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Three perspectives on incarceration, criminal justice, and the impact on society

In The Guardian this week, an article was published noting that there had been 994 mass shootings in 1004 days. The rhetoric spinning out from the tragedy has focused on mental health, residual commentary on gun violence, and security (with some going so far as to suggest that arming more people is a step toward preventing such a shooting from reoccurring). Below are three links — two documentary and one media commentary — that tangentially or directly address issues of gun violence, incarceration, criminal justice, and mental health in our country. There are more, and we’ll share them here as part of our ongoing efforts to inform ourselves and each other as we engage in debates about justice in the lives of youth. We encourage you to share additional pieces that you’d like to include in subsequent posts.

HBO’s VICE Special Report: Fixing the System
President Barack Obama sits down with Vice and prison inmates at the El Reno correctional facility to discuss a growing human rights crisis in the Vice on HBO Special Report: Fixing the System.

Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children
Presented by entrepreneur, music mogul and activist Russell Simmons and narrated by “Empire” actress Gabourey Sidibe, this hourlong documentary investigation, “Prison Kids,” is the result of Fusion’s work. It is a story about how to take children and ostracize them, derange them, outlaw them. It is the story of America’s crimes against children.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mental Health
John Oliver explains how our national system of treating mental health works, or more often than not, how it doesn’t.

Environing Belonging

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?

2nd Annual YMEJ Clothing Drive

YMEJ Clothing Drive

Donation bins in Zankel Hall & Whittier Hall, Teachers College

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.

Does Every Action Really Lead to an Equal and Opposite Reaction?

At the Educational Justice Symposium on March 31st, 2014, Michelle Fine reminded us that people and their actions aren’t necessarily so different; however, society’s reactions vary quite a bit. Although research certainly supports this point, it seems to get lost in all the deficit-based discussions about what’s wrong with kids, families, and communities that lead to some kids winding up being court-involved. A better question might be, what’s wrong with our systems of education, law, social work, etc., that lead to Black kids getting much harsher consequences, including incarceration, than White kids for the exact same behaviors (see, e.g., Michael Rocque & Raymond Paternoster’s 2011 article in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminolology: “Understanding the Antecedents of the ‘School-to-Jail’ Link: The Relationship Between Race and School Discipline”).

The questions we ask matter because different questions lead to different answers. If we ask, what’s wrong with these kids that cause them to wind up court-involved? then we are likely to find something “wrong” with the kids (hey, nobody’s perfect) that we might easily assume leads to court-involvement. We then try to “fix” the kids in order to reduce their court-involvement. However, the problem remains that, when kids perform the same actions, they receive pretty different reactions from society.

If, on the other hand, we ask, what’s wrong with these systems that cause them to punish Black kids so much more harshly for the same actions as White kids? then we will get pretty different answers. So far, it seems like there are problems all down the line, starting from individual teachers making decisions in their classrooms, to school-level responses, to arrest and sentencing rates. And remember, these reactions vary for the same kid actions. If, for example, a White kid and a Black kid are both found in the gym when they are supposed to be in math class, the White kid is much more likely to receive a milder punishment, such as a phone call home. The Black kid is much more likely to receive a harsher punishment, such as suspension; in fact, there have been cases of kids in this situation getting arrested for “trespassing.” Two kids, equal actions, hugely unequal reactions.

Breaking Barriers Through Storytelling in an ATDP

Earlier in the academic year, I was asked to ponder the following question as part of my coursework for the Youth Media and Educational Justice seminar:

What do educators need to consider when court-involved youth – reentry, on probation, in foster care — are in their classrooms and schools (and programs)?

In response, I offered the following:

In thinking about this question, I was reminded of Virginia Shabatay’s (1991) piece “The Stranger’s Story” Who Calls and Who Answers?” in which she poignantly asks, “How do those of us in the helping professions discover the strangers among us? How can we develop sensitive caring relationships with those who feel set apart?” (p. 137). In her eloquent treatise, she posits, “We bring certain attitudes to those whom we don’t know: suspicion, mistrust, caution, and bias, or trust, openness, and welcome” (p. 137). Accordingly, she urges readers to use stories as ways to discover what strangers have to teach. She explains, “Stories allow us to break through barriers and to share in another’s experience; they warm us. Like a rap on the window, they call us to attention” (p. 137). Shabatay’s insights resonate with me as ways in which entering into dialogue and exchanging stories can combat strangehood in our classrooms, schools, programs, and research.

Since the time of this assignment, I have had the opportunity to begin volunteering work every Thursday as a mentor at an alternative to detention site in New York City. During each visit, I have the privilege of witnessing and participating in the embodiment of Shabatay’s words— the sharing of stories that allow space for possible connection between participants, staff, and volunteers. Around the small conference table, youth who because of their current situation often feel “set apart,” are approached not with “suspicion, mistrust, caution, or bias” but with “trust, openness, and welcome.” Through dialogue and narrative, a community is formed that is mindful of and active in recognizing and then disabling the human tendency to judge, to categorize, and to stereotype. Through human exchange, we no longer are strangers. We are companions. It truly is a remarkable place and each visit pushes me to consider ways in which more spaces and places can be created for court-involved youth and others to “break through the barriers and to share in another’s experience.”

Seeing the World Anew

The Fresh Eyes Photography Project is a unique New Mexico-based organization that seeks to engage youth at three incarceration facilities with arts-making. In particular, the focus of Fresh Eyes is photography with project teachers and staff leading two, 10-week workshops in each facility during the course of the year. Guided by the mantra, “You have the ability to change the outcome,” the project’s mission is to provide court-involved youth with the tools and support to see the world anew. It is their belief that engaging in digital photography will help the young people with whom they work successfully re-enter society with the confidence that they have a real place in their community.

Bokeh, the visual arts blog of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange recently profiled the work of Fresh Eyes artists in a piece entitled “Capturing Captivity From the Inside.” Along with providing a curated compilation of photographs from the Fresh Eyes gallery, Katy McCarthy writes,

The images are startlingly anonymous — no faces, no full names or details like family photos and no books. And yet, even the simplicity of two hands in mittens clasped together is somehow painful. Is it a naïve attempt at symbolizing affection or a moment of insight into the kid’s yearning for touch and intimacy?

She continues,

An unnaturally indigo sky is streaked by a jet stream framed by the intersection of two imposing rooflines. A pink-veined sphere is caught in mid-air, in the background two big trees with outstretched limbs distract the eye only briefly from a tiny bit of fencing in the bottom right corner. The photos are compositionally dynamic, with great consideration paid to color. Still, the architecture of incarceration permeates.

McCarthy’s phrase “the architecture of incarceration” is haunting, reminding readers and viewers of the setting and context that frames the work and lives of these young people, yet it is important to note that sterility and impersonality do not define these artists. In the complete Fresh Eyes gallery from which McCarthy draws her collection, there are also images of hope and humanity, of beauty and movement— evocative gestures to a brighter future. Individually and collectively, the work of Fresh Eyes artists invite viewers into aspects of the life-world that these young people find meaningful. I know that I am thankful for their offering and hope that others are also moved by their vision.

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