“When you give people caring space; sometimes they just run with it,” says MBA Project Instructor Phoenix Soleil. One integral part of creating a safe, caring space is setting the MBA agreements—a list of ground rules that the entire group mutually agrees on before beginning the session—which foster co-ownership of the group among instructors and youth participants. The agreements emphasize respect for oneself and for others in the group.
Before listing the specific agreements, Senior MBA instructor Micah Anderson will go around the group and ask each person for his/her definition of “respect.” This gives the youth the ability to voice their own opinions and to take an active role in determining the ground rules.
The first agreement is confidentiality, which Micah refers to as the Vegas rule:“what happens in the meditation class stays in the meditation class.” When Micah describes confidentiality, he emphasizes that the agreements apply to him just as much as they apply to the youth:
“I’ll point to myself and say, this is my group too, and I may share something that I don’t want other youth knowing about here in this unit.”
The second agreement is the “one mic rule,” which means that only one person should speak at a time. Instructors tie this into the concepts of mindful listening and speaking. When discussing mindful speech, MBA instructors often advocate for the “THINK” acronym. Before you speak, ask yourself: is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
The third agreement is “no violence.” This applies not just to physical violence, but to verbal violence and microaggressions. When discussing the agreements, Micah highlights that MBA groups don’t police profanity, but they do not allow words of oppression, like slurs, insults or aggressive language specifically targeted at an individual or a group.
Often youth will suggest their own agreements and the instructor will add them to the list, as long as the rest of the group approves. Once the instructors and youth have established the safe foundation of the agreements, instructors will introduce a key expectation: to take a risk to share authentically about their lives.
The agreements are an important part of each MBA Project session and build a culture of trust that allows youth to connect, share and heal. During a recent session, one youth participant, Shawn, shared about the death of his grandmother who had been his sole caregiver. He described how his grief over her death led him to make impulsive decisions and commit crimes. As he spoke about how much he loved his grandmother, he started to cry. “I’ve done some really bad stuff since then,” he said.
Rodrigo, another youth participant, connected with this profound loss and guilt when discussing how he witnessed his cousin’s murder and blamed himself. Shawn reached out to Rodrigo, consoling him:
“You can become a better person because of the lessons you learned from the experience; whatever happened in the past was in the past.”
Seeing what others struggled with gave Rodrigo a new perspective on his own emotional state. The youth felt safe enough to connect, empathize and recognize their shared experiences, which led to greater collective insight and understanding.
Youth inside juvenile hall are used to a framework of rules and punishment that often contributes to feelings of isolation and powerlessness. MBA Project instructors rely on youth participants to own and develop the culture of each session. By introducing the agreements in a respectful and collaborative way, MBA instructors create an environment where youth feel comfortable reflecting and discussing their lives together.
By Christiana Oatman, Online Communications Intern