Andrea Winninghoff is venturing where few brave souls dare to tread—into the lives of teenagers. “Society consistently sends the message to teenagers that they’re to be tolerated,” says Winninghoff. And you could say that’s on a good day when they’re not being outright disdained. In her mind, all teenagers—no matter their race, socioeconomic background or culture—experience a form of oppression that keeps them silent. She’s working to change that.
By day Winninghoff is office manager for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS); off hours, she runs a program for youths at the Rainier Community Center. She calls it digital storytelling. She uses a variety of media to encourage teenagers to find their voice, express themselves and feel validated for who they are. She started the program last summer and has taught two sessions so far. She is now trying to raise money to continue the good work she has begun.
Despite conventional wisdom, Winninghoff believes teenagers have a lot to offer. “There’s no rage more powerful than a teenager’s. There’s no passion more powerful than a teenager’s. I want kids to understand that it’s not only okay, but it’s healthy to be complicated. That’s a gift you bring to society.”
There’s a personal side to this as Winninghoff has a teenage son of her own. “I think he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met in my life. I love him as a teenager.”
Winninghoff has brought to this role a strong commitment to social justice—which in fact was her major in college. What she didn’t bring was any teaching experience to speak of, and she began the program with some trepidation. “I thought to myself, ‘What kind of fire am I jumping into?’ I felt like a total imposter and there was a lot of flailing around, trying it out as it goes.”
She seems to be figuring it out. Some of her students appeared at an SU event hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs last fall. It was clear from their very moving stories that the program is working.
To get students to open up, Winninghoff poses a series of writing prompts with questions such as “Tell me about your home” or “Tell me about the person your closest with” or “Tell me about a time when you expressed prejudice.” Once the floodgates are open, look out. “I had one student tell me that he didn’t really have anything to say. It turned out he had too much to say but didn’t know where to begin.”
Winninghoff sees congruence between her day job and her volunteer work with teens. “I’m always rooting for the underdog,” she says, “and SU’s mission is something I can really get behind.”