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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.
New York is the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes youth as adults when they turn 16. According to Raise the Age NY, an advocacy campaign for increasing the age of criminal responsibility:
Nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court each year – the vast majority for minor crimes (75.3% are misdemeanors).
Furthermore, more than 600 children ages 13 to 15 are also prosecuted in adult criminal courts –seriously diminishing their life prospects before they’ve even entered high school.
Over 70% of the children and youth arrested are black or Latino. Of those sentenced to incarceration, 80% are black and Latino.
On their own, the statistics above are disturbing, painting a bleak picture of a system that is misaligned with science around adolescent development and the experiences of so many, including policy makers, who remember being young, impulsive, and rebellious. When paired with the voices of young people and the exposure of the hypocrisy evident in laws governing youth behavior, as in a recent PSA from the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, the statistics take on an even more penetrating message.
Because I’m 16, I can’t drive at night.
Because I’m 16, I can’t get a cell phone without my parents.
Because I’m 16, I can’t get a flu shot without my mother’s consent.
At 16, I’m not allowed to watch an R-rated movie alone.
Because I’m 16, I can’t sit on a jury, but I can be tried as an adult.
Listen to these young people making the case for “Judging Children as Children.”
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.
In September 2013, the New York Probation Office published “Free Verse,” the first issue of a poetry journal that emerged from the thoughts of those waiting in the probation office at the Bronx Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON), a collaborative of community organizations, government agencies, local businesses, and community residents focused on connecting probation clients who live in the neighborhood with opportunities, resources and services.
As described in its opening pages,
Free Verse is a journal of poetry, prose, and song that promotes turning waiting time into creative time. Headquartered in the heart of the waiting room of the new South Bronx NeOn – where probation clients check-in with their probation officers – FreeVerse solicits new writing created while people wait.
As described in Gwen McClure’s article on the Juvenile Justice Exchange, “Free Verse” was the brainchild of Loni Tanner, Chief Change Officer for the NYC Department of Design and Construction and Executive Director of See ChangeNYC, as well as Dave Johnson, the Poet-in-Residence at South Bronx NeOn. Tanner informally named the program, in its existence since April 2013, “Not School”—an acknowledgment that learning for young people does not need to only be confined within classroom walls. Instead, learning opportunities exist in the most unexpected places. For Johnson, the program was a movement with a larger purpose than literacy and learning. As he explains,
This is a lot more than poetry; this is an opportunity to be welcomed back into society.
Thankfully, this innovative program has continued, recently releasing its Winter 2014 edition . Below are a few of my favorites from the collection:
in justice for all,
though no one opens a door.
though the best ones don’t reach me.
in freedom, in equality,
but mostly I believe
The Good Fight
One day I will not have to fight you,
the partner I was given in this lottery of life
that looked so promising until the drawing
as each number was pulled, it was clear, it was not a winner,
just another one to go with the other ones
in a pile of must forget yesterdays.
One day I will not have to fight the voices in my head
of people’s words placed wrongly in my spirit,
the words that should have rolled off my back,
but somehow, were deposited in my future.
One day I will not have to fight the urge to write about the sorrows
that have been my tomorrows, before tomorrow has even gotten here.
One day I will fight the good fight of keeping
the roaring laughter from my belly, fighting to make it out like a raging lion.
One day I will fight to open the cocoon, to let the butterflies I protected, go free.
You’ll never know the pressure I endured, to be cut, into the diamond you see.
I’m a life.
I’m not just passing by.
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.
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?
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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