My first Game Theory assignment landed me at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center for an unforgettable experience! We visited the facility in August in an effort to promote Game Theory’s fall opportunities for youth who would be released, and also just to introduce the basics of decision-making. The topic was definitely fitting, since the kids we were speaking with have clearly made some questionable decisions in their lives. I understood what I was walking into, but reality didn’t truly set in until we entered the actual cell blocks. It felt surreal to see such young faces behind those tiny cell windows.
We met with two very different groups of young men. The first group (I’ll call them the wild bunch) was extremely disruptive but we pressed on and were able to get through our initial activity of having them complete a decision tree, first about rapper Tupac Shakur’s life and then one about their own life.
The activity revealed that each and every kid knew the difference between right and wrong. However, I’m not that naïve to the fact that these kids have very few positive images or role models in the communities from which they come. They are just responding and living their lives based off what they know and see every day.
After the activity, I shared some personal stories about my life, along with how I “hustle” the right way. I am currently an instructor with Game Theory Academy, a credit and money management counselor with Operation Hope, an adjunct business professor at ITT Technical Institute and lastly, a financial planner. They all knew what it meant to hustle, but all of their responses involved illegal activities.
Near the end of our session, one young man had this defeated look on his face. He shared how he was being treated at the center. He was clearly disturbed and didn’t feel like anyone cared to see him do better. I referenced the decision tree activity and simply said he’s got to make a decision to do better and change his outlook of his life. He, at some point, is going to have to grow up and start making decisions that will net him more positive outcomes. Mind you, he is only 16 years old. Will he or any of the others accept the challenge I issued? I will probably never get that answer.
The next day, the wild bunch was back and they were definitely more respectful this time around. I introduced the Table Topics (impromptu speaking) activity, similar to the one that’s done in Toastmasters International meeting. This would allow the kids to have the “floor” and give them time to shine, just like any leader would have to do if they were running a business. I immediately had numerous volunteers. The first young man’s speech went off like a charm and then we proceeded to the next one. The wild bunch, holding true to its name, got wild: A small scuffle broke loose between two of the students while the second speaker was giving his speech, thus ending our session far earlier than expected. Many of the kids were furious because our session was cut short, and they had to go back into their cells.
The second group we worked with was way more subdued. Definitely night and day compared to the first class. Numerous kids volunteered to speak, and a few of them were familiar with Toastmasters and knew that filler words (um, uh, like) were frowned upon in public speaking. We even had a few participants who volunteered to speak twice! After the activity, one of the kids asked a question about CD’s (certificates of deposit) and whether or not that was a good investment. That question sparked a 20-minute conversation about money. We talked about banks, investment firms, savings accounts, investments, risk, the stock market, mutual funds, inflation, etc. I was impressed by their curiosity and really wanted to drive home the point that they could make an endless amount of money in this world…legally. I challenged them to really think about doing positive things and making millions, as opposed to making those millions illegally. Plus, it’s just safer that way and it won’t land them back in the “system”.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the juvenile center and I look forward to the opportunity to make another visit.