"Why Do They Hate Us?"

“Our schools look like shopping malls.”
“My school looks like a prison.”
“People at shopping malls follow me around like I’m stealing things.”
“The army wants me to join them and then go to college.”
“The army wants to send you to die in Iraq.”
“For 100 years!”
“The curfew in my town is 10pm every night, and I have to get permission from the sheriff’s office to get a job.”
“I can’t find a job.”
“Social Security won’t be there for me when I’m old anyway.”
“They won’t hire me.”

“What is wrong with this country,” I thought to myself as I sat in on this classroom conversation last week. And suddenly, like a scene in a movie, a young woman in the back of the room blurted out,

“Why do they hate us?!?”

The rest of the class laughed, almost nervously. They’d heard the line on TV or seen it in print or on the Internet so many times that it was cliche now.

In the 1990s we were derisive about the sentiment that “youth are the future.” My colleagues and I, coworkers in nonprofits across the country who were barely out of our teens, thought that sentiment was old-fashioned and didn’t address the “hope/energy/creativity trust” that young people embody, that could be expended on positive, powerful solutions for today. Unfortunately, even concentrating on that idea seems to pale in comparison to the cold, harsh reality that young people face today.

The simple fact of the matter is that young people in the U.S. today face a net deficit of social prospects: the jobs, schooling, social fabric and democratic governance enjoyed by past generations appears to be falling apart right in front of their eyes. You and I both know they’re not ignorant to those changes, and last week I was jarred into feeling that again when I heard the follow-up to the rhetorical quip made by the high school junior in that class. After she asked, “Why do they hate us,” everyone laughed, then quieted down. As the room became hushed one guy spoke up and said, “Because we’re young.” As everyone smirked and someone said, “Huh,” the bell rang and the class shot out of their seats.

We, any youth activist or adult ally who is reading this right now, have work to do. It is urgent and it is vital. I am not talking in a metaphorical sense either: The young people of America need hope right now if the democratic experiment we have enjoyed, in any sense, is to continue. There are glimpses of possibility out there; its our responsibility to lift them up, share them out and help move them forward.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

When Change Gets Personal

I had an excellent conversation yesterday with the parent of two students from Olympia’s Waldorf School. Following the traditional Waldorf curriculum, here in Olympia the school is regarded as the anti-traditional public school – much as other Waldorf schools are regarded internationally. The progressive community here seems to regard the school highly, and despite being out of the city – or maybe because of that – its the location for some additional cool activities – like a very awesome childbirth class my former partner and I took before my daughter was born.

Talking with this wonderful parent yesterday reinforced for me the personal nature of so much of this work. Her commitment to this school was nearly poetic, in that way that so many of us get passionate when we speak about something we’re committed to and put our energy inside. It was really very refreshing, and a great reminder that I need to mix more often with folks who expend their energy in such powerful ways.

Reflecting on this wonderful conversation reminded me about the powerful presence of noblesse oblige among youth workers, teachers, politicians and parents. The phrase was coined in the 1400s to describe the necessity imposed on the French aristocracy to take care of the peasants surrounding their castles. Literally, the nobles were obligated to care for the peasants because they had the resources to – castle walls, food in the cellar, etc. Its a similar notion as paternalism, but a little different: noblesse oblige comes from a place of nobility, and “doing the right thing” towards those you subjugate; paternalism is attached to repressing individual ability for the purpose of “doing the right thing” on behalf of those you subjugate. Give the adultist nature of our society, all adults are in the position to subjugate all youth, simply because of the power dynamic granted to age. That may happen despite our best efforts, either through a passing glare at a youth standing with his skateboard in the mall or by replying in a condescending tone in class when we’re in a crappy mood. The comic below demonstrates the noblesse oblige in reference towards young people in France.

The reason why the conversation about the Olympia Waldorf School brought all that to mind, and for the name of this post, is that over the last few months my former partner and I had to make a decision about schooling for our daughter in the fall when she enters kindergarten. What an awesome choice – for me. When I talked to my girl about it the story changed though. In talking she told me that she values playing, doing things, and being around other kids. Not a lot to base a kindergarten choice off of. So this change thing got personal. Stacking the chips of my commitment to democratic learning with the value my daughter’s mother and I place in public education I found tremendous appreciation when we explored a local public elementary school using a building-wide democratic learning model that embraces many of the attributes of meaningful student involvement. Locally they call this school “Waldorf Light.”

So change is personal.

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A New Position

Alright readers, here’s my news, in case you’re interested: I recently began a position in Washington’s state health agency as their coordinated school health manager. Its a significant policy position that works within the state agency and with the state education agency to promote collaboration between the two very different fields of health and education. What does this mean for The Freechild Project, SoundOut and this blog, you ask?

Over the last six years I have struggled to maintain a direct connection with the breadth of my interests, which is the magical place where radical youth engagement collides with critical pedagogy, cultural literacy, educational liberation and authentic democracy. A lot of people and programs who work in that powerful space are grassroots organizers, emboldened community educators and brazen youth leaders, advocating for their causes in that crux without interference, support, or other interventions from government agencies. I know that because I see the work I did for more than 10 years as coming from that place.

But I have found it equally true that an equally poignant group of people and programs within that space – the place where radical youth engagement collides with critical pedagogy, cultural literacy, educational liberation and authentic democracy – operate contingent on support from government sources. They need money. And for the last six years I have worked there. While its true that I did receive a great deal of support for my work as a consultant and as the executive director of CommonAction from government sources, it is also true that it was hard to find a lot of the time, and when it did come through it was simply never enough. Also, I found it true that after I left my previous stint within state government – working in Washington’s state education agency – I struggled to maintain and develop connections I had formed with government-funded programs, let alone strengthen them!

So here I am in 2008, ready to embark on a new chapter. I want to invite you to come with me. In this new capacity I will be advocating for a federally-supported program that has been at work nationally for several years, and active in this state for just as long. A strong component of this program is stakeholder investment, and ultimately students themselves. I WILL NOT BLOG about this job specifically; however, Freechild, SoundOut and this blog will soldier on – even re-invigorated. This entry is a heads-up to let you know that I’m vested in continuing this session you’ve been in on. Keep your eyes open – this should get interesting.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Interesting News Items

Here’s some interesting news items as I get ready to come back from my late spring hiatus.

“Kids from higher income households just aren’t going into the labor market. They’re looking for things to put on résumés, and working at Dairy Queen or Wal-Mart just isn’t going to help you get into Wake Forest or Stanford. And they just don’t need the cash.” – An economist on the decline in teenage employment.

In other news, the Worcestershire Youth Cabinet in the United Kingdom is trying to convince local adults they aren’t trying to cause trouble – they’re just trying to get heard. There was a youth summit in Canton, Ohio last week where topics included recreation, youth employment, gangs, youth violence, drugs and alcohol, education, families, housing, teen pregnancy, respect, and entertainment and the media. Youth Today has exposed that the US federal government’s call for orgs to get juvenile justice money wasn’t really a competition – they already had their minds made up. My heroes at Future Voters of American are looking to score a HUGE victory in lowering the voting age in New York State. “Ain’t no power like the power of the youth cuz the power of the youth don’t quit.”

Evoke is a new youth-oriented magazine in Canada (but as always, I’ll remain suspicious of their intent to market youth culture to youth). In what may become an unfortunate new trend, Newtownabbey, United Kingdom might end their youth council because of an apparent lack of interest by local youth. Summarizing his 15 years experience analyzing it, sociologist Mike Males has called the American Media “a cesspool of anti-youth misinformation.” Speaking of which, the Nation magazine is hosting a youth writers contest. A new website called “Its Getting Hot In Here” features “dispatches from the youth climate movement” and offers a variety of posts from across the spectrum, including a recent piece exploring biofuels(!).

The UK Youth Parliament is concerned this month about whether voting will be made mandatory and they continue to shine the light on the British media’s phobia against youth. The 2008 CineYouth Festival is on in Chicago and the schedule has been posted. It seems someone has written a (brief) history of the so-called “youth vote” – as if youth vote in a bloc for the same things – but yes, I do get the point. Young people in Jamaica got together in a USAID-funded program to support national development in their country. (It always amazes me to see the US gov’t fund youth involvement and youth voice programs overseas, while spending almost no money on them here in the States.)

Finally, from The New York Times, here’s a former editor for a big gossip website on why she stopped blogging:

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

I will be back shortly – that I know.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Losing Hope

I have wrote before about the trouble America is in today because as a nation we’ve apparently lost hope in children and youth. A country where “children are the future” and “youth are the leaders of tomorrow” is apparently seeing its chickens come home to roost: Without feeling like they are alive right now society thinks young people have little reason to invest a notion of a future they aren’t creating.

The breakthrough in thought I’m experiencing today has to do with the reality that opposes that disparaging thought. We all have to oppose that idea. After years of hearing they needed to do something to make the world a better place, youth activated and formed the nucleus of a movement that is still growing. When the press came on to push youth volunteering throughout the communities they live, youth answered the call, spending more time serving than anyone expected. As progressive political candidates are increasingly validating the power of the youth vote more validity is given to their vote. American history is replete with these calls-to-action, including those from the Civil Rights Movement, during the Great Depression, throughout the Harlem Renaissance, back to the Civil War and earlier into the American Revolution. This shows us that youth have always answered the calls of their country.

I want to recreate the Freechild Project and SoundOut websites as one massive and blatant youth-boosting tool, supporting the real perspective that society doesn’t realize the value of young people and that there are exceptional examples from around the world, where children and youth are working throughout their world to create a new reality for everyone to share.

I would love to hear any suggestions for what such a tool could look like.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Exploring a Day In The Life

Imagine being 3 or 4 years old and invited to adult dances, singing and dancing with them through the night. When you’re 4 you dance in adult ballets – and even though you’re not particularly graceful or talented, you are still welcomed and applauded for your performances.

At 5 years old you practice archery everyday, playing cards and charades with your adult uncles and aunts, and family friends who are adults, too. The adults around you love fairies and fairy stories, and you do to, often listening to storytellers share tales until late at night. In crazy, large group games with those same adults, and others, you run crazy playing hide-and-seek, blindman’s bluff, and other games.

Sure, you do stuff that only kids do, like play with dolls and race your toys around the place. And you get disciplined, too, for refusing to eat dinner. But generally adults let you participate in all the adult activities going on around you – not as an oddity or a plaything, but as a person.

Around the age of 7 you are encouraged to give up your toys and act more mature. You learn to gamble, ride horses, and hunt… and by 8 you become the king of France. This was the life of Louis the 13th, who took full control over his country when he was 15.

We don’t often hear the stories of historical figures whose lives seem so different than ours. But I think there are lessons buried inside these tales, lessons that we can and should learn from. Let’s consider some of the points in Louis’ story: He was allowed to be a child when he was a child. He was encouraged to take responsibility as he grew up – albeit, at the age of 8, but that works for some people. He fully interacted with adults as a peer, and not just as a puppet or puppy. He was afforded opportunities for self-realization within his social circles. Not to say it was all roses, or anything near that, but again, there are lessons in there.

I’m going to be writing about the history of children and youth for a little while, so bear with me. This Wednesday I’m going to beautiful Wenatchee, Washington, to work with a group of teachers, and I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that, too. But in the meantime, if you’re interested, I’m working from the following books about the history of young people:

  • Childhood in America by Paula Fass and Mary Ann Mason. Explores popular and not-so-popular conceptions of how and why young people are treated the ways they are. This book summarizes what the ideas have been and examines where we’re headed.
  • The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein. A scientific study of how the notion of adolescence damns youth, challenging conceptions about the limitations and inabilities of young people by showing a different reality.
  • Teenagers: An American history by Grace Palladino. This is a great history that focuses on how marketers created the concept of “youth” to sell crap to young people and adults.
  • Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantalize adults and swallow citizens whole by Benjamin Barber. An intense book that says we’re still getting sold.
  • Childhood by Chris Jenks. An academic treatise that pulls together diverse thought to forward a comprehensive notion of what the phenomenon of childhood means today.
  • Generations: The history of America’s future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe. This book shows the long view of how children and youth have been treated, and why they are seen the ways they have been.
  • The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine. Another thorough examination of how young people got to where they are in our society, and why our society sees them as so valuable to everything around us.

As you can see, I’m concerned about two things here: What the collective histories of children and youth are, and why those histories have come to be what they are. Unfortunately they are very American-centric – but its a start. In my work with Freechild and SoundOut over the last 8 years I have made a lot of assumptions about the inherent goodness and “evil”ness of society’s treatment of children and youth; now I want to break those myths in my mind, because they aren’t true. Come on – let’s see what’s out there!

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Why We Can’t Wait

In 2000 I was working as the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction‘s Youth Ambassador position where I was responsible for coordinating the statewide essay contest for K-12 students focused on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also met Sasha Rabkin, who has worked for the Institute for Community Leadership for a long time. Between the contest and Sasha’s influence I became acutely aware of the power Dr. King had over the lifeblood of this nation, as well as people around the world. Beyond the mythologizing of King’s work, there is a deep power inside of his words and actions, and they resonated deeply in me.

The other thing that happened that year is that after spending a few years previous reading John Holt, Grace Llewellyn and Billy Upski, among others, I decided to become involved in the youth rights movement. That year I submitted a poem to be included on the National Youth Rights Association‘s website, and I named it after Dr. King’s 1963 book called Why We Can’t Wait.

Following is that poem, with a few revisions. There are strands about adultism, systemic oppression and alienation throughout. Another NYRA supporter felt moved enough to make a song from it a few years later. Let me know what you think of either one!

Why We Can’t Wait

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I look at the people around me
and see the prisons and traps
we are all stuck.
From an early age we are taught and trained:
sit still, hold on, walk (don’t run),
and be quiet.
Whatever you do, be quiet.

So we do. We go to polite schools or content jobs.
We type and read and feel nice.
Our hair is nice and our hearts are nice.
We live nice lives.

But what if…
what if we were shown the whole picture
from the first day?
What if they said
“Hey, when you’re poor, you’re screwed.
If you’re black, you’re facing an uphill road.
If you’re female, you’re up a creek.
Oh, yeah, and you’ll be young too!
Let’s not even go there!”

What if we could awaken all people to the chains that tie them down?
What if everyone saw that
we are responsible for holding ourselves down?
What if the message of systematic and deliberate oppression
was exposed and the entire society
– everyone everywhere-
saw that young people are
looked down upon,
frowned upon,
sat upon
and shat upon?

Then they become adults.
The world turns.
They start pooping on youth…
and the cycle continues.

We’ve gotta speak up, act up, and quit
putting up, giving up and settling down.

We cannot wait any longer.

Its time to get up, stand up, scream out loud and dream out loud.
We’ve gotta break outta the chains that hold us down.
We’ve gotta stand up for what is ours:
Freedom.
To earn, to learn, to speak, to serve.

We’ve gotta tie people together
instead of tearing them apart.
We’re taught that we’re not the same because we are
young and old
black and white
educated and ignorant
rich and poor.

But we’re the same.
And that’s why young people have got t be free.

No one is free until everyone is free. Free Youth Now.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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The Story Behind Freechild

New York City is home to a spectacular and burgeoning youth rights movement, and one of the leaders sent me an email the other day. She asked, “How did you come to be involved in youth rights, and what made you decide to put Freechild together? What originally got you inspired?” Following is my answer. Warning: This post is about my personal life, because this has always been a personal labor for me. If you don’t want to know, don’t read. Otherwise, welcome to some of the life of Adam.

I started getting paid to work with young people when I was 14. That year I was hired to teach in a summer drama program in Omaha, Nebraska based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

I had a great mentor for the next three summers, when I worked for the city’s foremost African American director who was called Edu Mahili. He was a radical activist who’d channeled his energy towards liberatory self-expression, and his effervescent charisma drew in some tough kids in the neighborhoods where we worked, and I became committed to working with young people for all my life. Over those same summers I worked at a camp teaching nature, and throughout the school year I struggled through classes and tried my damnedest to make sense of the schooling that was being done to me.

After I graduated from high school I wasn’t quite sure what my next steps were. I eventually got jobs running ropes challenge courses, teaching independent living skills to foster and homeless youth, monitoring the youth floor in a drug treatment center, and working as a full-time teacher/naturalist at a nature center in the Midwest. I spent three terms as an AmeriCorps Member, first putting together a mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi refugee students in Nebraska, then running a year-around ropes challenge course in the Pacific Northwest, then coordinating a service-learning program in Northern New Mexico. In that last placement I had a position in a federal government program intent on training the next generation of national service leaders.

As I was finishing that position I learned about The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where degree studies are self-driven, and I decided I needed to come here to finish my BA. I had attended six colleges up to that point, and had to more to go before graduating, but ended up earning my degree from TESC. Around 2000 I was running a city-funded youth center in Tumwater, Washington when I stumbled across Jonathan Holt’s Escape from Childhood in the local library. I immediately ingested several of his books, and while they didn’t really stick to my ribs the same way “Escape…” had, I became determined to proponent children’s rights as he called for them. I dug around the Internet and quickly became interested in NYRA and other online youth rights efforts. I quickly wanted to become involved in NYRA – especially since it seemed “newer” and fresher than other orgs.

That year I was hired by a national foundation based out of Washington, DC to proponent youth involvement in Washington state. They provided me with train-the-trainer training, along with a “reasonable” framework for advocating youth voice, focused primarily on service learning, youth councils and youth forums. Working out of this state’s education agency, I traveled around the state finding youth involvement that resonated with my personal experience, including low income youth, homeless kids, and young people of color. I found it – although it didn’t look like what I’d learned about. When I brought back examples of radical youth participation to this foundation I was told they were nice, but “not what we talk about.” Chagrined, I went back to the state ed agency.

In my spare time after work I worked with a group of friends from around the country to pull together The Freechild Project, so-named by a group of young people who I’d hooked up with here in Oly. They were focused on youth rights, and I wanted to tie together youth rights and youth involvement, so it felt like a logical fit. While that group fizzled after a few years, it supported a lot of the initial labor behind Freechild. My comrades in this work helped me a lot, too, encouraging me to expand my analysis further. With their guidance I quickly identified elements of familiarity among the youth rights, community youth involvement, student engagement, youth philanthropy, youth-led media, and hip hop movements. I started leading workshops in communities, conferences, youth orgs, and other places across the U.S. with financial support from the groups that hosted me. These events, along with regular emails, books sent in from authors and publishers, and my constant vigilance for developments across the Internet led to the rapid expansion of the Freechild Project website and helped me understand the breadth of youth power today. It still amazes me.
Eventually I started talking about youth involvement within the state ed agency. Why not have young people involved in the place that affects them everyday – schools and education leadership? They ended up hiring me as their first-ever “student engagement specialist,” and eventually I developed SoundOut from that work – but that’s a different story. Freechild continued to grow and expand because of my friends and the young people I keep meeting. Also, it has been great to get support from people like Henry Giroux, who is a serious academic who seriously supports Freechild and myself. Constant contact with individuals and organizations around the country and the world only encourages me, and I continue to want to grow Freechild further.

That’s how The Freechild Project was created, and where it is professionally sourced. My core inspiration? That goes a little further back still, past the career and swagger. My youngest years included homelessness and poverty, along with some bumpy school experiences that centered on the inability of teachers to reach me and my siblings, all of who were gifted learners who needed to be reached in specific ways that schools were incapable of doing. Along with that were experiences of trying to found an environmental club at my high school over 3 years, and having no reception from administrators or teachers at the school – despite participation from dozens of my peers and stated support from community members. There was volunteering for the food bank and local housing agency, and working as a janitor, warehouse worker, and roofer. There were crappy experiences of watching family and friends get swept away from school and our neighborhood and being thrown into jail, into parenting, the military, and minimum wage jobs where they still struggle. I wasn’t a ruffian looking to squabble on every block, but I was a rogue, a tagger and a smack-talker who tried a lot of different means to reach the ends. All those things inform my work still, and always will to some extent. And my struggle isn’t done: I have a 4 and 1/2 year old daughter, and she’s keeping me in check in a lot of ways – that’s for sure.

Note that this story stops right around 2002 – a lot has conspired since then. Feel free to ask more.

No Country for Young People

The United States is a backwards democracy. Rather than distributing the power to all of its citizens, it throws it into the hands of the few. Instead of bringing opportunities to the under-resourced, it lavishes chances upon those who already have access. In this post, I am concerned most with the reality that instead of engaging its youth in democracy, the US is most focused on engaging its middle-aged and seniors. That process is languishing.

For more than a century children and youth across the country have called for active roles: They have protested as suffragettes, lobbied in Congress, marched against child labor and sat in for civil rights. They have led Internet campaigns, political campaigns, Amnesty International campaigns and anti-war campaigns. While the adults who ally with them have been exceptional (Mother Jones, J.D. Salinger, Tom Hayden) the young people themselves have made huge strides for young people and for the communities they represent – even if they are unacknowledged for their contributions to society. When was the last time you heard of the American Army of Two, Joseph P. Lash, Barbara Rose Johns, Billy Wimsatt, Alex Koricknay Palicz or Tully Satre?

In the meantime there is growing international support for youth involvement, youth voice, youth activism and youth rights. Instead of being an occasional, one-off activity or an underfunded, underutilized grassroots movement, these efforts are systemic, operationalized and powerful. That’s not always good – but its a completely different place than exists in the United States.

Almost all of Europe has young people participating and represented by the European Youth Forum. In 2006 I talked with one of the founders when I was at a Brazilian youth conference in Sao Paulo. While he was older, it was awesome because he was one of the founders. Think of it: having opportunities for 50-year-olds to actively advocate for young people, youth rights, youth involvement and other issues all of their professional career. Even if that’s not attractive to you, what if it was just an option? The National Youth Council of Singapore is almost 20 years old; the Sangguniang Kabataan of the Philippines is more than 15 years old. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which acknowledges and extends all of the areas we’re interested in, has been signed into law by more than 190 countries around the world! As I’ve said before, the U.S. is one of two countries that haven’t signed it. This nation doesn’t really see Somalia as good company to be compared to in international relations , does it?!?

The United States is no country for young people, and that has to change.

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/2noYclH
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

And… I’m Back

Hey there kind readers. Just thought I’d let you know that these last few weeks have been full of transitions as I decided to move back to Olympia from New York. So I have wrapped up my work with Learner-Centered Initiatives, started a fellowship with Cloud Institute, donated all of my NYC furniture and drove solo back to Olympia over the last 3 1/2 days.

I am still determined to land work within another organization. Thoughts of consulting, writing and training fill my head like sugarplums in Xmas songs, but I just don’t see any “bread and butter” work coming through right now, so…

I’ve begun the job search here, and its interesting, to say the least. I’ve been labeled overqualified for several positions now, particularly in organizations that have training positions for their curricula. I think there’s concern about my allegiance to someone else’s work – but I’m not completely clear on that. On the other hand, the state jobs I’ve applied for, namely program manager-type work, has deemed me too inexperienced in handling large budgets or risk-management assessments. I did get back in time yesterday for an interview with a national organization based out of Portland where I could work here in the South South, so… we’ll see. If you know of any opportunities let me know.

Alas, I’m back on the corner, and that’s the important part for me. I am commited to raising my daughter in a healthy way, and in being close to the friends and community that have nurtured me so well. I am looking to reconnect and strengthen my relationships, so if any of my local hombres are up for tea let me know.

Special thanks to Margaret, Jimmy and Sue who all asked where my blogs are at – look for more soon. I’m thinking of touching on several risque topics within the next week – keep reading.

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