News & Ideas

At Summer of HOPE, Empowerment Not Punishment

Headshot of Grey Johnson
Photo by Katytarika Bartel

Grey Johnson ’22 is a Harvard College student studying linguistics with a secondary in translation studies.

This summer, they are serving as a co-facilitator for the Summer of HOPE program, which hosts Boston Public School students for justice-focused workshops at seven Boston-area higher education institutions, including the Radcliffe Institute. In addition to reimagining the Radcliffe week of the program for its virtual format this summer, Johnson is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow researching Black language and creole ontologies.

How would you describe the Summer of HOPE program and Radcliffe’s role in it?

Summer of HOPE started as a pilot to divert students from traditional prosecution. The summer-long program focuses on justice, and Radcliffe’s role is hosting one week specifically to talk about storytelling as a means of activism, finding and expressing identity, analyzing experience, and building community. We are one of several Boston institutions participating in the program, providing student participants alternatives to traditional prosecution through opportunity, pathways, and access—which ultimately serves their lives in a much more positive way than going through the punishment system. 

How did you get involved in the program, and what is your individual role within it?

I found the opportunity online, on Radcliffe’s website, and was intrigued by the resonances with what has been going on in the world recently. I wanted to engage in the conversation about alternatives to prosecution and prison, and through my previous work with students, I know how identity can be a powerful force for change and for building community.

I am one of six co-facilitators, so I lead students through activities that help them practice storytelling as a means of building both community and their own personal narratives. We are hoping to help them find comfort through commonalities in their stories and also find empowerment in their individuality, so they can build pathways toward each other and imagine new futures. 

Normally, in-person engagement would seem intrinsic to this kind of program. What challenges have you faced in adapting the workshop to a virtual format?

We’ve been thinking a lot about how we can translate the material from last year. For example, on the first day, we walk through introductions and do a land acknowledgment. We want to start by talking about our relationships to the places we’re in, our ancestry, what brought us here, and what keeps us here, given that we are coming together virtually. Then, we get to know each other, doing exercises like “I am” poems and life maps to start to think about the key experiences in our lives and how ideas of justice, injustice, and community are central to those experiences that have shaped us. We’ve had to do a fair amount of editing the curriculum to make it relevant and applicable to how we’re operating now, though the students have had a mixture of in-person and virtual experiences with the other participating Boston institutions.

I imagine that you have to exercise a lot of care in planning, given that much of the programming revolves around sharing personal stories.

We’re building the curriculum to be sensitive to that. We have ideas of what we want to accomplish each day, but we make sure there’s flexibility so that whatever comes up, we can take care of the students as they need it. There’s enough of us facilitators with different experiences in trauma-sensitive curriculum work, different identities, and different expertise that we have significant breadth and depth in terms of the kind of care we can provide to students and the ways we can connect with them simply as who we are. 

You’ve touched on the very tangible outcomes of this program, but what is your individual goal in terms of what you want to contribute to Summer of HOPE? What impact do you hope to have?

My role is technically co-facilitator, but I really think of myself as a co-learner alongside the students because they’re not much younger than me—they’re high school students. It’s weird to think of ourselves as teaching them something. That’s not what we’re here to do. What we’re really trying to do is create a space where each of us, facilitators included, can tap into the stories that are already inside ourselves and do some deep introspection as a way to build connections between all of us. That’s my goal: to connect with students such that they’re comfortable doing that introspection and can leave the program having set goals for themselves, with a better sense of what has brought them here and how they will move forward.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

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