An Amazing Partnership

By Rebecca Kirk

2015 – 2016.  What an incredible year of learning and growing.  By April of 2015 we had realized that our space at 1324 Lake Drive was not adequately serving our mission to provide support for self-directed, engaged learning to teens regardless of their ability to pay.  Though we were able to offer some tuition subsidies, a large part of our finances were required to pay rent. We looked high and low for a more affordable space in which the teens could feel free to express themselves creatively without always needing to be mindful of our professional office building neighbors’ desire for quiet, but to no avail.

By summer, some of the teens were meeting with us weekly in area parks to explore the outdoors together and to develop their leadership skills as a Teen Advisory Council for the development of Open Doors, allowing it to become even more youth-directed.

Meanwhile, Maddie, Jacob and I spent many hours exploring foundations for grant possibilities and also ways of collaborating with other teen-centered organizations.  Without having located space nor funding by September, this small, dedicated group of teens and families agreed to meet temporarily in the basement classroom of my home.

One morning in late September, on a whim, I drove to The Geek Group to explore the possibility of affordable meeting space in their large building on west Leonard.  With no appointment, I was miraculously able to immediately obtain an audience with Chris Boden, founding member and President of the organization.  After listening to my story of Open Doors’ mission and principles, along with our current situation, Chris instantly recognized Open doors as the educational arm that had been an unfulfilled piece of The Geek Group’s mission since their beginning, 20+ years ago.  On the spot, he offered Open Doors the option of becoming The Geek Group’s education department and me, this education department’s director.  I must say I was rather bowled over.

We began transitioning into the space at The Geek Group almost immediately and officially became a part of the organization on January 1, 2016.  The longer we are here the more I realize how right Chris was regarding the alignment of our missions.  The Geek Group was established to support and encourage people to learn and express what they are passionate about, regardless of their financial situation.  They do that primarily for adults.  Now we are here to offer that to teens.  Open Doors is indeed extremely fortunate to be an integral part of this unique organization. Please explore The Geek Group’s website and like them on Facebook. And then stop by on a Saturday at noon for a free tour of the building and see what mad science you yourself can be up to!

I’m also very grateful that our teens were willing to make this huge transition with us. It was a valuable, real-life learning experience for all, requiring adaptability, creativity, and the development of social/emotional skills as we interfaced with this new culture.

Beginning in January, the stability of our new location allowed superb opportunities for learning.  Within this stable environment, with the input of the Teen Advisory Council, new learning adventures began to emerge.  These included Cooking Club, Big History, Kinder Being, Career Exploration, and Art Studio.  Independent projects developed, such as Animation Exploration, Giant Skateboard Creation, and Dirt Bike Maintenance, while tutoring was employed in learning Algebra and Biology.  The teen-directed year-end trip to Chicago was a crowning jewel to our year of learning and exploring new horizons.

Our adoption into The Geek Group has provided accommodations, overhead, incredible physical and human resources, and tremendous encouragement to pursue our mission.  This has freed us to more fully develop our program offerings, structure, and advisory role. As a result we have seen remarkable learning happening with our teens including:

  • Teens learning and fully engaged together in what they wanted to learn
  • A visible increase in social/emotional intelligence, and
  • Critical thinking skills
  • A huge increase in self-confidence and ability to openly express their thoughts and ideas.

In addition, instead of paying rent, we were able to use Open Doors funds to hire Jacob Sabourin full time as assistant director and to send him to Massachusetts for the annual Liberated Learners Conference resulting in empowering professional development.

Thank you so much to Chris Boden and The Geek Group for providing all your support which made this possible.

Powerful Possibilities

Open Doors Intern Jacob Sabourin is a Political Science major at Aquinas College with a keen interest in the politics of power. At Open Doors he leads a class called “Powerful Possibilities,” which has quickly become popular among our teen members. In this post, Jacob explains his experiences leading this class.

by Jacob Sabourin

Only one girl showed up for the first Powerful Possibilities class. I told her we could explore anything related to power. I told her to ask me anything she wanted, question everything I said, assume I was always wrong, and then prove it.

But first I asked her a question. What is power to you?

She immediately thought of her two cats. One’s just a baby, but a “chunker,” she said. The other is old, wily, and good at hunting. The old one gathers food for the chunker, and the chunker lazes around the house.

But who has the power? I asked.

First, she thought the old one. She has the ability to hunt, after all. The chunker would never be so chunky if it weren’t for the old cat’s hunting prowess.

But then this young woman second-guessed herself. The chunker manipulates the old hunting cat, and ends up gorging herself into obesity.

So who has the power?

That day a student took her first step into understanding that relationships between all life forms are defined in terms of power. Our conversation that day extended the concept of power to family, the workplace, and ecosystems. That day, I got an idea of what she thought about poaching, minimum wage laws, and household rules. I told her over and over again how she was wrong, and forced her to prove herself right. At first she was frustrated with my questioning her logic. But she began to develop better arguments for her ideas.

Since then, most of the teenagers at Open Doors have attended Powerful Possibilities. About half now attend regularly.

So what have we covered since then?

Every day in class I walk in and ask these teenagers what’s on their minds. They’ve told me about terrorist attacks they heard about in the news, and we’ve talked about how Dr. Who demonstrates Western ideas about the foreignness of people from other countries. We talked about drone strikes, looked at a map of what countries the U.S. has used them on, and talked about philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, and their ideas on how to manage people best, especially when it comes to the criminally insane.

They’ve argued with each other about school uniforms, slut shaming, teachers who molested students, child marriage, and age-of-consent laws.

They’ve told me how unfair it is that old people get to boss them around, and wonder who put their bosses and leaders in charge. I grabbed a cardboard scythe in the corner and told them I was the boss because I have the power to harm them. They started to draw cartoons lampooning me, including a depiction of me in a top hat and jock strap. We used this point to illustrate how important political satire is, and it led to a discussion of coup d’états, of which we’ve repeatedly discussed the history. The scythe has repeatedly been stolen. They’ve gotten the idea about coups. They now speak softly and carry big sticks, as they know Teddy Roosevelt once said was good foreign policy.

They’ve explained to each other why gun control laws are necessary, and also why they inhibit our freedoms.

They asked me why the countries of the world don’t get along, why war continues, and we discussed the advanced international relations theories of the End of History (i.e. liberal capitalist democracy is the final form of government we will ever have, and all countries are starting to come to this conclusion), and alternatively, the Clash of Civilizations (i.e. the world is divided by religion and culture, regionally, and eventually one culture must come to dominate the world).

They asked me why North Korea’s dictator was such a jerk, and we talked over the history of concentration camps around the world, in the U.S., in Germany, and we discussed the history of imperialism that led to North Korea’s Communist dictatorship.

They told me about how they felt about police and racism, and we talked about Eric Garner, the Ferguson protests, the history of riots, and police militarization.

One day they walked in and had nothing to say, so we talked about how the first step in the rise to power is to indicate your desires, because other people want to lead you to achieve them. So they told me they wanted to talk about job applications, and we talked about how we thought it was best to prepare for an interview.

We talked about how cortisol release is triggered when people are stressed, and people occupying the lower rungs of social hierarchies have cortisol release triggered more often, at levels our biological development never intended when we were hunter-gatherers on the savannah, picking berries and stabbing wildebeests with spears. We discussed meditation as a technique for controlling our own cortisol releases, so we can move up the social ladder to achieve our destinies.

Teenagers around the world are thinking about powerful, important topics. They have inklings of what is going on around them, but often don’t have the language to fully discuss them. I have seen a radical transformation in every teenager I’ve worked with over the course of my five-month tenure at Open Doors. They articulate themselves better every day. They know what is on their minds and are beginning to communicate it. They are becoming more powerful. A world of possibilities is opening to them.

This post is part of our “Our Stories” series, which aims to explore the personal experiences and journeys of Open Doors’ members and staff, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.