Teresa Gunn and the Bridge from the Mean Streets to a Street of Dreams

by on July 11, 2012 · 3 comments

in City Heights: Up Close & Personal, Culture

Street of Dreams Spoken Word Concert
7:00 pm  Friday July 13
Seville Theater  San Diego City College
1450 C Street  San Diego CA 92101
Donation at door

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives—the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it at times—truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.  Salman Rushdie, novelist

City Heights resident Teresa Gunn is a songwriter, a singer and an activist.  She knows about the power of stories to connect us to each other and to lost and hidden parts of ourselves.  Above all, she knows that our stories can heal us.

Through some still unknown fluke of fate or perhaps divine providence, Teresa was invited to teach a songwriting workshop at a homeless school in San Diego in the mid 90′s.  She was back in town after a successful career as a rock and roll singer with her own band in the Baltimore/Washington DC area.  What more could a kid who grew up in Imperial Beach during the 60’s possibly want out of life than to have her own rock n roll band?  That homeless workshop provided a completely unexpected answer.

Teresa fell in love with her students, with their honesty and their desire to find their own voice.  These kids were at risk of falling out of society completely, of being swallowed up by our bloated criminal justice system.   If her music and stories could take her across the country and back again, she had no doubt that if her students were given the chance to make art, to tell their own stories, they could find an escape from being one more statistic of the generational poverty, addiction and incarceration that threatened their lives.

In 1998 Teresa founded the Street of Dreams. She started working with the court system here to develop a college prep arts and music education program that would enable teen mothers age 12 to 18 who were wards of the court or trapped in the juvenile justice system to graduate from high school and enroll in college.  She has had an astounding 100% success rate.  It is worth repeating– 100% of her students have graduated from high school.  100% of her students have enrolled in college.  And they are all young mothers.

What does it mean when a child is a ward of the court?   These are children whose families cannot care for them because of poverty, addictions, parental incarceration or because the family itself is in a state of homelessness that endangers the lives of the children.   It is an incorrect assumption that all of these children are guilty of criminal wrongdoing, although some of them are, but being a ward of the state also means that these kids have the highest risk of going to prison themselves.  They have been abandoned. Abused.  And nearly destroyed.

It is a testimony to Teresa’s unwavering commitment and the astounding resiliency and hope of these young women that their dark past is transformed into their greatest creative asset.   As Teresa continued to refine the program she realized that it was the spoken word, the opportunity for her students to simply speak from the heart, that was the most powerful and accessible tool at their disposal.

My name is Sylvia (name changed)

My age is 15

My challenge is to recover from my gunshot wounds

My dream is to survive.

Every new class begins with an acknowledgement in front of your peers of your name, your age, your challenge and your dream.  Just those things.  Over the course of the semester the raw experiences of shame, isolation and powerlessness are reinterpreted through music, art, poetry and performances.  The story changes as each  participant exerts fuller control and direction over her personal narrative and imagines the person she can be.

MY FUTURE
I have seen my own future
And this is what it looks like
Own my own home
White mustang…nice car
Love my job…
I have been hurt….but I made it!
My son is a successful man
I sit in a classroom…face to face… with a child who everyone believes has no future
I am a teacher…
I use to have…fucked up days…fucked up nights
But in the end…it all turned out OK
Nice bright sunny day …my son playing football…
Soft music playing…lots of money in the bank…
Happy…happiness…handfuls of joy…
People in my life are proud of me…
For now, I live by days…today will speak for my future…
A cozy home, wraparound porch …family…
Someone finally gave me a chance…
My husband tells me he had a hard day…
Our daughter comes home from elementary school…my child…the only one
My husband of many years works in a dusty town…
We are creating a future one pipe, one nail, one board….at a time
Fall asleep next to him, comfortable…
I have seen my own future…
And this is what it looks like…
Peace…..
June 15, 2012
Lindsay School
Group Poem

The young mothers who collaborated on that poem have all graduated from high school and they are all on their way to college.   A third to one half of these students are our kids, from City Heights.  Few of us know their stories.  This Friday’s spoken word concert is an opportunity to hear those stories and be reminded yet again that our lives are built upon a street of dreams.

photo of Teresa Gunn

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Anna Daniels

I left a moribund Western Pennsylvania mill town the year that Richard M. Nixon was impeached for crimes against the American people, and set off in search of truth, beauty, justice and a beat I could dance to. Here I am.
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Mercedes Fuller July 12, 2012 at 9:52 am

Wonderful article, well written and straight to the point of why Street of Dreams is so successful and long lasting. As a former Ward of the Court in the SD County Juvenile Justice system in the late sixties, I also experienced much of what these young ladies experience; however, things seemed to be much simpler back when I was a troubled teen on San Diego’s streets AND beaches! Young people in general have so much more to contend with nowadays, but… to be female, a minor and on the streets with a child or children? I couldn’t even imagine going through what I went through with a child to take care of, and these young ladies do it every day!

Teresa’s dedication to these young women, as well as to her commitment to keep this organization running for their benefit, is admirable, and I look forward to continuing to be a part of it along with her many San Diego supporters, for a long, long, long time!

Mercedes Fuller

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avatar Anna Daniels July 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Mercedes- thanks so much for taking the time to comment. The Street of Dreams is the beginning of each of the young participant’s story, not the end. I asked Teresa about what happens when these young moms go to college. Teresa described the difficulties of maintaining a supportive environment, the challenge of finding childcare and affordable housing. And every year Teresa brings back a participant who has graduated from college and a number of them have been artists in residence with the program.
The San Diego Free Press ( Contact@SanDiegoFreePress.org) invites contributions from these women. We need to hear the rest of their stories.

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avatar micaela shafer porte July 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm

beautiful thoughts, power to you, young women, your words speak of our whole collective future, and you are the guardians, from where ever you may come, whatever hardships have forged you, you are the future so cling to your dreams and fight for them, as any man has ever fought any war…. thank you for the future of humanity, you are the mothers, you have the power to form the next generation…
and all who help along your (our) ways…thank you

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