Telling It, a local nonprofit housed at the University of Michigan, sprouted from one person who simply wanted to do more.

London native Deborah Gordon-Gurfinkel spent a decade in San Francisco working with homeless youth and their families in shelters on a voluntary basis before moving to Ann Arbor. She used her training as a drama and education specialist in England to develop a method to help underserved children.

“When I moved to the Midwest, I was watching the Oprah Winfrey show one morning and it was one of those shows that (inspired me),” said Gordon-Gurfinkel. “I thought, ‘OK, what can I do?’ I thought back to my time in San Francisco and re-booted what I had been doing there and did it slightly differently, bringing in a bigger team of people with different arts disciplines that they could contribute. We started with SOS Community Services.”

About a year into the program, Gordon-Gurfinkel was invited to guest lecture a group of undergrads at the University of Michigan about her community work and then take the students into the field.

What was intended to be a temporary lecture series turned into a full-time course, which she still teaches today at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, titled “Empowering Community Through the Arts.”

Leisa Thompson Photography: Deborah Gordon-Gurfinkel leads an exercise

Telling It was born in 2002, and what began as a program with a literacy focus changed entirely after she and her team noticed a pattern children from Ozone House were demonstrating during their sessions.

“What we were noticing is that both the younger children and the teenagers at Ozone House weren’t responding to the program as if it were a literacy program,” she said. “They were starting to reveal and share very deeply personal trauma stories -- and quite often we were finding that the social workers from the partnering organizations were hearing things that they hadn’t heard before.”

Since then, Telling It has evolved into a trauma-informed after school program for underserved children in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

“We always still have a literacy part to it,” said Gordon-Gurfinkel. “(But) we’re a lot more intentional now about that therapeutic support. The class has evolved (and) Telling It has grown. We have a staff, our whole pedagogy is really informed in trauma-informed social work, best practices from social work and education filtered through the expressive arts.”

Gordon-Gurfinkel trains her staff, students and community volunteers before they go on site. At each session, a site leader and a social worker are on hand.

Telling It partners with six local sites, including the Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Community Middle School, and Avalon Housing sites Carrot Way and Pauline Community Center in Ann Arbor.

Its weekly sessions typically last 90 minutes and include music, rap, throw downs and games, all designed with literacy and therapeutic components in mind.

But what makes Telling It unique is it is youth-driven.

Leisa Thompson Photography

“If something happened in the community, if something happened that they bring in and we need to now just forget the whole plan -- we need to look at why there’s this conflict,” said Gordon-Gurfinkel. “It’s totally youth-driven. Whoever comes into the center that day, they’re who participates. They can leave halfway through or if they aren’t feeling it that day, it’s totally fine.

“There should always be aspects of a child’s life that they feel are in their control. Even with children who are in the program and they’re having an off day, but they don’t want to leave, they might just be on their phones, they’re still in the space. They’re still engaged.”

When asked what she’s observed as having the biggest impact on the kids, Gordon-Gurfinkel replied, “I think we’re very clear that we have no censorship on language, other than hate language. There’s no judgment. They say it’s a place to be themselves. They can learn self-knowledge and knowledge of others. And they get introduced to art forms and experiences and people from all over the world. They’re really seen, they’re really heard and they’re not judged. And I think that’s a big deal.”

She and her staff will intervene if a student talks about something they want to perpetrate that could affect their safety or the safety of others, but everything else that is said stays in the room.

In the end, it’s a mindset that Gordon-Gurfinkel believes is the key to successfully engaging youth who have experienced trauma.

“I tell my U-M students, we’re not in the business of giving or saving or helping,” she said. “None of those words apply to what we do. We’re listening, we’re learning, we’re not preaching and teaching, we’re building rapport. We come with humility and an enormous amount of gaps in our knowledge. And the experts are always the people we’re serving: the children and the community members.”

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