Mentoring: The Circle’s Recent Work With Students In Homeless Shelters

By Harold Goldberg

During the course of the next few weeks, I’ll have some stories to tell you. I want to detail the latest work of the New York Videogame Critics Circle in underserved communities such as the Bronx and the Lower East Side during the pandemic.

First, you may know that the Circle produced a fantastically successful fundraising podcast for young people in homeless shelters with Board member and former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé. This began as quick idea I had. Some of these work and some don’t. Reggie agreed a podcast was important to create in the sad era of a pandemic that became the important time of Black Lives Matter. Within a couple of weeks our quick-working team had streamed our first episode.

Reggie’s participation not helped me to raise funds with a new, social justice-oriented purpose. (Confession: I do not like raising funds. As a journalist who is generally introspective, it does not come naturally. But it had to be done, and I did it with enthusiasm. Fans chipped in via GoFundMe, too, which is still active. Thank you!) This allowed the Circle’s message of giving back to go beyond New York City. In fact, our public relations team reports that the online media alone garnered nearly one billion impressions across the country and the world. One hundred outlets covered the podcast in detail. Making a weekly podcast was difficult, but in retrospect, it was the easy part.

Within the supportive housing structure itself, our mission was challenging from the moment we began. One of the hard and fast rules of Circle mentoring is that we need a social worker or educator on the ground who loves games and can impart that enthusiasm to the students in the class. They don’t have to know the history of games and they don’t have to know writing about games – or even writing. But they need that passion to bring in students with complex needs and, yes, emotional issues.

On the day we started, the social worker associated with our group, a person who really loves the industry, began another job at another network of shelters. (Please note that the Circle is holding back on the names of the shelters, the social workers and especially the students to protect their privacy.) The social worker who replaced him was smart and nice, but they knew little about games – including rudimentary knowledge such as charging a Nintendo Switch. Isaac Espinosa, a senior intern who’s been with us since his high school years and is now an assistant mentor, was a star on the ground as we taught our course about games and journalism. Masked up and gloved up, Isaac would do tech support if there was an issue, traveling from his home in the Bronx to the shelter across the borough. While the social worker was engaged, they did not learn about games. In addition, they had so much more work to do beyond our workshop. But if a console we donated was not charged by our group, it wasn’t always charged for the class.

We taught well and successfully for six weeks. We were honored to teach an affable group of girls between the ages 9 and 13. There was a learning curve on my part because these young people were the youngest group the Circle has ever mentored. But I tweaked the curriculum and made it attractive to a more youthful group. The girls learned about indie games, like “Florence” and its strong message of empowerment, and big games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” and its message of camaraderie on a generally idyllic island.

We had pizza in the common room at the shelter. We had free play time. And the students learned how to critique games. They also were immersed in the history of journalism as well, including the first Black newspaper in New York City and the first Latinx newspaper. We had a day in which we looked at Kobe Bryant’s contributions to games – and popular culture. That day (along with two days of playing “Florence”) went over really well. I had interviewed Kobe at one of the NBA All-Star games, and relied on that deep, open talk to detail the man as legend and human who gave back.

The lack of games knowledge on the social worker’s part didn’t come into play until week six of the course.  The Department of Housing Services shut down the common area and everyone was confined to their units for the foreseeable future. Isaac wasn’t allowed to teach the kids as a group, and I couldn’t teach them virtually quite as well as I had been doing when they were in a group together. The living units are small and as many as eight family members are confined in that small space as well. So privacy for a class or even gameplay is limited. When the Switches weren’t charged for class, the students became understandably frustrated. We finished the course and made the mutual decision to move to another shelter where Housing Services hadn’t shuttered a common area.

During those first six classes, however, the students created some thoughtful early to mid-course writing work, however. We’ll showcase these works in another column.

The great news is that we’ll begin this new course as soon as fall arrives. And with new social justice-oriented games becoming available soon, we’re excited about the possibilities. We’ll have a new course ready with a new social worker who loves games in a common area where kids can play and learn together.  We’ll donate consoles. We’ll practice social distancing. We’ll write. We’ll have some pizza. We’ll play and, most importantly, we’ll learn things about each other through writing as we voraciously indulge in the interactive medium.

Students of color dependent upon supportive housing already have complex family challenges. We’ll bring them some optimism. We’ll teach them some life skills. And they’ll have the opportunity to consider whether they enjoy games and/or journalism enough to make one a life’s calling. If they make that decision, the New York Videogame Critics Circle will be there for them throughout high school and through college with internships, courses and scholarships.  When they’re done with college, we’ll help them get jobs in the games or journalism world.

We have a long-term commitment to underserved youth, to those who aren’t cared about by the game or journalism industries and are unknown to them as a whole. We’re going to change that. That’s our hope. That’s our goal. That’s the work that needs to be done.

Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the president and founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards.

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