Transforming Pain into Empowerment Through POPS Clubs
January 21, 2021
It's hard enough being a teenager navigating the bridge between childhood and adulthood while acclimating to a pandemic, school shutdowns, remote learning, and all the attendant anxiety of these surreal times without also having to cope with the emotional stress, stigma, and financial impact of a family member's incarceration.
Nearly three million children in this country have at least one parent in prison, jail, or detention, and author and prison rights activist Amy Friedman knows how those children feel.
More than 25 years ago while writing a series for her newspaper column about how prisons work, she fell in love with and married a man who was in prison. While raising his daughters she learned firsthand about the deep emotional burdens they carried.
During the marriage, which ended after seven years, Friedman found that "being a prisoner's wife and becoming the girls' stepmother shaped my understanding of how children who love someone in prison – a sibling, uncle, aunt, or cousin, but especially a parent – are perceived by their teachers, neighbors, peers, and even strangers."
On Feb. 13, 2013 she launched a school-based program, POPS the Club, with her husband, Dennis Danziger, a writer and high school teacher. POPS ("pain of the prison system"), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, started as a single club at Venice high school in Los Angeles, where Danziger was then teaching. It has since grown to 18 schools in five states, where virtual POPS meetings are currently being held.
Emphasizing the values of dignity, empowerment, and community, POPS builds engagement through a curriculum focused on writing, making art, mindfulness, and a guest speaker series. Its members are given a safe space to voice their fear, anger, sorrow, dreams, and plans through community engagement and acts of self-expression. Additionally, POPS publishes a powerful, illuminating, and inspiring annual anthology of art, prose, and poetry created by the POPS members and alumni.
If requested, POPS provides a school with flyers or posters. Many schools have club expos, and POPS students who are already part of the club will host a table to provide information. Word spreads through a school about the existence of a POPS club primarily through the school sponsor or sponsors. Each club is sponsored by one or more teachers, administrators, or school counselors. Most of the spread is by word-of-mouth and by sharing the anthologies, which teachers frequently introduce their fellow teachers to, who share them with other students.
All club meetings include food, which is often the excuse a student will use to attend the first time.
"Kids frequently say things like 'I only came for the food but I stayed because I felt so welcome,' and the connection grows," Friedman said. "Sometimes they attend and say, 'I'm here to support my friend,' and only much later are they able to talk about their own experience. Sometimes they learn about POPS and immediately feel drawn, having longed for years to have someone to talk to about what they've experienced."
She emphasized that "COVID has been so challenging for all these kids, not only in the isolation from friends, teachers, and counselors, but with prison visits cut off and COVID running wild inside the institutions, the fear and separation are profound. And while clubs are operating via Zoom, it certainly isn't the same as that feeling of connection, calm, and joy provided by the safe space and presence in person. I'm hoping hard that we will be back in the schools by fall, and we're trying our best to keep the kids aware of our support, that we are here for them."
But back to happier times . . .
After attending a POPS event and learning more about what they do to support youth who have an incarcerated loved one, Shuli Lotan, Coordinator of Mental Health Counseling at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, "knew this was something that Santa Monica High students could benefit from. Several years ago we started our club with the support of various teacher hosts and amazing volunteers.
"A safe space was created for students to connect, build relationships, and creatively express the emotions and thoughts about their experiences. Watching our club members perform some of their poetry from past anthologies was incredibly inspiring. It's a very therapeutic experience and an incredible program for the youth participants."
Although POPS is presently on hiatus at Santa Monica High, Arielle Harris, the POPS Program Director, is working with Lotan to get the club up and running again by fall.
Around four years ago Claire LaZebnik started volunteering in Santa Monica High's POPS lunch program. "The students there were honest, funny, thoughtful, hopeful, and curious, and we had amazing discussions about everything under the sun," she said. "I loved it so much that when they needed someone to fill in at the Culver High POPS for a period of time, I was happy to help out. A few weeks later, I approached Amy and asked her if she'd mind if I stayed on at Culver indefinitely. I had fallen madly in love with each and every student in that club.
"They are incredible, so warm and friendly and smart and wonderful. Those students are kind to one another, and I can't think of anything that speaks more powerfully to the culture a school has created than that. I am awestruck by their art and their writing, by the way they translate pain and fear into beauty."
During his three years as POPS advisor at Culver City High, Jose Ramón Montero, who chairs the school's Modern Language Department, has seen how "the club became a safe place for students to voice their feelings, knowing they would not be judged but supported by their peers. The professionals that come to the club are very kind and full of resources; some of them are former POPS members.
"We have guest speakers that tell the students their own stories, and encourage them to be proud of what they are doing and not blame society. Participants are asked to listen to each other's stories that help them realize that they can achieve their dreams. Through writing, art, mindfulness, and other activities, they can understand that life is full of opportunities, and they discover their own paths."
Friedman was heartened by students who were ready to drop out suddenly seeing themselves with bright futures, planning to go on to college, and then doing so.
"We see kids give up gang life for art," she said. "We see kids become less depressed and less anxious. We've had kids tell us that years of therapy didn't help them the way one POPS meeting did. We see kids connecting with people they might never connect with outside of POPS, mixing among kids of different genders, ages, races and socioeconomic status in ways they do not out in the hallways.
"We've seen kids who have themselves done time begin to feel part of a community, one that supports their education, their health, their connection to friends and to teachers. The kids take surveys twice a year, and they report changes like those and many more, including a deeper connection to their own families, to their friends, to their artistic selves, to their communities."
Friedman believes "the anthologies are tools for rehabilitation, since telling the story on the page provides an outlet, a kind of healing, and an opportunity that somewhere down the road someone's father or mother or sister or brother will read that piece and it will strike a personal chord.
"Additionally, POPS has heard from many incarcerated individuals that reading a story or poem by a young person they don't know helped them to better understand their own child or sibling and fostered a stronger relationship with that individual. In terms of rehabilitation, it cements the desire to do well, to be free, and to reconnect with family on a deeper level. On occasion, seeing their child in print or on stage performing a piece that child wrote, parents are changed, their pride swells, and they understand things they didn't understand before."
This year's anthology, "Dream Catchers" (Out of the Woods Press, January 2021), the seventh such volume, contains the work of students from several out-of-state and Southern California schools. Because of COVID, the book launch and art show for "Dream Catchers" that's planned for late February will be virtual.
Having read the book, I totally concur with the blurb by Luis J. Rodriguez, 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate: "I am awed by the unity of thought, feelings, and words that this writing forges against the odds."
It is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local independent bookstores. Links to these outlets are on both the publisher's website (outofthewoodspress.com) and on the POPS the Club website (www.popsclubs.org).
Proceeds support the constantly developing arts curriculum for all POPS clubs, and also support POPS in publishing its yearly anthology. Students currently in the clubs are creating work that will be published in 2022. For further information about POPS, its activities, and how to obtain prior anthologies, email email@example.com or call (310) 709-2484.
This comment from Alba, a student in the POPS Club at Culver City High and contributor to "Dream Catchers," expresses what it's really all about: "Being in this beautiful piece of art fills me with great gratitude and makes me feel connected to so many of my peers. It makes me feel less lonely."