Our Founder

Richard Gold founded Pongo, created the Pongo Method, and served as Pongo’s executive director for 25 years, volunteering his time until his retirement on, July 1, 2020. Richard was Pongo’s program leader, an educator, an innovator, a change agent, a mentor, an advocate for underserved youth, and an inspiration to all of us for how to truly listen to people in pain. Pongo would not be where it is today without his leadership, guidance, and passion. For that, and so much more, we are truly grateful. This page is dedicated to him.

May 12, 2020

Dear Pongo Community,

I have some news to share that is happy and celebratory, but I’ll try not to go on about it too much. There is too much suffering now from the COVID-19 crisis.

On July 1st I am retiring from Pongo after 25 years, with a full heart and much love. I am proud to have founded Pongo, developed our trauma-informed methodology, and led our programs that served 7,000 incarcerated, homeless, and hospitalized youth and adults. I know, however, that Pongo’s accomplishments are the product of the work, support, and encouragement of the Pongo community. The rationale for my retirement is simply this – It’s time. This summer when Pongo turns 25, I turn 72. I need the space to create my own healing poetry, to spend time with my family, to teach, and to write another book about Pongo. My retirement is a long-planned move. I discussed my intention with Pongo’s board three years ago, and officially resigned one year ago.

As I step back from Pongo, my strongest feeling is gratitude. I am honored that people have shared their important and difficult stories with me. These stories have changed me. Children have talked in detail about their abuse and included, through their tears, expressions of love and hope. Over time I have become more aware, more sensitive, more open, and much more the person I aspired to be.

The lessons of Pongo are deep and broad. Every person we work with, without regard to their debilitating histories or the stigma of their current circumstances, will speak openly and with insight, revealing their truest and most capable selves. Pongo’s writers, once they are encouraged to express themselves, are significant artists and important contributors to the social discourse. The only secret to this success is that people need to feel respected and heard, which is at the heart of Pongo’s poetry process. I’ve learned that our whole social system could be improved if we dedicated ourselves to providing more, and earlier, trauma-informed arts. The most humane and practical course forward is more poetry, fewer jails.

I also want you to know that, as I leave, Pongo has never been stronger. We prepared for my departure with strategic planning last fall. Pongo’s board is beautifully guiding our future and has hired Barbara Green to be Pongo’s Interim Executive Director for about six months. Welcome, Barbara! Barbara has filled this role for 24 years with about 25 organizations, including CASA Latina, Lambert House, and Powerful Voices. She will assist the board in hiring my permanent successor. In addition, Pongo has a terrific staff in Shaun McMichael (Program Manager) and Nebeu Shimeles (Development Manager), as well as a group of creative and inspiring project leaders and mentors, including our beloved veteran of almost 20 years, Ann Teplick. Pongo is proud to be situated in the group of community arts organizations at Washington Hall.

As further evidence of Pongo’s strength, we have

  • Documented our methodology in my book Writing with At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2014)
  • Given 80 presentations and trainings nationally, at places like Tulane School of Social Work and UCLA’s conference on “Creativity and the Arts in Healing”
  • Received notes from 91 people who have used Pongo techniques, including people in 21 other states and 11 foreign countries, such as El Salvador, South Africa, and Poland
  • Benefited from five pilot studies by psychologists and psychiatrists that demonstrate the remarkable healing benefits of our work
  • Collected our own data, with 1,500 surveys from youth in detention and the state psychiatric hospital for children (over 99% enjoyed writing poetry with us)
  • Accumulated similar surveys from over 25,000 youth who have written healing poetry on our web site

Of course, over the years Pongo and I have had to evolve, too. One area of growth has been our ability to recognize the social justice context of our work. I thank Pongoite Eli Hastings and others in the community who encouraged us. We know that the trauma we address was often cooked in the stew of racial oppression. We have witnessed how people are exposed to, and internalize, prejudice and hate. We have learned and are learning about privilege and the impact of structural inequities on our community.

Personal imperfection is actually a natural bridge to explain the origins of the name “Pongo,” which I almost always forget to do. Pongo is a puppet like Pinocchio, who struggles to become human. In my narrative poetry from 1999, The Odd Puppet Odyssey, Pongo realizes at the end of a very long, difficult, and funny journey that he needs to learn compassion, at least “enough to mitigate his chief quality, even now, awkwardness.” We often struggle with ourselves, including when we have the best intentions. Pongo has not only been a mission for me, but a personal journey.

To you, the Pongo community, thank you for being a companion on this journey. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that Pongo appreciates you and needs you. I am asking you to continue and increase your commitment and support for Pongo during this time of transition and significant opportunity. Through poetry, we can provide transformative, joyful healing opportunities to trauma sufferers worldwide, in particular to people in marginalized communities. Go Pongo!

I will end this announcement with an invitation. The Pongo Board has asked me to extend my relationship to Pongo in the role of Methodology Guru. I invite you to visit me on that mountain. I will be sitting in front of my cave, meditating in the elements, with wild hair and wilder eyes, yet always ready to share what I am learning in this ongoing process. Please know that my truth to you will ever be “Your words are important and can make a difference in the world – especially the poem in your heart that only you can write.”

Warmly,
Richard

Richard at AWP (2015) wearing a bowling shirt with Pongo’s prior logo.

Richard Gold selling Pongo books at Bumbershoot, 2008



Richard Gold founded Pongo. He describes Pongo’s origins, as follows…

In 1976, while in graduate school in creative writing, I was volunteering in a school for special-needs kids in San Francisco, meeting with the young teens individually and helping them to write. The process went well from the very beginning, in the way it goes well today. I first talked to the kids and then suggested personal topics that drew on their fantasies (“Todd’s Drive Across Country,” “Rodney’s Trip to Mars”) or personal experience (“A Letter to My Mom,” “A Boy I Like”). I took dictation and involved myself collaboratively as much as necessary to keep the process flowing and free, asking questions such as “What do the Martians look like?” or “Why do you think your mom was angry?” I was participating in a creative process, but drawing out the teens’ own ideas and feelings, to create a finished poem or story. As soon as the teens and I were done, there was often a special moment, when the teens felt proud and open, and we felt very connected to one another too, in a way that sometimes gave me chills.

I didn’t know it at the time, but almost half of the teens in the school were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic, part of Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. And at the school’s Christmas party, the teens’ therapists sought me out to say that the kids had been able to deal with personal issues through the poetry that they’d had difficulty dealing with in years of therapy.

I volunteered at the clinic and originated a writing activity called ‘Expressive Therapy.’ Later I was hired on staff and became part of a multi-disciplinary team that offered the teens intensive treatment in the form of individual, group, family, and activities therapy. My learning was enhanced by staff meetings, case reviews, and hospital seminars on such topics as adolescence and family dynamics. I dedicated myself to the clinic job for four years.

At the same time, I wrote a collection of poems whose animal subjects struggled with profound feelings of rage, neediness, and depression. This collection became my graduate thesis. And in my poetry today, though much of it is not specifically about the teens, the themes reflect a sensitivity to personal and social issues – issues that begin early in life, are difficult to master, and affect a person’s emotional life, self-image, and progress in the world.

When I left the clinic, I went on to have a career in book publishing in Seattle. I began by editing books for a small, special-education publisher, and later I became a managing editor at Microsoft Press, where I was responsible for books on computer programming. When I could, I volunteered with street kids, helping them to write poetry. I retired from Microsoft in 1996, and I returned to my work with teens, as I had planned, to help them express themselves. I began Pongo with the name “Pongo Publishing” to produce books of the teens’ written work, not realizing that the mission would evolve to become an innovative program of trauma-informed programming, that particularly served institutionalized youth from marginalized communities.

The scope of the work grew organically to include a wonderful group of dedicated volunteers, an interactive web site, an academic book about the Pongo methodology, research on the method’s effectiveness, and national trainings to propagate our model.

And always, I loved the time with youth and the opportunity to share the Pongo healing experience.

In this article, Richard Gold, Pongo’s founder, describes his poetry and provides links to his poetry…

There is a correlation between my volunteer work with teens and my own poetry. My poetry is often about finding a voice and uncovering a buried feeling. There’s the sense that the feeling is important, essential, and human; but there’s also the sense that the feeling is buried for a reason, from pain and shame. My poetry believes in this process of discovery, though the results are often not pretty. At least the rawness of life leads to a self-deprecating and earthy humor in my poetry, which I enjoy. And ultimately, I like the fact that my writing struggles for understanding, and through understanding strives for wisdom and compassion. There are three very different series of poems represented here.

When I worked with teens in a psychiatric clinic, I wrote a collection of poems called BESTIARY. Unlike a medieval bestiary that uses animal stories to represent Christian allegories, my bestiary uses animal poems to represent emotional turmoil – intense love, consuming anger, deep depression, and profound confusion. The Camel symbolizes the feelings of a boy whose mother abandoned him as an infant to the care of a relative. The mother was a prostitute. The boy used to ride the bus through the streets where she worked, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. In the poem, the camel’s ambivalence about water is analogous to the boy’s ambivalence about love.

During the period of my recent work with teens, I’ve written a collection of poems called THE ODD PUPPET ODYSSEY featuring two puppet characters named Pongo and Rico. Every poem in this collection is a different edgy and satirical adventure. In the course of their journey the puppets are sorting out their relationships with their creator and master, Geppetto, who is a lingering, malevolent presence – but mostly Pongo and Rico are exploring sexuality, love, identity, and the disturbing social forces that affect their view of themselves and their world. The poems in the series are often dark and psychological, with imagery that is sometimes crude, uncomfortable, and bizarre. Yet Pongo and Rico have a moral quality as they strive for greater understanding on both an individual and social level. Humor is an important part of the work, contributing to a sense of resolution and growth… Pongo provided the name for Pongo Publishing. You can purchase a copy of THE ODD PUPPET ODYSSEY on Amazon.

I’m also including here another poem, titled You Are , different from most of my work, but whose theme is more spiritual and represents much of what I think about the teens and their emotional burden. I sometimes read this poem to teens at the end of writing workshops.”