CLINICIAN'S DIGEST: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

By Cooper, Garry | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview
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CLINICIAN'S DIGEST: Giving Voice to the Voiceless


Cooper, Garry, Family Therapy Networker


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In the absence of funding for community mental health programs, artists and community workers are finding novel ways to help disempowered people find their voices, describe their lives and speak to the larger society. Denver photographer Tory Read, for example, has been involving poor children and homeless people in a photography project reminiscent of narrative therapy. Read began by passing out disposable cameras to poor, mostly black kids in the Curtis Park neighborhood and encouraging them to write poems to go with their snapshots. Nine-year-old Bonnie wrote this poem beside her photo of kids hanging on the jungle gym. "I am the jungle gym/kids are climbing on me/I have balls around my feet/I have a bridge/I have a slide/I have stakes/I get cold/I am all by myself at nighttime/I dream of being a person."

When Read was invited to work with residents of a homeless shelter, she ignored the institution's dank "continuing education room" and marched into a common day room carrying the Curtis Park kids' photos. She read some of their poems aloud and then handed out disposable cameras to the people who had drifted in, encouraging them to photograph one another. Later, Read helped shelter residents write autobiographies to go with their portraits. They also ventured into the surrounding neighborhood to photograph and write.

Read and the homeless people enlarged the photos and text, shellacked them and put them on a large canvas quilt, which now hangs in the shelter. The project has given some sense of self to people too poor to own a mirror or a reliable place to put their heads. It also attracted the interest of the wider culture: not long after it was completed, a Denver television news crew filmed the quilt.

Among the quilt's entries was this description by Calvert Dreaming Bear: "People call me Smiley. My mother's name was Mary Brown Ear Horse. My dad's name was Herbert Dreaming Bear. My grandfather dreamt about bears in his dreams, and he gave that name to my dad. I got trained as an actor at Denver Center for the Performing Arts. My dream is for my writing and acting to become a reality. I want to write my own scripts, but I'm still learning what life is all about."

Low Black Self-Esteem?

A metareview of studies involving more than half a million children may shatter the notion that black kids are crippled by low self-esteem. According to the review of 255 studies from 1960 to 1998, the self-esteem of black children reaches equivalence with whites by the age of 10, and then outpaces whites until college age. The only exception involved black youths living in neighborhoods where they were in the minority; they didn't score as well. (White youths living in neighborhoods where they're the minority also didn't score well.)

The metareview, by University of North Carolina psychology professor Bernadette Gray-Little and researcher Adam Hafdahl, published in January's Psychological Bulletin, says that the myth of black low self-esteem evolved from Kenneth and Mamie Clark's classic studies in 1939 and later involving dolls. In those studies, black children consistently chose white over black dolls, which the Clarks assumed indicated low self-esteem. Gray-Little and Hafdahl argue that showing a preference for artifacts that represent the dominant culture has little to do with self-esteem. The Clarks and other researchers, they insist, erroneously assumed that self-esteem is primarily sensitive to the appraisals of the larger society, rather than shaped by more intimate mirroring within the neighborhood and extended family.

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