Independent living skills, or ILS, programs are run by nonprofits and government agencies for the purpose of “disadvantaged” youth what they need to know in order to be “successful” adults. Working with foster, homeless, and formally incarcerated youth, these programs focused on teaching young people about finances, the education system, maintaining a household, and other topics adults think are invaluable to youth. I taught in an ILS program for a YWCA in the Midwest for a year and a half back in the 90s.
After I started Freechild in 2001 I was invited to speak to a conference of ILS program managers here in Washington. Still green behind the ears with meeting the needs of my audience, I began my speech with a story about a homeless teenager I worked with in my program. This guy was determined to live well on his own, and had nothing less than the highest hopes for himself. But over the course of 6 months he’d lost 3 apartments and 4 jobs, and didn’t understand why he kept failing. I’d been talking with him the whole time – he had an ILS counselor who was his mainline, but I was “special” because I was the only male teaching in the program – so after the last time he got fired he came to me again. This time was different.
Rather than ask him what went wrong, I asked him what was right. Rather than concentrating on what was falling apart, we looked at what was sticking together. “Well, right now I’m living with some cool friends, and we’re all taking turns washing dishes and we’re keeping a list to make sure the bills are paid and yeah, that’s cool.” When I asked about the jobs he explained that the best part of all of them was getting to help other people, whether he was at a fast food restaurant or pushing the broom for a community center. This reminded me of something Dr. King had written more than 30 years before I was talking with him:
We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world. – Strength to Love (1963)
I began to understand that this program, and by extension, myself, was teaching this young man mythology: that by living on our own and striving for independence we can somehow find success in the world around us. This was driving my guy crazy, and I think he was just in his reactions! Coming from the background of a homeless teen who struggled in a family of addicts and a neighborhood of depression, the only way he was finding “success” was by relying on others – and now some of those others were trying to convince him that he only needed to rely on himself!
We brainstormed more and talked about what it meant to help others and be of use to the world around us. This particular conversation helped me screw my head on tighter, that’s for sure. Three months later he’d been working for the same food bank the entire time, and was still living with that last house where everyone shared the work. I moved onto another job shortly after, but still regard this guy as one of my greatest lessons. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, he wrote, “Independence? That’s middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.” That’s what was reinforced in my mind from this episode – that this web that binds is stronger than anything else.
This leads me to call for a concentrated program of interdependent living skills. Rather than teach disenfranchised people about the mythology of a world where they live, struggle, succeed and overcome “all on their own,” let’s help all people understand that we are woven together and that there is nothing wrong with depending on others. This program would foster communication, reinforce community, encourage conflict resolution, harbor hope, and encourage teamwork throughout the day, from home to work to play to struggle. And rather than being taught to youth by adults, it would be taught collectively to anyone who’d participate – no matter what the age or circumstance! Anti-segregationist, it would rally together people who were interested in a common quest for action in their own lives despite or because of their commitment to working together with their differences.
There is a higher goal to all learning, and to all of life. Learning interdependent living skills and reinforcing Dr. King’s understanding from so long ago can take us there.