, who need cannon fodder, do not want an education system that makes all students independent creative thinkers….The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools turn over their student rosters to military recruiters.  A school is deemed successful if it sends its products to the army as well as to college. 

In our classrooms and discussion groups, we, as CLTL judges, facilitators, and POs, work to build a society that counteracts this culture of violence.  Is such a world possible? 

CLTL co-founder Bob Waxler, among others, would answer “Yes.”  In his work at the Fall River Alternative School, he meets with a group of high-risk teenagers.  Waxler believes in discussion where the “site of desire” is as “powerful, interesting, and seductive” as that of the gang leader on the street.  In the classroom, he speaks of great stories that are “just as thrilling as the voice of that gang leader.” 

The program in New Bedford, mentioned earlier, is exploring different approaches to this question.  Led by facilitator Susan Jennings, PO Stella Rebiero, and Judge Bettina Borders, it is the oldest continuously running juvenile group in Massachusetts, dating from 2002.   In the past year they have run two boys classes, graduating 12 students in all.

treeFacilitator Susan Jennings, now Director of Sustainability at UMass Dartmouth, would like to tie the CLTL class in with the green movement.  This is no easy task – ecology doesn’t rank high on the list of her students’ priorities.  Still, work has been done with at-risk teenagers in urban settings headed by a black environmentalist/social activist, Van Jones, a leader of the Bioneer movement. The New Bedford program is also considering is the possibility of starting a parents group for the juveniles in drug court.  PO Rebiero encourages anyone who has experience with this kind of group to post a comment down below.

Michael Habib, an attorney who facilitates the juvenile class in Fall River, Massachusetts (which has been running since 2005), reports that, while they weren’t able to find enough juveniles to make a class this fall, he has every expectation of starting one in the new year.  In previous classes, he has had special success with  A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, which follows a twelve-year old boy’s involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. 

While there are no easy answers to Magrass’ question whether ours is a society worth adjusting to, these juvenile programs are inherently concerned with the future and move us closer to a better society — in Waxler’s class, through the sympathetic power of the imagination, in the New Bedford program, through potential experiments in environmental politics, and in Attorney Habib’s class, rallying students around a text they clearly identify with.  Programs like these do their own part in bringing closer a peaceful society where each person has room to grow in ways that are beneficial to all.



Tam Lin Neville is the author of the full-length book of poems, Journey Cake (BkMk Press, l998).  Her poems and reviews have appeared in Harvard Review, Mademoiselle, American Poetry Review, Ironwood, and Threepenny Review.  She is an editor of Off The Grid Press and works for Changing Lives Through Literature, an organization that teaches individuals on probation.


7 thoughts on “CLTL Juvenile Programs: What They’re Up Against

  1. I agree there are no easy answers. Like Stella, I have stood in front of a class, watching in horror, as everyone raised their hands in response to the question, has anyone lost someone to violence. (see the previous post “Chicken Soup for the CLTL Soul”) Ours is a world filled with contradiction. Do we want to adjust to it? No, that’s why I am part of CLTL. I want to “change lives” which hopefully will have a positive effect on the community, and ultimately the world. I am with Bob Waxler in that I share a firm belief in the power of literature to shape and change, perception and behavior. If you think globally, ours is a ridiculously overwhelming task. What options do we have? To do nothing seems unconscionable. One pebble in a big pond makes only a little splash and the ripples fade quickly. When CLTL started in 1991 we were but one group in a corner of our state. Now we are in many courts and schools through out the world. The ripples are gaining mass. They are getting bigger and making more of an impact every day. I compliment Susan Jennings for bringing “green” into the equation. If we do not respect our home, how can we respect each other? As I write, my thoughts are gaining momentum. What we have here is a “movement”. Are we changing the world? In a word, yes. Sigmund Freud wants to go back in history to find reasons for current behavior. Sometimes I think it is less important to go back, but to deal with the here and now. With the escalation of violence the world over, can we change the world? Maybe, maybe not, but not to try, is unacceptable. To echo Bob’s mantra, “keep the vision”.

  2. This messege is for Bob Waxler. I am the juvenile PO involved with CLTL in Fall River. I had no idea you were involved with the Alternative school in Fall River. Many of my probationers are students at the school. I would be interested in attending any sessions you facilitate there.

  3. I like to believe that part of what we are talking about here is the way literature and discussion of that literature can offer a glimpse of another world, a world different than the mean streets of desperation, a world free from the mind-forged manacles (as Blake says) that imprison us. The juvenile programs offer that kind of hope, I think. They stir desire with a voice that can, at times, create a thrilling alternative to the voice of the gang leader, the voice of the dead-end street. What happens to these young people is a measure of our future. They are often very bright, and to lose them to the streets is to lose an important part of ourselves. Thanks so much, Tam, for reminding all of us what’s at stake here.

  4. Hi Tam,
    There is an old saying that you can only save the world one person at a time. CLTL tries to help victims, people whom the militaristic empire has already substantially damaged, but in a sense, we are all victims. To help people understand the source of their oppression and give them the resources to gain control over their lives, something which may require collective action more than individual, is vital. To say I can empower others may be arrogant. It implies I have transcended the problem. I do not know if anyone has, certainly not me. I have a comfortable refuge within the university which makes day to day survival easier, but I have no direct knowledge of street gangs, violent crime or the army. I do, however, have a long history of involvement in movements against militarism, and corporate and governmental neglect of human needs. Everyone outside the ruling class is affected by these, although perhaps not as starkly as prison candidates. We are all engaged in struggle, on one side or the other, maybe on both sides simultaneously, consciously or not. Most university students are being molded to fit into a society which does not meet their needs. Their needs may not be that different people facing prisons sentences.
    The education system is organized to provide “human capital” for the corporation and the state, not to bring students to critically understand the forces which shape their life. University education, indeed the entire education system beginning at pre-k, needs a radical transformation. CLTL is to be applauded. It shows there exist alternatives to the street, the dead-end job, the army or jail, but that is not enough. The alternatives usually lead to blending into a culture to which no one should adjust. If the potential prison inmate reaches the level of self-awareness of the typical university student, the forces which produce poverty, violence, greed and alienation will not go away. More fundamental questions must be raised. My department, the UMass-Dartmouth Department of Sociology/Anthropology did this in he past more effectively, when its focus was Political Economy, than now when its focus is Crime and Justice Studies.

  5. I’m not sure that a CLTL classroom and university classroom offer the same type of education. In fact, I’d argue that a CLTL classroom is more forward thinking and less political–i.e., no grades, no tuition, no writing assignments, the presence of a judge and probation officer, equal sharing of opinion.

    Either way, I believe that CLTL juvenille programs are another example of successfully adapting th tenets of CLTL for other groups. Wayne’s Inspiring Stories program offers individuals the chance to engage the arts through music, an option for those with literacy challenges to participate. Similarly, CLTL programs with juvenilles give young people the chance to engage with literature.

    I volunteer with young offenders in Canada, but none of the alternative measures (sentencing) options nvolve reading, or working with an instructor or professor. I’d like to change this in the long run. I can say that the kids I deal with aren’t engaged by literature. Is this similar with your juvenlle programs?

    Also, how far is Fall River from Boston?



  6. FIrst of all, I count myself fortunate for being able to work with Bob Waxler at the Fall River Resiliency School. My preservice teachers tutor a student there for 15 hours over the course of the semester (and many of these undergrads choose to stay on after the course is over:).

    Bob and I are working on building community (one of non-violence and respect) between and among preservice teachers and urban alternative high school students. We had three CLTL discussions in Fall RIver this semester (along with other lunch meetings, etc..), and we are investigating how these discussions impact the preservice teachers’ notions of reading and writing.

    After a particularly passionate CLTL discussion on Oates’ “Where Are Going? Where Have You Been?” we debriefed the role as facilitator with the preservice teachers. We had used Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as a touchstone piece from the beginning of the semester and gave students this prompt:

    “How did the reading and CLTL discussion (of the Oates’ story), and the debrief of the discussion (with Dr. Waxler) impact your view of reading and writing? In your response, utilize theme of “being on a journey” from the Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

    One preservice teacher characterized his meaning-making of the journey and how to facilitate others’ journey(s), “the way in which the reading, CLTL discussion and debrief impacted my view on reading and writing, is that now I understand how much interpretation factors into reading and writing. I further realized that it truly is not the end idea that everyone comes to that is important, but rather it is the journey there.”

    This connects to a point Dr. Waxler shared in the debriefing session. Dr. Waxler explained that he wasn’t so concerned with what the preservice teachers or high school students had to say about a piece of literature, but instead that they had something to say about the literature. Dr. Waxler talked about how the success of a democracy can be measured by how many voices are included. The numbers of students who had somtething to say about the Oates’ story (and others) evidenced our success as facilitators of that exchange. In this vein, the “neighborhood” of voices being built was inclusive not exclusive.

    My take:

    I think it takes a great deal of time to build a community, and in many ways, our school systems are not designed with enough time for these communities, focused on reading, writing and discussing good literature, to be built and sustained.

    However, every bit of change helps. All learning is a kind of change. My preservice teachers learned a lot from the Fall RIver students, and the Fall River students were influenced by the preservice teachers. We had some success in building community.


    Maureen Hall

  7. What a wonderful way to begin my work in the Juvenile Court this week: Reading both Tamlin’s article and your comments. Your insight and work will keep me pushing through the personal stories I hear in the court and the potential for change I can offer kids through the work of CLTL facilitators and staff. Thanks for the inspiration!

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