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Your Story and Mine

As part of a good practice we often keep in mind “who” we are, what is our story, and how it influences our perception on the research field and the practice. This has been a long debate: should our personal story inform our practice? Maybe in some contexts the answer is a clear yes. Nonetheless, in my native France, mixing the personal story and the professional practice is negatively perceived. Being a true professional is to be able to deny our personal story.

Being raised and mostly educated in France, I am now studying in the USA; sometimes, it feels like walking on a wire. Which part of myself, of my personal story, could inform my practice? How can I question my personal stories to better reflect my posture, my reaction and my subjectivities in my professional practice? How have my personal narratives created potential stereotypes and misconceptions about the field I study?

I grew up as a teenager in the suburbs of Paris, witnessing the unfairness of the system towards populations who do not conform to the model of a standard citizen. This issue is, of course, not restricted to France. Whether you are White or not, Black or North-African, whether you are wealthy or not, whether you are labeled disabled or not, whether you could afford private school or not; the intersection of these elements considerably influences your educational experience and eventually has dramatic consequences on your future.

During my childhood and teenage-hood, I have been a witness and an activist. Today, I am the lucky one, part of a thoughtful cohort at Teachers College; we do not have to worry much about our future, so we gather our efforts for the future of others, for a better society and for social justice.

Therefore, I would like today to engage my peers, my professors, the audience, to further the reflection that might sound futile, but that is crucial to our practice: How can we understand the context we are working in? Where does our personal story fit in our research and practice? Lastly, how can I ensure that the words I am typing are not fulfilling new stereotypes?

After Prison, A New Set of Doors

When I was in junior high school, New York City public transit fares switched from tokens to MetroCards. The Metropolitan Transit Authority rolled out ads on subways and buses describing how to swipe these strange new plastic rectangles, and our homeroom teachers explained the change from the old paper student bus and/or subway passes to the new student MetroCards that would work on either form of transportation. On the plus side, we would now be able to swipe ourselves through the turnstiles instead of trying to catch the attention of a distracted (or absent) token booth attendant in order to flash our paper passes and get buzzed in while our train rolled on without us. In addition, the plastic MetroCard survived an occasional trip through the washing machine much better than the old paper pass, which I would regularly have to present in a soggy mess to the school office in the hopes that they would have an extra one to last me through the month. On the minus side, the new MetroCards were limited to three swipes per school day, which meant we had to go beg at the school office to cover weekend extracurriculars or other trips.

Recently, while attending a meeting, I was reminded of this experience from nearly two decades ago, particularly that vivid feeling of dismay as I pulled my jeans from the dryer and felt that familiar lump in the back pocket. While discussing transition services, a woman who had previously been incarcerated mentioned that many people she knew had gone into prison while the city used tokens, and come out to MetroCards, which they had to newly learn how to use. Although that shift may seem small in the grand scheme of things, it struck me as an example of how completely time in jail or prison disrupts every single aspect of a person’s life. For a New Yorker, reminiscing about the old days of tokens and paper student transit passes is the same sort of nostalgia-inducing experience as reminiscing about when we had to go to the library to get books for school projects before the internet, plan get-togethers at least a day in advance before cell-phones, and, of course, walk twenty miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to even get to the local subway stop to take us to school. How strange it must be to go away from one world, only to reappear years later into an entirely different one without any sort of warning.

Back when I was a teacher, many of my students got arrested. One bright, kind, funny boy disappeared one winter, and arrived back in class months later, near the end of the year, just days before the science fair which I was organizing. Of course, he had no project; his partner had simply done it without him. I wondered how this child had benefited from missing an entire semester of school, from simply appearing at the end with an incomplete posterboard.

The term “reentry” implies that a person can somehow enter the same metaphorical room again, and go back to where they were before getting arrested. But the reality is that a person who has been incarcerated is newly entering a world that has moved on without him or her. That person is traveling into the future, to where the subway no longer takes tokens and the science fair is already happening.

Rehabilitation vs. Criminalization: The Need to Rethink Juvenile Justice Programs in New York

An editorial from this week’s New York Times, “When Children Become Criminals,” engages the question: at what age and under what circumstances should a minor be tried as an adult? This is in response to Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, recently announcing that he would be putting together a commission to develop a plan (recommended changes in laws and procedures) for raising the age for adult criminal prosecution by the end of 2014. Nearly 40,000 adolescents are sent through the New York criminal courts every year, most charged with nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, jumping the turnstile in subway, or possession of marijuana. As is well known, Black and Latino young people, especially young men, are highly overrepresented in New York’s court-involved youth population. One of the major takeaways from the article is the mention of the effects of putting children as young as 16-years-old through the adult court system:

Federally financed studies have shown that minors prosecuted as adults commit more violent crimes later on and are more likely to become career criminals than those sent though juvenile courts, where they receive counseling and family support. Beyond that, neurological science has shown that adolescents are less able to assess risks and make the kinds of mature decisions that would keep them out of trouble.

In 2007, Connecticut raised the age of criminal prosecution from 16 to 18, a law which took full effect in 2012. The state has also adopted new strategies for court-involved young people based on “rehabilitation, not lockups,” working to reduce arrests and save the state money. The Connecticut Legislature created a council of experts from law enforcement, mental health, and other fields to coordinate policy changes. The interdisciplinary collaboration is significant. Connecticut has ceased trying cases involving “nonthreatening adolescent misbehaviors,” like possession of tobacco. Most importantly, the state invested in counseling and intervention programs that “allow young people to make amends for minor misdeeds without going to court.”

I was surprised to learn that New York is one of only two states (North Carolina is the other one) in which 16-year-olds are still automatically tried as adults.  The New York law came into effect with the state’s creation of the juvenile justice system under the Family Court Act in 1962. Unable to agree on an age at which offenders should be declared adults, lawmakers temporarily set it at 16, but “…as often happens with public policy, inertia set in and ‘temporary’ became permanent.” More than 250,000 youth under the age of 18 are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year. And in New York, almost 90% of boys released from juvenile incarceration are arrested again.

As mentioned above, there have been growing conversations about the repercussions of sending young people through the criminal court system as opposed to providing them with rehabilitation services that might help to address underlying emotional, physical, mental, sociocultural, and environmental factors influencing behaviors. When young people are labeled as criminals or delinquents and tried as adults, their education is disturbed, their psyche is affected, and their re-entry into school and life can be extremely difficult and damaging, especially as they are going through crucial developmental stages of pre-adolescence and adolescence.

In addition, critics argue that many detention centers wrongly focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for young people. In a recent article on activists’ call for juvenile justice system reforms, AlJazeera America, highlights a new campaign working to change the procedures that the justice system uses with children and adolescents. It’s called Raise the Age:

Raise the Age New York is a public awareness campaign that includes national and local advocates, youth, parents, law enforcement and legal representative groups, faith leaders, and unions that have come together to increase public awareness of the need to implement a comprehensive approach to raise the age of criminal responsibility in NYS so that the legal process responds to all children as children and services and placement options better meet the rehabilitative needs of all children and youth.

I encourage you to check out the Raise the Age website and learn more about the reasons for the campaign and the holistic impact that raising the age could potentially have on the state’s juvenile justice system.

Reading the NYT article and learning about the Raise the Age campaign served as reminders about how the juvenile justice system needs a lot of work, but it is also highlights how imperative it is that we–society, educators, activists, parents, mentors, allies–work hard to challenge dominant narratives about “juvenile delinquents.” It is easy, especially in a sensational-news-saturated world to make snap judgements about young people incarcerated at a young age (who continue to lead lives of crime and punishment). Instead of just accepting the idea that young criminals look or act a certain way, lead certain lifestyles, or have the ability to make different choices but choose a life of crime instead, I encourage us all to take a step back and think about the programs and procedures that are set up to address and hopefully prevent such lifestyles and trajectories. Let’s think about productive and meaningful ways to support young men, in particular, labeled as failures and delinquents before they even grow facial hair.

How can we raise awareness? What kinds of conversations can we have? What new strategies and laws must be put in place in order for legitimate change to occur? Ask yourself these questions, pose them to others, and find more answers at Raise the Age.

Upcoming Event on US Prison System

Hi Everyone,

If you are located in the NYC metro area, come check out this awesome event on Thursday!

Developing Justice Roundtable: Mapping the Intractability of the U.S. Prison System
Thursday, January 30th, 7:00-9:00
Columbia University School of Social Work, ROOM C06

Join the NYC Student Collective to End Mass Incarceration for a conversation about the United States prison system. Our discussion will be structured around a mapping exercise used in the conflict resolution field. We will share knowledge about what factors perpetuate or interrupt mass incarceration, in order to try and strategize how the collective can can best engage in anti-prison work.

Love Letter, Part II: Reflections on Mentoring a Court-Involved Young Person

Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.

* * *

Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,

It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.

Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.

To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.

What we have done.

Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.

Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.

…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;

…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.

What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?

She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.

What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…

How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?

What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.

Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?

I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”

And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.

And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.

I am not qualified for this shit.

The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.

And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.

I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.

I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.

And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.

My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.

 I am not qualified for this shit.

The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.

I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.

We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.

I stand up.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”

She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.

That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.

…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…

But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?

I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.

In love and gratitude,

Emily

What is family?

The winter premiere of the ABC Family show “The Fosters” is set for tonight (Monday, January 13th) — part two of the first season of a show that has captured people’s attention with its varied representations of underrepresented narratives: lesbian parents, trans-racial adoption, and youth in foster care. At the heart of the show is the (not at all simple) idea of family — as a reminder, the trailer for the winter premiere (airing tonight at 9:00 EST on ABC Family) opens with the question: “how do you define family?” (watch below)

If you are new to the show, you can view the first ten episodes on the ABC Family website. There are complicated family dynamics, and in all fairness there are more than a few “hollywood” elements intended to keep the viewer hooked. But I continue to appreciate the range of delicate issues that the show’s producers seem to be willing to tackle, albeit somewhat imperfectly:

  • the role of biological parents in the lives of children they have placed in foster care
  • range of portrayals of caring adults
  • sibling relationships (biological, forged through foster care, and others)
  • range and variation in what constitutes a “normal” adolescence
  • constraints as well as affordances of a child welfare institution like foster care, where not everyone fits a stereotype (i.e. savior complex, uncaring grunt, abuser of power, etc.)
  • nuanced representations of law enforcement
  • multi-racial families

I’m hoping to do a bit more blogging about the show this spring, and would love to know what others think  as well. In prep for tonight’s winter premiere, here’s a sneak peek of an exchange between two new siblings:

And for another reflection on family, check out the latest blog post by a member of the YMEJ family, Emily Bailin: Love Letter, Part II: Reflections on Mentoring a Court-Involved Young Person

See you on the flipside!

home for the holidays.

home for the holidays.

there are songs about it.  hallmark makes a fortune selling cards either affirming the practice or lamenting ones ability to get there.  its something i look forward to with great anticipation.  however, this year, while i was sitting in my dad’s recliner that he never actually sits in when i’m home, eating a dinner lovingly and deliciously prepared by my mother, while enjoying silly conversation with my 6.5 year old niece and nephew, i thought back to the youth we have had the chance to talk about over the last semester.

what does it feel like to experience the holidays without a home? something i always take for granted.  something that seems to me to be as special a time in the year as any, that i have, for the first time stopped to think, that many do not enjoy.  learning too early that santa only brings presents to some people (perhaps not in the foster home or group home, certainly not in prison or juvenile detention centers).  or perhaps of being in a foster home, away from siblings, extended family and parents.  wishing you had such a luxury to go “home to the holidays”.  perhaps not even able to comprehend what that might look like.

and i enjoyed my time even more.  but with a hint of guilt, or sadness.  at the experiences, holidays being just one, that i have always known and take for granted which i am now keenly aware is not the case.  and i wonder what it is like to not be home for the holidays.  not have a home to go to, or even if you do, not be able to get there.

soon after the joy of christmas we welcome the new year.  hallmark sells more cards filling us with the rhetoric that it is a time of new chances, new opportunities, where anything we dream can be true.  yet, once again, that rhetoric is only true for a select few.  those who perhaps didn’t have many struggles in the previous year, or even if they did, were surrounded by the warmth of home, support and family needed to overcome.  but to add salt to a fresh wound, we celebrate new opportunities and new chances with people who have little to no control over their outcome.  who rely on other adults to make their future better and brighter.  and while the world celebrates opportunities and fresh starts, they are left with the same slate, the same past, the same obstacles as they had at 11:59.

happy holidays.

happy new year.

full of promise and opportunities and new beginnings.

for some.

Letters from Death Row

Many of my posts in the past have revolved largely around the foster care system, however, just tonight, I came across an interesting article on Gawker, “Letters From Death Row: Ray Jasper, Texas Inmate 999341“.  As it is said in the article, every year, Hamilton Nolan sends a letter to each person on death row set to be executed in the upcoming year.  The above linked letter is the first reply.  I don’t pretend to be able to add anything meaningful to Mr. Jasper’s response.  It is beautiful and poetic.  I also don’t plan to take a stance on the death penalty.  However, I do think that there are many, MANY important conversations that need to be happening that are not happening.  May I also recommend another book to follow your reading of Mr. Jasper’s letter: Autobiography of an Execution.  Learning more about the Death Penalty, setting aside even the question of guilt or innocence and instead engaging in a conversation about justice is something we cannot avoid in the new year, or any year.  It’s one I most certainly look forward to having.

A promise from me to you

The Massachusetts Supreme Court Judicial court passed a judgment on Tuesday to create, “new constitutional sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of homicide crimes”.  The decision “struck down a law that allows juveniles to be setnecned to life in prision with no possibility of parole for crimes committed before they turned 18” (Boston Globe, 12/27/2013, Valencia and Ellement).   Read more of the article here.

It reminds me of a song that’s been going through my head since Christmas: If it Were Left up to Me by Sly and the Family Stone.   

The main refrain of the song, “If it were left up to me, I would try” and the last lines “I promise from me to you, I will try” resonate with me as I spend the holidays thinking about the YMEJ grad seminar and my own shifting lines of thinking.  In fact, I’ve been drafting a blog post in my head entitled, Rethinking my thinking, or perhaps even rethinking my rethinking.  But that sounds rather grandiose.  I notice a lot more in the news/media about court involved youth.  Am I more aware of the conversation because of my work in the grad seminar?

These conversations have been taking place over a many years and contexts.  Still, when I read about the Boston SJC decision I feel hope.  Hope that the YMEJ grad seminar is not an isolated moment/space.  Hope that a system (such as the courts) is able to rethinking their thinking.  And I do promise to try.

Our top 10 posts of 2013

We started blogging late this summer and over the course of the past several months, the YMEJ Project Team has been joined by some members of the current cohort of YMEJ graduate students in contributing to this blog. They are:

  • Emily Bailin
  • Nicole Blandford
  • Emeline Brylinski
  • Katie Newhouse
  • Laura Vernikoff
  • Kelly Gavin Zuckerman

Click on their avatars (to the right, over there…) to read additional posts by them and stay tuned for more from us in 2014.

Collectively, we are educators, researchers, community members, adults in the lives of youth, and committed to the wellbeing of young people across multiple institutions; what has brought us together through the YMEJ Seminar, in particular, is our shared interest in better understanding the various contours and nuances of the lives, institutional navigations, challenges, possibilities, educational trajectories, dreams, and desires of young people involved with the foster care and/or juvenile justice system.

Below is a list of posts that seemed to catch your attention over the past several months. Check them out, pass them on, and feel free to suggest additional topics and resources for us to learn and blog about.

  • Engaging Youth as Active Participants In/For Social Change: a teaser for YMEJ Member Tara Conley’s presentation for the Racial Literacy Roundtable Series at Teachers College, Columbia University on the creative and socially engaged approach to participatory design in justice-focused work with youth.
  • Youth speaking about Stop and Frisk — Views from the reluctant experts: 2013 saw significant attention being given to the NYPD’s policy of “stop and frisk,” intended as a public safety measure but having serious consequences for the mostly Black and Latino male inhabitants of NYC who were disproportionately the focus of this practice. In a related post, Emeline depicts similar challenges that are ongoing in her native France surrounding racial profiling.
  • The treatment of children is the focus of this next post, titled Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani, that builds from Andrea Elliot’s widely read 5-part series in the New York Times last month and presents a series of additional resources and connections. We — meaning the YMEJ team — are continuing to ponder this narrative and all the author was able to reveal about child welfare, city policies, and the persistent challenges of poverty through her in-depth profile of this young, 11-year-old girl. We hope to have more to say in the coming weeks and months.
  • Another view of our nation’s treatment of children was profiled in the post focusing on child hunger: “Hunger hurts everyone” – A Place at the Table. We include information about the recent cuts to SNAP, links to a PBS special about child hunger and a related documentary, and highlight a university-community partnership headed by Mariana Chilton in an effort to interrupt the effects of poverty and hunger while also aiming to provide research that may catalyze changes to the policies that govern funding decisions at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • In addition to Dasani, our imaginations were captured by two young men who were in the news: Avonte Oquendo and Davion Navar Henry Only. In their respective posts, Katie and Nicole raise important questions about how we see and understand the stories of youth enmeshed into large, impersonal bureaucratic systems, and about the ways in which their lives are represented and mediated. Of Avonte, we continued to hear that he was an autistic child who had gone missing and about Davion, we continued to read about the public plea he made in search of a family. Check out both of these posts to learn more about the young men and the institutional structures their situations call into question:
  • We were grateful for a collaboration that sprung out of a twitter connection with @PrisonCulture, who, back in August, tweeted a series of youth-led change-making efforts going on nationwide. We compiled these resources into a handy list, and received additional recommendations via the blog and twitter that were also added: Youth Making Change Across the Country. This is just a drop in the bucket, and in 2014 we plan to profile several more organizations and groups who are working tirelessly to “be the change [they] wish to see in the world.”
  • In addition to the above list of youth-led efforts, we also learned of institutional and community-based efforts to strengthen the lives of youth across settings, in the form of mentoring, higher education, and arts-infused activism. Learn more about these efforts in these posts:
  • Finally, our attention was captivated by a book released earlier this year by author Cris Beam, who details the experiences of children and families ensnared in the child welfare and foster care system in her book “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care.” Reading her book took our own inquiries about care, family, home, and institutions to a variety of places and resources, which we have gathered in our post: Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care

There you have it — our top 10 (ok, if you were really counting, I snuck in a few more than 10…) posts from 2013. Thanks for being a great audience and we look forward to sharing more thoughts and dialogue with you in the year to come.

Wishing you a healthy, safe, and inspired 2014!

The YMEJ Team.

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