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Alternatives to Imprisonment: Earning Mutual Respect In The Forest

Published June 18th, 2018

On an unseasonably chilly day in April, Jonathan Gonzalez and I had the opportunity to work with the residents and staff of the Youth Shelter of Westchester. This was our second program with the Youth Shelter and it will always be an inspiration to observe the dedication of their staff and the personalities of the participants.

The YSoW organization provides support in many areas; it is a residence as an alternative to imprisonment and also serves as a societal bridge for these young men to cross when they are ready to leave prison. On the other side of that bridge is the unknown. There are no guarantees here, there, or in between.

It is a privilege for us to spend a day with them and to share the tools of awareness, tracking, and empathy. These teachings are, of course, cloaked in wilderness skills that are challenging, engaging, fun, and maybe most importantly – culturally customized.

After our program with the YSoW last spring, I was under the illusion – the false hope – that we would have the chance to do some long-term mentoring with men in their program. I realize now that that is exactly what we don’t want with this demographic and institution. If a man is still with YSoW after an initial Wild Earth experience it’s likely because that man has been sentenced more time in the program.

Presented with an entire new crop of men, Jonathan and I were back to square one. Bring it on.

The YSoW van arrived, packed to the rails with some big dudes. Of interest to us right away was the difference in the collective energy of the group from last years’ program.

The counsellors told us that on the van ride to Wild Earth the boys were annoyed with the whole idea of spending a cold day in the woods. Excellent! Who are we to pass up a perfect teaching opportunity?

While there is a loose format or formula that we follow Wild Earth, our methods of implementation must be adapted to meet the unique participants in front of us on every single program day. Jonathan and I noted group dynamic and, non-verbally adjusted our plan in a matter of moments. And we were off into the woods!

We prioritized earning their trust.

Gaining their respect would have been a mistake — that they respect us should never be important to us, instead the most important thing should be that we respect them. If we earn it, mutual respect comes later.

The men could have been forced by their counsellors to pretend to be respectful of us and our program, but that would have been asking them to not be true to themselves (unacceptable to us, as it’s the antithesis of what we’re striving for).

Our goal in the forest is to help them remember that the forest they are standing in, albeit only for a few hours, is the arena in which all of our ancestors lived for the entirety of their lives; a place where all any of needs to thrive is right under our feet, drenching our senses with information and constantly giving us feedback and lessons on how we can live our lives fully.

We stressed the unbounded creativity and intelligence that our ancestors embodied by simply living with the earth – and – that there are hazards in not being aware, regardless of our environment.

We continued with gratitude and movement. Relating the movement of our ancestors to martial arts or modern dance gave the men permission to explore and experiment while still looking cool.

After gratitude and movement, we launched them into a crucible of wilderness skills and problem-solving scenarios. Some as a team, others alone.

We encouraged them to challenge us and to ask themselves: Who cares? What’s the value in all this? Why learn to make fire by hand when there are lighters at the convenience store? Who cares about tracking animals? Why in the world would we be asking them to walk through the woods blindfolded?

Our goal was to ensure that they could see themselves within a context where these wilderness skills would make sense. We wanted to ensure there was place inside each man where the seeds of what we were experiencing could sprout.

The life-journey for teens, especially urban teens is challenging. Duh.

Add a criminal record on top of that, with institutionalized racism and poverty as ingredients to the souffle’ and things get complicated quickly.

The dots that I have learned to connect as a middle class Caucasian-American won’t often work for them. These men didn’t choose to be born in this time and place. However, if we can in some way (however small or large) empower them to feel that they have gained some measure of awareness – most importantly choice – of the possibilities in their lives and they could see their way through the chaos of life, then we have done a great thing.

During an earlier Wild Earth Alternative to Incarceration program, Jonathan and I had shared the history and meaning of adoption. Far back in our ancestry, adoption was not a legal binding. It was a joining of one family to another, with no avenue or desire for divestment. In the spirit of this, we let these young men know that from this day forward they can count on us, to do our best to stand in integrity, to ask only the same of them, to share with them universal truths, and that if they need us that we would be there as guides and teachers for them.

We made clear that if they want, we are now their uncles and they are our nephews. Ah, but this is a two-way street.

Explicit in the agreement is that we now hold them to a higher standard of conduct. We expect that they will consider all that we taught them and that the time to stand up tall is now. No more excuses. They always have the power of choice to do the right thing. Or not. It’s often not and easy choice, or a clear one. But it is one that is theirs and will always be their teacher.

From our hearts wish wish for these young men – Peace, love, joy and purpose.

In gratitude,

Michael Ridolfo
for Wild Earth

Michael RidolfoMichael RidolfoMichael Ridolfo, Instructor

In 1993, having been on the path of the naturalist his entire life, he began to study and train with Tom Brown Jr. at his world renowned Tracker School. During that time Michael began teaching nature education programs for both children and adults at private institutions and organizations. These include but are not limited to: Mohonk Preserve, The Sunwise School, Action Karate, Camp Herlich – all in New York State, the Mohican Center in New Jersey, Appalachian State College in North Carolina, The Rocky Mountain School in Boulder, Colorado, Alex Aiken School in Duncan, British Columbia, Vermont Wilderness School in Brattleboro, Vermont and Tropical Reforestation and Environmental Education in Kailua, Hawaii, among others. From 2005-2007 he ran a year-long program within the science curriculum at Highland High School, Highland NY for 9th-12th graders focusing on field ecology and native skills. Also in 2007 he ran a native skills program at the Mcquade School for youth-at-risk focusing on survival skill and group unity. In 2007 Michael accepted the position of full time naturalist at the historic Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. He currently lives in Accord, NY with his wife Sophia and son Adom. More about Michael's work.

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