by David S. Jackson for The New Orleans Tribune
For three hours once a month, children, teenagers, and a few parents meet at the Harmony Oaks Community Center to talk, heal and explore their feelings. A normal session will start with music from the Billboard charts, food, role playing and icebreakers.
It might seem like fun and games, but it is serious business. During this time, the young participants are allowed to express themselves freely with no judgment from the outside.
The Social Set fosters an open atmosphere where the words “no” and “that’s wrong” are not used as youth express how they feel. Lyndon Jones says the ability for them to work through their issues without fear of punishment, shame or insults is a part of the allure.
“We wanted to give them a space where it is safe to be wrong,” says Jones. “You don’t know what you’re learning until you’re done. We put in a critical thinking component so kids can examine their actions, ‘Why are you about to curse the teacher out? Why are you about to hurt someone?’ The goal is for them to see themselves in everyday interaction to help them understand and show empathy and to see themselves and those around them as human. You can be confused, but not revert to anger. We give them honest feedback on how to manage their emotions.”
The Social Set is the signature program Jones’ non-profit organization About F.A.C.E. (About Family and Community Engagement), which helps at-risk youth learn and use coping skills to safely navigate the world around them. Jones spent time working in prison re-entry programs, schools, and Boys and Girl’s clubs before launching his program.
“The Social Set was just a program in 2015 that I started with just a few friends that had a like-minded spirit. After working with so many young people who were having a hard time in life, I saw a lack of social skills,” says Jones. “It was really about their ability to manage and merge competing feelings. When they grow up, if they can’t manage these feelings in a safe way it can become very problematic.”
Helping young people process and display empathy, while humanizing others, especially authority figures, is a key part of The Social Set formula.
Helping at-risk youth face the challenges and trauma in their own lives could lead to less violence throughout the city, Jones says.
While crimes by young people have been increasing since the pandemic, incidents of carjacking in New Orleans reached its apex with the dragging death of 73-year-old Linda Frickey on March 21.
Jones says he is convinced that crimes like this occur when young people have poor critical thinking skills and when they don’t see themselves and others as valuable human beings.
Zana Lidell, who is a mother of four, feared for her son’s life after he was caught purchasing a gun as a teenager. She credits “The Social Set” as one of the main reasons that her son pivoted instead of going further down the wrong path.
“I’ve always had trouble with him in school,” says Lidell. “I started him with the program and I felt like it would help because it was going to give him social skills. Outside of the class, Mr. Lyndon took a lot of time with him. I feel like if it weren’t for him he wouldn’t be where he is. Now as an adult, he works every day. I didn’t lose him to the streets.”
Lidell says programs like Social Set can be life-altering, especially for parents like her—single mothers who are their family’s sole financial support, with work and school schedules that often do not leave a lot of time for much else.
“We lose so much (by working),” says Lidell. “There are so many kids going down the drain. I saw him going in that direction. After his incident, I called the police. My next call was to Mr. Lyndon.”
With her son headed in the right direction, Lidell now works as the family outreach coordinator with About F.A.C.E., communicating with and encouraging other families in the program to raise awareness and increase participation.
Nurturing, Not Judging
Jones says he believes that the issues that Black youth and their parents are facing many of the same issues—issues stemming from feeling unseen and unheard. That is why he also stresses making the Social Set a judgment free zone for parents as well.
“Nurturing has not been part of our DNA in this country. We were taught this happened to us and now get over it. We are now starting to display our emotions in ways that we have not done in generations. It has not been culturally acceptable for us to freely talk about our feelings. We have so many people that have experienced trauma and don’t even see it as trauma. We joke about it. We make light of it and we make the best of it. We’re now at the point where we can talk about it.”
Many leading scholars agree with Jones’ assessment. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, urban African-American children are at an unusually high rate of stress.
“Those in racially and economically segregated communities are more likely than children in other communities to live in poverty, to be placed in foster or substitute care, to be exposed to both familial and community violence, to lose a loved one to violent death, to have a family member incarcerated, to experience contacts with police and the justice system, or to become homeless. When children are physically injured, witness violent episodes, or have friends or loved ones who have been killed or injured, they must then every day navigate streets that are constant reminders of traumatic events,” wrote Brad Stolbach in his study on Urban African Americans under stress.
Untreated depression is an issue that comes up frequently in his program. But Jones say when Social Set youth were asked what constituted depression, many says they identified as people who were “overweight, had poor body language and projected sadness.”
“I introduced everyone to a beautiful dancer. Everyone was energized. The energy was magic. The little girls were drawn to her and clung to her. The parents told me they had never seen their daughters respond that way. Then she shared her battle with depression with them. We gave them a human connection with an adult that for all intents and purposes seemed perfect on the outside.”
Jones says that his program has been helpful for dozens of kids, but it should not be viewed as a cure-all for problems.
“The Social Set won’t remove your pain,” remarked Jones. “But, we can teach you how to deal with that pain and navigate your world in a way that will make you a better version of yourself.”
For more information about About Face or to learn more about joining The Social Set as a volunteer mentor, parent or student participant, visit www.about-facenola.org or about_face_nola on Instagram, call 504-662-7463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.