Coming Of Age In America

Our Fourth Platform develops special after-school programs to engage junior-high school students who are at risk or come from low-income or poverty environments. The goal is to develop creative models that reach youth at a critical stage in their lives when they are developing their own self-awareness, identities and values. Our programs involve mentoring, community and civic engagement, and other models all focused on providing students with a safe and supportive space to become successful citizens.

We have partnered with the Maine Youth Alliance better known as "The Game Loft" in Belfast, Maine which has a highly successful 20 years of experience in creative educational and mentoring programs for such youth. We currently have two major programs in operation that span three levels of mentoring.

All of our programs are grounded in eight keys of Positive Youth Development: safety, belonging, self-worth, independence, relationships, achievement, recognition. These keys foster a belief that a young person has a future and success in life is possible no matter their current circumstances or social-economic-racial status.


I Know Me

The “I KNOW ME” program takes mentoring to the next level. It actively engages the youth in structured programs involving community volunteers that meet on a routine basis. Programming focuses on field trips, educational enrichment, helping youth become comfortable with themselves and others, non-electronic games, conversation, decision-making, and travel. Participants explore Maine from the mountains to the seashore and learn about the people, places and things in their own backyards and in the rest of the state. The program works closely with the local school staff and teachers to provide academic enrichment and to support students at school, home, and in the community. The program is restricted to 10 youth per co-hort so that each receives individual attention and support. A total of 60 youth are enrolled over a six-year period (the program begins in the 7th grade and extends through the 12th).

This program is being funded by the Emanuel & Pauline A. Lerner Foundation. A Year Three Interim Evaluation has been conducted by the University of Southern Maine.


Game Loft1

The major focus is on introducing the importance of values in shaping not only the individual lives of the students, but in understanding the challenges they will face in their future life and their communities. In essence, the focus might be stated as addressing three major questions: What does it mean to be an American? What core values shape our nation and will shape our future? Who is an American?

The program uses historic role-playing models as the principle tool for engaging students. We have found that students learn best by “living history” rather than being “lectured on history.” The historical events are real but set in fictionalized settings. Such a fictionalized setting is important to move the game from being simply play acting an actual event to confronting real life moral decisions in an historical setting. The game model is built off of the Dungeons and Dragons game of fame and fortune but moving from a confrontational game to a game requiring interaction and participation by the players. And placing the issue in a game model framework, rather than a formal teaching or lecturing class-room approach, really engages the youth. They have playing games built into their “DNA” and readily embrace this approach.

The historic based game identifies real events that surface major moral and ethical choices. There is no “right answer” and no “winner take all.” The values that surface are termed “core values” that have shaped our nation in its past and will shape our nation in its future. We have built into our games what we term a “value tension model” consisting of eight values: law, ethics, freedom, equality, unity, diversity, private wealth, common wealth.

All of these values have different meanings to different people. We have debated since our founding the meaning and significance of these values as well as their legitimate sources. They are frequently viewed as being in tension, such as: law vs. ethics, freedom vs. equality, diversity vs. unity, private wealth vs. common wealth. How those tensions were played out in our past has shaped our present. And how those tensions are played out as we confront current critical issues will shape our future.

How does all of this work in our mentoring program? A case in point tells the story.


The year is 1856. The site is a fictional created Norumbega County in coastal Maine. In fact, this is the name that early English settlers gave to the current area of Belfast, Maine, a small fishing town on the Atlantic Coast. This is the town where the young actors in the Coming of Age program live. The setting. Slavery is prevalent in the south, but not in Maine. However, the nation has passed the Fugitive Slave Act making it illegal to protect a runaway slave and requiring that any such slave found in the north must be returned to slavey in the south. The issue: A large barrel is cast from a passing ship into the harbor and is immediately spotted by some of the young residents. One is named Peter. His real name is Josiah. His story:

JOSIAH: “I am a home-schooled high school sophomore participating in the Coming of Age in America (COA) program, an after-school historical role playing game. This year we are in the years leading up to the Civil War. My character is Peter Joseph Taylor Jr., a young man working at his family’s dry-goods store. In our fictional Norumbega County there was an unexpected stop on the Underground Railroad. A schooner dropped off a barrel marked “dry goods.” Peter Taylor and his friends, seeing as they were curious teenagers, hauled in the barrel and opened it to find a young escaping slave crammed inside.

This was astonishing for us. He was rather vague about his history and wouldn’t tell us his name, so we named him Ishmael after Abraham’s son in the Bible. We were then burdened (as character actors in the game) with decisions about what to do. My character Peter was in favor of hiding Ishmael as were some other members of the group. Some characters were less enthusiastic. Robbie McLines (a character in the game) thought that what was happening was illegal and tried to report us. His effort to obey the law failed due to the fact that no wanted ads had been placed for a missing “Ishmael.” His tip was ignored.

Things changed when a wanted ad did show up offering a reward of $200 for the slave’s return. Two hundred dollars was a mind blowing and life changing amount of money for our young characters. Peter was not the only one to feel his resolve crumbling. However we stayed strong against temptation and successfully moved “Ismael” from hiding place to hiding place eventually stowing him away on a boat to Canada.”

RAY ESTABROOK: founder and co-director with his wife Patricia of The Game Loft. “This game was inspired by the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who escaped by having himself, with some help, shipped by Adam’s Express from Virginia to Philadelphia. Also in the 1850’s a runaway on board a vessel in Belfast Harbor caused an uproar in the community. When our runaway arrived in a barrel there is only one outright abolitionist family in the community. By the end of the adventure, most of the community has been radicalized by their reaction to the government’s attempt to enforce the law and return the slave to his owners. It was intended in the design of our role-playing game that the slave is first discovered by the kids who are the decision makers in the story. The older cast (known as non-play characters) are scripted to educate the players about the Fugitive Slave Law. The player characters are confronted with a moral choice about how to proceed as Josiah explains. The adventure has a number of outcomes depending on the player characters’ choices and actions ranging from successfully finding a way to get “Ishmael” to Canada to putting the slave in jail and returned to Virginia. They have voice and choice in the story and the outcomes are not pre-determined.”

REV. DR. DUNCAN D. NEWCOMER:principal advisor on values and moral/ethical choice to the Game Loft programs. “As I first watched how these young actors were entering into the game, I could see how the values that were dividing the United States at the time were becoming dominant in their imaginary lives. I could see where history was going to take them. But because I have read the history and most of these young students have not, I could also see where their identified characters were going to be taking them. It was almost mystical to see fate in progress. It was heartening to know that this experience would be remembered by these students as a case study of values-in-history being lived, really lived.

They will more than just think that these issues are continuing in America today and nothing can be done. They will feel that they have been there before. They will also see how the role they experienced in this program may not be the value role they want to play in contemporary America. But they will know from their experience how differing Americans have formed different values and taken different actions in other times and other places. Because they have ‘been there’ they will have a memory that creates tolerance and understanding.”

RAY ESTABROOK: bottom-line. “This is what we call a Coming of Age moment. That moment when a young adult makes the transition from being passive spectator to active participant. That moment when their personal life intersects with the larger drama of our national history. Young people have an intuitive understanding of this moment as they are facing this threshold experience in their own lives. Quote: The universal plots of myths deal specifically with threshold moments in which the characters must face their own fears and weaknesses, transcend the folly of youth, and reemerge into the society with newly developed skills and a sense of responsibility.”


Socila Justice Resource Center

The Social Justice Resource Center was established to serve as an incubator for new ideas and approaches to achieving a more just and equitable nation an society. Clearly, the challenge of achieving this is daunting. Especially when we are living in a time of extremes. Extremes in the distribution of income and wealth. Extremes in our climate. Extremes in racial and sexual relations. Extremes in our politics. Extremes in proposed policies. Extremes in about any aspect of our society as one can image.

Social Justice is a broad concept that embraces a range of justice related issues: Legal Justice, Economic Justice, Political Justice, Distributive Justice, Racial Justice, Sexual Justice. The list goes on. Each issue of justice opens the door to alternative policies and programs. But how do we determine which ones are desirable and worthy of pursuit? Which ones will ameliorate extremes and move us closer to achieving a just society? Indeed, how do we define such a society?

That is the essential task of our Social Justice Resource Center. To ferret out the winners from the losers. To do so we have established three major areas of focus: Mentoring Youth, Civic Debate and Engagement, and Creative Programs.


Well before the Social Justice Center was established, The Game Loft had developed mentoring programs and the historic role-playing game model based on well-established research. What we did in our resource center is expand those programs and models to incorporate our value tension model and build into the mentoring youth programs, especially the Coming of Age in America program, a much stronger role for value-based conflict resolution. We did this not only in more clearly stating the issues to be addressed in the role-playing game itself, but actually participating in the game as character actors and as supporting mentors.


We have taken our standard model for civic debate and engagement which is the Idea of America Seminar debating our core values and their expansion over time to be more inclusive into new forms and new arenas. For example, we have integrated role-playing models into seminars involving young students from the Game Loft programs into adult seminar participants in the Senior College at Belfast. This interaction of youth with adults in a role-playing program was very successful. The adults really got into the act of role-playing and experiencing learning history by living history. The youth really connected with the adults and felt that they were being viewed as “equals” and were respected for what they brought to the discussions and debates. In our Resource Center we attempt to define new and engaging models for civic debate and civic action on our core values and how those values are played out in real time on current issues and challenges in our communities and our nation.


Our creative program development focuses on art and literature as the means by which individuals and communities tell the story of what it means to be an American. The creative expression of ideals and experiences and challenges in our society by artists and writers is very important in our search for social justice. We have developed and pilot tested several programs to do so. Two in particular.

One focused on using literature as a way of understanding American values and history. Using as our base a book written by political scientist Thomas E. Cronin Imaging a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America, the participants engaged in discussion and debate on conflicting values and social tensions in our society. The literature covered a broad range from novels of social protest like Richard Wright Native Son and Mark Twain The Gilded Age to others that deal with the machinery of politics itself like Joe Klein Primary Colors to novels dealing with the psychological effects of slavery such as Toni Morrison Beloved all of which move people to talk differently and in new ways about America and social justice.

The goal was to take the national political and racial conversation out of the headline news and social media into words and feelings, ideals and actions, that motivate people in real life to seek the common good, to be more empathetic of diversity and to seek social justice. This program was pilot tested in several setting, including a seminar held at the public library on Squirrel Island off the coast of Maine involving 50 participants to a group meeting at the Senior College in Belfast, Maine.

A second creative program involved young students, fifth graders to be exact, in an art/poetry/public presentation project. It was a project first encountered at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine entitled: “Stories of the Land and Its People: An Arts-Integrated School Initiative for Midcoast Maine.” Young students were given cameras to take pictures of their environment and write a simple statement of what they observed. This was exhibited at the museum.

We took that model and transformed it into a program we pilot tested in Napa Valley, California involving over 100 students in several elementary schools. The participants were given cameras and instructed by professional photographers on how to use the camera for capturing the land and its people in Napa Valley as an art form. Students took up to 20 photos which were then given to the professional photographers to select the “best three.” The students were then asked to select the one photo which they felt best expressed their environment of land and its people and write a poem expressing their feeling and emotions. Professional writers/poets worked with the students in writing their poem.

Their photos and poems were then enlarged and shown on a large screen in a local college with the students reading their poems to a public gathering of family and community in the auditorium at the Center for Performing Arts on campus. This was the first time the students had ever spoken in public, but they were coached in doing so by speech professionals. Their photos and poems were then displayed at a special exhibit at the Napa Valley Museum and later at the headquarters of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. This project received statewide news coverage. Note: The student participants were two-thirds Latino.

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