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He was a man
Sharieff Clayton is more than the name of a victim who was “fatally shot” or “killed” or is “dead” as a result of a shooting in Brooklyn last night*.
He was a man, a colleague, a friend who dedicated the last decade of his life to working with, learning with, laughing with, teaching with, creating with, imagining with, exploring the world with the young men and women whom he met as a member of the staff at an alternative to detention program.
He was a man who loved his family fiercely, who glowed with pride when he talked about his wife and children, sharing stories of their accomplishments and giggling when describing his children’s antics; he beamed even more brightly when they occasionally joined him at his workplace.
He was a man who wrote a book while he was incarcerated, which was published after he returned home and that continues to be read by thousands; it was supposed to be the first of many.
He was a man who had just completed his second book, written in stolen hours of the morning, on the subway, while walking to and from work, much of it thumbed into his phone so he wouldn’t lose the freshness of any thought that occurred to him; he was so proud of what had taken him over six years to write; he was writing as much for his audience as for himself.
He was a man who, every day, kept his promise to the young men and women at the program where he worked to live the words he would share with them: Honor. Honesty. Family. Commitment. Conviction. Education. Self-respect. A legacy of greatness.
He was a man who had very recently decided to focus full time on his writing and to embrace his identity as an author; he began imagining conversations around his new book that would bring together diverse groups of people in a Socratic seminar style.
He was a man who didn’t comprehend the concept of giving up on someone, who brought young people back into the fold of the program where he worked even after they were no longer participants; and they returned, to have a place to be and be seen and belong, if only temporarily.
He was a man who carried his past experiences with gun violence and incarceration with him and shared it openly in service of his greater educational mission to invite people to interrupt what seems unchangeable, to imagine things as they might be, to continually dwell in the possibility of the “not yet.”
He was a man whose words stayed with the young men and women he taught, often making an appearance in their minds at unexpected but crucial moments.
He was a man for whom friendship permeated his ways of working with colleagues and who deeply valued these relationships as vital to him personally and in service of his commitment to be the change, see the change, and nurture those who can change the world.
He was a man who approached the world as a teacher and a learner, for whom every encounter held the potential to educate.
He was a man about whom stories of justice and commitment and caring will be told, should be told.
He was a man whom it was a privilege to have known.
He was a man who should be here today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And…
He was a man.
*Monday, April 27th
In considering how youth participate in their education, I’m often drawn to John Dewey’s focus on conceptualizing not what education is, but where it is. This notion of environing education has come up on numerous occasions in our YMEJ discussions, and I find myself reflecting on it when I visit the creative writing and media literacy workshops an alternative to detention (ATD) program for youth ages 12-16 in Harlem. The workshops invite all those involved to consider how we develop spaces that acknowledge or allow students to share and reflect on their stories. Creating a space like this takes conscious work, as Dr. Suzanne Carothers reminded us during a recent class visit. In our classroom that evening, Dr. Carothers created a space in which she modeled vulnerability through her own sharing, which built a shared assumption that we, too, could be vulnerable and share our stories with her and each other. She mentioned how a teacher’s first job was to “create the space where people can say what matters to them.”
Connecting these thoughts back to the youth who attend the ATD workshops, I want to consider how and where we create these spaces for vulnerability with them. We might consider these safe spaces of sorts, but I’ve also come to see how safe spaces are always shifting, for all of us. (A classmate shared what I found was a useful way to think about what a safe space is: a place where a person can feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable.) How can we create spaces in which we and our students feel comfortable with the discomfort of being vulnerable?
Professor Lalitha Vasudevan, Kristine Kerr, and several of their colleagues take up this question in their article Cosmopolitan Literacies of Belonging in an After-school Program With Court-Involved Youths. Focusing specifically on these ATD workshops, their exploration of multimodal literacies and cosmopolitanism led them to the idea of belonging in a space, and how play and laughter can generate those feelings of belonging. As I move forward with my own work with the ATD, I’m considering how I can create the conditions in which play and laughter are legitimized in the same ways that practices such as reading and writing often are in education spaces. So, the big question: How can we remain open to the ways in which youth are seeking or finding ways of being vulnerable, of belonging, in traditional or non-traditional education spaces?
Empathy, both as a concept and as a practice, has been floating among my interactions and thoughts with an uncanny frequency these days. A few weeks ago, our YMEJ seminar watched a short animated video by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of empathy. She explains how empathy requires perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating these understandings.
Just a week or two after that, I was chatting with Sharieff, the coordinator of Enrichment Services at the ATD, where I have the privilege of doing my mentorship work. Sharieff had recently been talking about the links he saw between developing empathy and an understanding of ethics, and shared an anecdote in which he asked the young people at the ATD if they would take or return an iPhone that they saw a woman leave on a Subway platform. He shared how many students would respond with “No,” but when asked why they wouldn’t take the item, they would explain how they “Didn’t want to get in trouble” or end up with another alternative to detention sentence. I asked Sharieff how he might further the dialogue there; sure enough, he responded by saying: “Oh, I’ve found it’s all about building empathy.”
He explained how he might engage a young person in that conversation to imagine how the person who owned the phone might feel when she saw it was gone. He talked about how this principle of being able to imagine someone else’s feelings of experiences has guided some of the young people he works with to develop their own contextualized understandings of ethics, and of what they consider ethical behavior to look like.
Sharieff’s example has given me a lot to reflect upon. It’s both exciting and challenging to consider how sharing personal stories can develop our ability to empathize with others’ lived realities. But how do we do that sharing in a way that honors the diversity of perspectives, learning styles, and forms of expression with which people feel most comfortable? Certainly, celebrating and using multiple modalities (from printed and spoken word to visual and performing arts) seems one way of doing so. The next, and perhaps more perplexing, consideration is where to go from there. How do we engage with and share narratives in ways that develop empathy among both speakers and listeners? Is that even a responsible goal to have? Perhaps the better question is simply: What does the narrative’s owner hope to feel, understand, or share with others in doing that sharing? How can we, as adults working with youth, pursue this sharing in a dialogical way that allows students to own their narratives and engage with ours?
I invite you to read Dutro & Bien’s 2013 article Listening to the Speaking Wound to consider how we may share narratives with and among youth. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Here are some questions that emerged for me after mentoring at Voices, an alternative to detention program, for eight months, through the YMEJ graduate seminar:
- What does it mean to build a relationship not just with a person, but a group of people, and perhaps even a program?
- How does this create/foster a multi-directional mentoring relationship?
- What are the commitments that people make to each other, to themselves and perhaps to an ideal?
- How does spending time analyzing and understanding these commitments allow me to develop a stance that is not only for my research but for my entire life?
This experience made me realize how much I want to privilege working with young people in my future research and in my life.
- How do I maintain my role at Voices now that the seminar is ending—is it possible?
- How do I recognize, understand and navigate large systems in which many of the people I care about are intertwined?
- How do I keep this present in my writing and research in an authentic way?
- How do I help to create sustainable mentoring opportunities?
- How do I expand conceptualizations of mentoring?
More questions than answers, I hope to return to this post and annotate it as my thinking continues.
In conjunction with this year’s YMEJ Exhibition — “Inquiry into Educational Justice” — we are launching a clothing drive to collect new and like-new items of clothing that will be donated to alternative to detention (ATD) programs in New York City.
This clothing drive is our second, and follows on the huge success of last spring’s event in which we collected over 65 bags of clothing and accessories that were distributed to 5 different ATDs in three boroughs. In our work with youth, we have consistently heard from them that a major obstacle to regular school attendance is the fear of being teased or bullied for a lack of clothing. Thus, we reached out to the Teachers College and greater Columbia University community and were overwhelmed by students’ thoughtfulness and generosity. Our ATD partners were similarly touched and Ana Dopazo, a Senior Education Specialist at Choices ATD, shared these thoughts with us:
Usually when people hear of a child who is consistently missing school they think that the child is getting into trouble or not interested in school or lazy etc…but in actuality there are many reasons that a child might not be succeeding academically that are not by choice. The participants that we usually have in our program are living in poverty. We constantly see kids that refuse to go to school because they don’t have clothes that are clean, in good condition, or that even fit properly because they’ve grown out of it or are sharing clothes with family. Sometimes just getting them new clothes is the simple solution to their school attendance…it gives them their confidence, allows them to feel comfortable in a social setting, and it gives them the motivation to go to school. Many people can’t understand why this would affect someone so tremendously because most of us don’t realize that being able to go shopping for clothes is a luxury, and not something that everyone is capable of doing. The clothing drive will help our kids in need to hopefully be able to add a few items to their wardrobe that will allow them at least some outfits they can mix and match to attend school. I don’t think that this is the answer to all our truant kids but it’s a start…it’s an opportunity to allow these kids that actually want to go to school a chance to have a normal educational experience without the worries of whether or not he/she will have something to wear to school. This clothing drive can also be the answer to our kids not getting rearrested for stealing things they need and may also prevent teasing or bullying in school. So its not just giving a kid a shirt or pants to wear its so much more that: you are contributing to this child life.
Please share this information widely and look for donation boxes in both Zankel Hall and Whittier at Teachers College — and please consider making a clothing donation.
For several years, I worked in New York City’s District 75 (special education district), first as a paraprofessional and then as a teacher. When I told people where I worked, they would often pause, look at me with a mixture of awe and pity and say something like, “That must be hard.” Now, I will be the first to agree that teaching is a really, really tough job, but that’s not really what folks meant. They meant that it must be hard working with those kids.
Now don’t get me wrong, there were days when the little boogers drove me up the wall, when I drove them up the wall, when some of us showed up to school sick, or exhausted, or just plain distracted and things very quickly started to resemble a sequel to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Because that’s what seems to happen when humans spend a lot of time with each other, day in and day out, for years on end. We all have our bad days, and sometimes we take them out on the ones we love.
But most days, I came into school and got to spend time with a group of incredibly loving, funny, curious, interesting group of people who showered me with pictures, cards, thank-you letters, sorry-I-stole-your-iPod letters, candy, and hugs that I continue to treasure. Most days, I went home after work and just laughed for minutes on end, remembering something someone had said or done. Most days, I got to spend hours reading and talking about some really great books with an intelligent and appreciative group. And that’s why I kept coming back for as long as I did.
More recently, I have had the pleasure of helping with a writing workshop at an Alternative to Detention Program for kids ages 12-16 who have been arrested. When I tell folks where I’m going, I sometimes see that familiar look. And I feel almost guilty that people seem to think I must be some sort of saint when I think about how much fun I’ve been having, laughing as we try to build Rube Goldberg machines or discuss how to handle Incredible Hulk super powers (hint: elastic waistbands and the ability to pull off your shirt quickly).
Don’t get me wrong, there are special heartaches associated with working with kids who are court-involved. When my babies got arrested, or ran away rather than take a chance on a new foster home, well, that really sucked. But if all anyone ever hears about any job or activity is the worst parts of it, then it starts to seem like the sort of job that only someone who is much more qualified and virtuous could possibly do. Court-involved youth and youth with disabilities (and there is a lot of overlap between those two groups) start to seem too different to go to school and generally hang out with everyone else. And while the consequences of that separation, distance and suspicion are more obvious and dire for the kids who get isolated into special schools or prisons, I really believe that we all lose out.