This year, students in Ms. Willa’s Language Arts class spent the academic year working on ethnography projects that studied a place of their choosing. Ethnography, students learned, is a form of social research that observes and analyzes the everyday patterns and practices of a group. This particular assignment – which Ms. Willa called “Sense of Place, Sense of Self” – highlighted the idea that group and individual identities are often tied to geography and “place.”
At the start of the school year, students selected a place – for example, a youth shelter, or a particular intersection in their neighborhood – to be the focus of their ethnography. Over the course of the year, students wrote essays studying the rules and symbols of their chosen “place,” drew informational maps, and interviewed members of the community. Ethnographies often include reflections from the researcher about their own interpretations and biases, so students also wrote letters to the place that they had chosen.
Some students decided to focus their ethnographies on YouthBuild Philly. Below, we share two letters written to YouthBuild by student ethnographers Angela and Anthony:
I was afraid to open up to you at first as I’m sure you already know, but you did your best to help me. If I don’t have anyone I know I will always have you by my side through every step I take. Each day I walk into you and I feel your warm embrace around me making me grow even fonder of you. If the world had others like you, you could help paint the future of our millennium and future generations to come.
Sometimes you frustrate me, and sometimes I want to let you go but you always give me a reason to hold on. Many people don’t know you or take time to listen to your story, I know if they took the chance to see who you are you could change the mindset of others.
You sculpted me, you molded me into the woman I need to become. I may not be perfect but you never judge me; instead you guide me when I fall off track. We’ve had our differences but you’ve shown me you only want the best for me and my future. When life knocks me down you always let me know you’re here with a hand to lift me up.
You help me hide from the world around me; you also help me do more productive activities with my life instead of being in the street. The world could have taken control of me but instead you took me under your wing. They only fear I have now is letting you down, but I know in my heart that you would never let me do so.
Just seeing you reward my accomplishments and positivity makes me want to make you more proud. As you watch me grown and as I succeed on my journey, I know that you are smiling upon me.
P.S. See you at graduation – remember, it’s in August. See you soon.
When I first met you in mental toughness, I was inspired by your positivity and professionalism. It pushed me to strive for success and make sacrifices in order to reach my goals. All the people you introduced me to became my family and you became my home. Failure became my past and success became my future. You gave me a second chance and showed me what freedom feels like. Told me that I am just as good as that man carrying his briefcase, walking into a twenty-story building in a suit and tie wearing shoes covered in animals that you only see in the zoo when they’re alive, if not better than him.
You became my voice when nobody else stood up for me. You’ve proven to the world that I’m not the criminal they expected me to be. You told my family that I was in good hands and will be working with other young adults to change the community we live in. You took me under the wing and became my mentor throughout the journey we are taking to success. You push me every step of the way to force myself not to take a break, slow down or quit marching with this team we all put together.
Thanks to you, I know there’s a brighter future waiting for my arrival. There is another generation waiting on me to stand in front of them and share my success story, another class of your students are waiting for me to tell them how real this opportunity is. Without you I don’t know where I’d be.