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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.

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.

Honoring the simplicity of a moment

My fifth year working as a resource teacher I co-taught in a classroom with a Charles Mingus poster hanging at the back of the room.  The poster said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”.  At the time a large part of my job was modifying curriculum to support my students in accessing and participating in the instructional activities of a content area class.  I often felt undervalued, not by the young people I was working with, but the other teachers, and school staff at my site.  When I saw this poster something clicked for me.  I realized, I believed what my colleagues said to me: that I was dumbing down curriculum, or making things easier for the young people I was working with.  The poster helped me identify something I strong believed.  It was overwhelmingly awesome (in the true definition of the word) to support a student to access a new concept or idea.

I had a similar moment, that shifted my thinking, at the alternative to detention program (atdp) where I mentor.  In conjunction with the YMEJ grad seminar I have been mentoring with a group of women for the past six weeks.  My initial workshop I was shocked that my knee jerk teacher qualities came out.  I wanted students to learn, I wanted students to listen.  I was calling young people in the program students—even though the program is not affiliated with a school.  When I applied for the YMEJ seminar over the summer one question in my interview was about how I thought of mentorship, or defined a mentoring relationship.  My response was a traditional model of mentorship that is one on one, where one person is positioned as a knower, or mentor, and the other person holds the mentee or learner role.

Since that conversation I have come back to the idea of the fluidity of mentorship and how the roles of teacher and learner are interchangeable.  As a teacher, I often thought about how much I learned from my students, but I think it was in a trite way.  As in, “Wow, these kids have so much they can teach me.”  In this context I still positioned myself as the knower, and I while I was not shocked to learn from my students, I did treat the moments as a type of novelty.

As I continue my working with the young people and staff members at the alternative to detention center I hope to channel some Mingus and value the awesomeness of simplicity.  Going beyond making a concept simple but also honoring the moments of being human.  How can I come to a space and value each individual without imposing my own agenda?  How do I extend an authentic invitation that emphasizes a dualistic mentorship role with the young people at the ATDP?  To keep it simple, how do I be myself in a way the invites others (especially young people) to be themselves with me?  I hope to begin to think about answers to these questions but for now, here is some Mingus to enjoy.

Charles Mingus — Self Portrait in Three Colors


Who is Avonte Oquendo?

“Attempting to transform “our taken-for-granted frames of reference” into frames that are “more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8) is especially challenging when the transformation involves deeply held beliefs about one’s basic self-concept or identity” (European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, 2005, p. 121).

“The NYPD is looking in previously searched areas for Avonte. Police have scoured train stations and subway tunnels to find the mute, autistic teen because he is fascinated by trains.” (abcnews.com)

I need to write about Avonte.  No, I need to write for Avonte.

Not because Avonte Oquendo has been missing for three weeks, though it troubles me. I need to write for Avonte because when I google his name all that pops up are news articles about the what and when.  What happened?  He ran away.  When? During school.  I need to write about Avonte because very few articles talk about who he is, what he thinks, what he feels.  He is a subject we talk about, instead of a person who is a valued member of society.  Oh yes, he is autistic, and mute.  We need to find this child who “suffers from autism” as I keep hearing on the recorded subway message every day.  I need to write for Avonte, because for me, he has become a symbol of the youth who remain silent in our city.

Perhaps it is because he represents the silent, those who cannot defend themselves, that if we find Avonte, we can sleep at night.  We saved him!  But saved him from who?  There is an implicit message is: Avonte cannot save himself.  He is running away because he doesn’t know any better.  Forget that he might have run away because his school was boring.  In the media, he is presumed incompetent.  His story becomes irrelevant because it has already been constructed by the news outlets who so desperately call for his return.

Yes, Avonte is labelled autistic, and yes, he does not use oral communication.  Still, how should we conceive of knowing Avonte?  One mode that we privilege in our society, verbal communication, is not his chosen mode of participation.  Some articles refer to him as mute, others says he is non-verbal (an often used term in New York City’s special education discourse).  No one writes about him.  As a fourteen year old boy, one with a story to tell, with preferences, with thoughts and feelings.  Since they cannot be communicated through speaking, they remain unknown—at least in the mass media.  I imagine if you spoke to Avonte’s family they would tell you quickly, his favorite food, the shows he watches on TV, what subject he likes in school.  There are many other modes of participation, different modalities for telling ones story.

I worked for three years as a teacher in District 75, the special education district in New York City.  My first year we received a grant that gave us materials and resources (Teaching Artists) to support our students in writing a musical.  The youth at my school wrote the play, music, lyrics, made the sets, designed the costumes.  The opening song:  No one wants to be forgotten, no one wants to be left behind.  Sad, lost, mad, frustrated.  I want to hit something.  I never forgot those words because that was the first time I realized how I was constructing the identity of the youth I was working with.  I would argue the same type of identity constructions happens with court involved youth.  I think as the quote at the beginning states that it is only through examining our own beliefs and identity that we can begin to transform.  Why do we allow Avonte (and other youth) to be constructed as silent?  How do we stop treating youth as subjects and develop capacity oriented models by which to re-imagine and understand youth.

I hope that more people write for Avonte and I hope that he finds his way home.  Mostly, I hope at some point in the not so distant future we get to hear his story.

Avonte Oquendo left his school is Rego Park, Queens, three weeks ago.  For more information about Avonte Oquendo please read the following article:  http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2013/oct/17/find-missing-autistic-teen-avonte-oquendo/    (Amsterdam News: The new Black view).   


Foster Youth And Higher Education

According to research from Casey Family Programs, a national charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care, estimates suggest that only about 7 to 13 percent of youth from foster care enroll in higher education. Out of those who matriculate to postsecondary institutions, only 2 percent of young people from foster care obtain bachelor’s degrees, in comparison to 24 percent of adults in the general population. Such sobering statistics reflect the critical need for policymakers, child welfare agencies, government officials, higher education systems, and educators at the secondary and postsecondary levels to address this issue facing approximately 20,000 youth age 16 and older who transition or “age” out of foster care each year.

Recently, several colleges and universities across the country have answered the call for action by creating programs that help foster care youth to fund and complete their college education. One such initiative, the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, has received accolades for its work supporting the educational attainment and life outcomes of youth and young adults (12-25 years old) who have lived some or all of their years in foster care. The program, now in its fifth year, provides tuition assistance and extensive student support services including mental health counseling, life skills training, and career planning to foster youth who have lived in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. Seita Scholars experience on-on-one coaching to help them navigate both the challenges of college life as well as those of the adult world more broadly, including filing tax returns, applying for Medicaid, and budgeting their weekly expenses. Given that many students from foster care do not have a permanent residence, the program ensures that a WMU dormitory is kept open through school recesses and summer breaks and organizes community meals and activities on holidays. Academic tutoring is available to all scholarship recipients as well as career advising and assistance with locating internships and employment opportunities in the Kalamazoo, Michigan community.

The Seita Scholars Program is an example of a comprehensive approach to assisting youth and young adults who age out of foster care. Its success can be attributed, in part, to its focus on the future rather than the past. While acknowledging and not diminishing the fact that many of its students have experienced trauma and harrowing life experiences, the program’s emphasis is on moving forward and equipping youth with the tools to manage difficulties, access resources, and succeed in college and beyond.

For more information, please visit:

Click to access SupportingSuccess.pdf



New Books on Youth, Justice, & Institutions

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 5.26.06 PMTo the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care is the recently published book by Cris Beam that offers a layered, multi-faceted, and poignant exploration of New York City’s Foster Care System by focusing on the lives of the children and their families — both bio and foster — who are deeply affected by institutional and system-wide policies and practices. Beam writes based on her research — for this book, she spent five years interviewing and spending time with foster families — and from personal experience and positions the texts as an attempt to better understand why, despite the “more than a million adults [who] are directly or indirectly employed to ensure [foster children’s] well-being, and $15 to $20 billion a year [that] are poured into overseeing their health and management,” no one thinks the system is working. Beam’s book does not offer neat solutions. Instead, her rich descriptions and thoughtful prose offer different points of entry into the seemingly entrenched set of challenges that affect the people caught in the system at every level. Read the first chapter of the book here.

 Arts, Media, and Justice: Multimodal Explorations with Youth is a volume edited by YMEJ member Lalitha Vasudevan and Tiffany DeJaynes and brings together a collection of chapters authored by practitioners and researchers who worked with youth in a variety of arts-based and media settings. Central to all of the chapters is an emphasis on how, through exploration with the arts and media, young people involved with the juvenile justice system may be engaged as agentive partners in reimagining education in their lives. Ranging from photography and theater to media making and creative writing, the contexts depicted in this volume hold important implications for educators, the field of youth development, and policy makers in how we might better support young people who find themselves embroiled court-involved — the thoughtful and illustrative writings of the authors suggests that rather than emphasizing punitive measures, we might create conditions in which exploration of self and world may occur in meaningful, collaborative, and potentially transformative ways.

(**All proceeds from book sales go to supporting the work of alternative to detention and alternative to incarceration programs in New York City. ***)

Righting (and re-writing) portrayals of court-involved youth through media/ted representations

In the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out digital publications produced by first group of YMEJ grad students, culminating in a digital anthology — all of the pieces were shared as part of an exhibition called “Let’s Start Something: Reframing Perspectives on Youth, Justice, and Educationand early this autumn we’ll publish the complete anthology online.

As a preview, here are a few pieces from the collection:

1.anak ng new york”  — by Alexandra Thomas
Click on panels to reveal more layers of information, context, facts, and resources

From the author:

Anak ng New York is a project designed to give alternate views on care and young people in the Foster Care System in New York City. “Anak ng” means “children of,” or colloquially, “son or daughter of” in Tagalog. The homepage of this website provides a single, and perhaps the most stark, view of foster care in NYC. There is a tick mark for each of the 13,000 young people currently in the system. However, behind each panel is another view. There are resources, narratives, poetry, and artwork, which exemplify the diverse and complicated ways in which we can understand foster care and the lives of the young people within the system.

Click on the 4th panel on the 1st row for a compilation of responses from adults who work at various points along the foster care landscape in support and in service of foster youth: Top Ten Questions And Answers for Future Involvement with Foster Care Youth” — produced by David Gajer.

2.  Those Unspoken Truths
 — by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Ellen Chan

From the authors:

Those Unspoken Truths is a collaborative project that merges poetry and photography and explores ways youth would like to be known. We see the exploration of photography, the asking of the question “who am I?”, as well as the responses, as initial steps toward creating a platform for discussion and inquiry around the ways we come to know youth and the ways in which youth let themselves be known.

Youth speaking about Stop and Frisk — Views from the reluctant experts

Last year, the broader public got an in-depth and disturbing glimpse into the actions and behaviors of the network of law enforcement individuals involved with enforcing Stop and Frisk practices in New York City when a young man named Alvin recorded what he described as one of the countless times he was stopped in the vicinity of his own neighborhood — his recording captures his second stop in the same day.

Ross Tuttle, a contributor to The Nation, expanded Alvin’s courageous and revealing audio into 13 minute short film called “The Hunted and the Hated: An Inside Look at the NYPD’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy” in which he surrounds Alvin’s audio recording with interviews of current and former NYPD officers, legal experts, and, perhaps most effecting, Alvin and other young people themselves for whom this is not merely a policy but an everyday fact of life.

Tuttle’s film opens with a general shot of a street in Harlem, and a few seconds later settles into this image in which he sets up the film:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 10.41.48 AM

This short film, innumerable personal accounts and protestation across a variety of media platforms of this policy, the ongoing battle between law enforcement brass who support this policy and the communities they serve (for whom safety is paramount, but whether this policy actually helps to achieve it remains questionable)… all of these factors have also been brought into the harsh light of everyday conversation with the ongoing trial that brings into direct question the NYPD’s commitment to stop and frisk as a way of policing.

Watch the full film here:

Just today, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin found that the city “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data.”

The article in the NYTimes goes on to note:

Noting that the Supreme Court had long ago ruled that stop-and-frisks were constitutionally permissible under certain conditions, the judge stressed that she was “not ordering an end to the practice of stop-and-frisk. The purpose of the remedies addressed in this opinion is to ensure that the practice is carried out in a manner that protects the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much needed police protection.”

So where is the line of reconciliation? That is, where is the meeting ground between complete repeal of the policy and its continuation in its present state? This presumes of course that the desire on behalf of law enforcement is to protect communities from a persistent influx of weapons and violence, which is purportedly the intention behind what has become an increasingly polarizing law enforcement policy. Tuttle’s film and Alvin’s recording, however, make it difficult to believe that serving and protecting is at the root of the way that the policy is carried out everyday. Young people (too many of whom live their everyday lives under “suspicion” before the sun has even risen) and the communities in which they live shouldn’t exist in a constant state of fear.

This is the simple point poignantly presented by Kasiem Walters, a high school senior in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in another short film called, “Stop-and-Frisk: The High School Senior,” part of the #whereiamgoing campaign. What comes through most evocatively in Walters’ narrative is the psychic weight he and his friends carry with them constantly, being stopped, having his possessions tossed on the ground, his pockets searched by grown adults — he notes that one wouldn’t understand this if it happens one time or as an isolated but rationalizable experience. No, one needs to experience being stopped, questioned, violated, treated in dehumanizing ways 6, 7, 10, a dozen, more than twenty times. For Kasiem, this experience began at the age of 13.

I have seen this same weight press down hard on the shoulders of many of young people we work with through this project and the Reimagining Futures Project at local alternative to incarceration and detention programs. It is the weight of suspicion that saturates their interactions, how they move, who they speak with — these considerations and more are movingly brought to life in young Kasiem’s story. Watch him here:


Finally, read Linda Sankat, another NYC teen, detail her #stopandfrisk experience in a piece written for Youth Communication/YC Teen. In it, she wonders:

But what is “reasonable suspicion?” The NYPD has interpreted it broadly. CCR tallied the NYPD’s own records and found that 685,724 people were stopped in 2011—the vast majority of whom were black and Latino. Nearly nine out of 10 of those subjected to stop-and-frisk were not arrested.

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg credits the policy with lowering crime and keeping guns off the streets, it has a detrimental effect on innocent people who feel targeted because of their race, class, religion, sexual orientation, gender, identity, or housing status. Critics say many stops are unlawful because they are too often based on stereotypes rather than real suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.

Sankat also mentions young Alvin’s recording and offers some of her analysis of what he captured and what his recording sparked, not only amongst teens who know this experience all too well, but also among those for whom such practices remained largely hidden until recently. Just before concluding her piece with a call to arms to her fellow teens to speak out against this policy, Linda Sankat states plainly: “The job of the police should be to protect the public—not harass innocent people.”

What could be more true?

These are three of a vast sea of stories, encounters, and experience. Follow us on twitter (@YMediaJustice) where we’ll continue to share more young people’s stories in an effort to interrupt injustice and to educate beyond mere actions of agreement or disagreement. The issues wrapped up with #stopandfrisk are far too complicated for simple solutions. One step in the right direction, we believe, is to take the stories of youth seriously.

Follow @txtconnectNYC on Twitter — and read more about their work in engaging youth to report instances of #stopandfrisk
Follow #whereamigoing on Twitter
Learn more about the movement here: http://www.whereiamgoing.org/
Follow @changetheNYPD on Twitter


Harlem: Community Milestone

Celebrating the 5-year anniversary of Total Equity Now (TEN), held last night at the very fabulous Astor Row Cafe in Harlem. TEN was founded by Joe Rogers, Jr. and has as its mission, “Empowering Harlemites as active participants and decision makers in advancing educational excellence and equity across our village.”

A few photos** below — but first, don’t forget to:


TEN Founder Joe Rogers, Jr. getting ready to kick off a presentation highlighting the past 5 years of work


A glimpse of the artwork around the Astor Row Cafe (I’ve been told to check out the bathroom, that also features some beautiful art — next time!)


The tasty looking menu at Astor Row Cafe, the hosts for the evening.


TEN supporters mixing and mingling — a great showing last night!


** sorry for the grainy pics — didn’t want to use the flash in people’s faces.



Educational Justice — online video resources

The Global Action Project (G.A.P.) has a rich history of pursuing and advocating for effective social change through innovative uses of media. In preparing for Year 2 of our YMEJ Seminar, we found a collection of videos that G.A.P. has listed under the category of Educational Justice. Perfect, right? The videos (short flims, PSAs) address educational issues related to:

  • undocumented students
  • youths’ legal rights
  • homophobia and violence
  • the school to prison pipeline

This one in particular caught our eye:

This video questions why people leave school or fail to graduate. Rather than focusing on the more commonly held idea of “drop outs,” the video examines the trends of push-outs, and the many ways that young people feel discouraged by the educational system. Interviewing educational researchers, students, and each other, we try to present the stories behind the statistics. – See more at: http://global-action.org/video/set#sthash.9eM2qbfj.dpuf

Here are a couple of other online video repositories that include short films in a variety of formats that take up issues of social change and education in a wide embrace:

Follow GAP on twitter: @gapyouthmedia
Follow 3minutemedia on facebook and twitter

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