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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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“[T]he young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.”
This line jumped out at me as I read this recent New York Times article (link below). I have heard, and used, many variations on this argument over the years when trying to convince people that putting children in prison is not a particularly great idea. Basically, the idea is that kids and adults are fundamentally different. Therefore, while it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons, children who have been convicted of crimes should experience something different, administered by a more forgiving, nurturing, juvenile justice system.
But where I have been getting stuck lately is the implication that it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons. It started as a bit of an age problem—do I really believe that eighteen year olds have all the wisdom and maturity of my 94 year old grandfather? Would I feel more comfortable if the age to be tried as an adult were raised to 21? 25? At what point do I actually feel that putting people into adult prisons is helpful for both the person being incarcerated and society as a whole?
So lately I have been wondering if age should be such a major defining feature of our justice system. As far as I can tell, our justice system is based on the idea of individual responsibility and punishment. At some point, someone becomes solely responsible for his or her actions. At that point, that individual Deserves To Be Punished for any crimes or transgressions.
The United States incarcerates the highest percentage of our population of any country in the world. As of 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated over 2 million adults in state or federal prisons. People have begin poking at the edges of this problem—too expensive, too many nonviolent offenders, too many mandatory minimum sentences, too many drug related cases. But we always seem to leave a center, a group that is, at the end of the day supposed to be in prison. The really violent, incorrigible adult criminals that we seem to assume are out there and need to be behind bars. But who are these people, really, and what evidence do we have that we are all better off when they are removed from their families and communities and put into the sort of conditions that we no longer think would be acceptable if they had only been a few years younger at the time they committed their crimes?
- A Bid to Keep Youths Out of Adult Prisons (nytimes.com)
Juvenile in Justice is an image-based project aiming to document the placement and treatment of American Juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them. Richard Ross, a California-based photographer, began the project five years ago and it has been traveling as an art exhibit around the world for the last year.
From the website:
Juvenile in Justice includes images of over 1,000 juveniles and administrators over 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, plus extensive information collected from interviews. The hope is that by seeing these images, people will have a better understanding of the conditions that exist. Children’s identities are always protected and faces are never shown.
Juvenile In Justice is a unique source for images of the American juvenile justice system, which are made available to all institutions and non-profits aimed at youth justice system reform– including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
It was difficult to find any information about how Ross gained access into so many facilities and was able to interview so many young people. The only limited explanation of the process that I could find was in a press release for the Ronald Feldman gallery in New York City (one of the hosts for the traveling exhibit). It reads:
Ross gains access to the spaces of incarceration, and those working and living within them, through a complicated process of obtaining permission from all levels of administration, permission that is often at the discretion of individuals working in the system. [He says,] ‘I wanted to give a voice to those with the least amount of authority in any U.S. confinement system.’
It is interesting to consider the relationships among “youth,” “media” and “educational justice” as they intersect and emerge within the Juvenile in Justice project. Ross uses familiar art forms (photographs, video, audio recordings) to tell the stories of young people in the juvenile justice system. His work provides an incredible rarely accessible insight into what detention centers and incarcerated youth look like. While the quality of the footage both still and moving is quite beautiful, the images are chilling yet moving. At the same time, however, it is necessary to offer questions about space, audience, and power as they relate to this project.
By “space” I’m referring to the art galleries around the world that have hosted the traveling exhibition, displaying the project’s artifacts. I wonder about what we tend to associate with an “art gallery,” what assumptions we might make about who has access to these spaces? What kind of conversations are had in these spaces? Are the stark white walls and rather sterilized curation of the photographs meant to ironically mimic the environment of a detention center?
Closely tied to space, I think about how notions of “audience” relate to this project. Who is the target audience of this work? Who are the stakeholders? And which audiences have access to the spaces in which this work is shared?
And finally, “power.” It is always crucial to consider the inherent power dynamics that [tend to] exist between adults and young people, especially when the young people are already involved in a system that has rendered them completely powerless (in this case the juvenile justice system, specifically juvenile detention centers). Ross has documented and exposed this aspect of the juvenile justice system in an incredibly raw and unique way, and it is possible that drawing attention to this topic may result in a greater sense of accountability on the part of the justice system. Yet, we must also think about how Ross’ presence in the detention centers — his photographing, interviewing, etc. — may have been received not only by staff but by the young people. Where do we draw the line between voyeurism and educational justice?
I pose these questions not necessarily to elicit answers, but rather in attempts to encourage us all to remember, like John Dewey (1980), that “a work of art is not the object itself–the physical painting, sculpture or photograph…but what the work does ‘in and with human experience'” (cited by Hubard, 2013). Our lived experiences, the contexts within and lenses through which people may see and interact with these pieces are different and that is an important reality to keep in mind.
Paint Me Like I Am
By Shirkey Warthen
Why don’t you paint me
Like I am?
Paint me light brown caramel
Five foot ten
Paint me with a different brush.
Paint me zooming, going fast
‘Cause I’m in a rush
And my ashy knuckles
Are all worn out
Paint me everlasting.
Paint me the real deal,
Not drawn out.
Paint me in my real authentic self
Somewhere in southwest
Somewhere on 54th Street
With all the fellas, all the chicks
Chillin’ & partying in the streets
Where we need 2 decrease
The violence and increase the peace.
Paint me without my shout out ways.
That were supposed to be left behind
In my shout out days.
Paint me so my Mom notices me
And the haters don’t.
Paint me with nice colors,
But most of all
Paint me Black
Because I love being colored.
If you drive by 5550 Chester Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, you will see a newly installed mural—a mosaic of colors that frame a black figure. On September 17, 2013, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program held a dedication for “Paint Me Like I Am,” its most recent mural dedicated to Shirkey Warthen, a passionate and dedicated Youth Advocate at the Juvenile Law Center who was shot and killed on April 17, 2012.
Shirkey joined the Juveniles for Justice Program after spending two years in placement at a youth criminal facility when he was 14. According to the Juvenile Law Center’s executive director Robert Schwartz, “Shirkey saw his juvenile justice system involvement as an opportunity to change not only his life, but the lives of other young people who faced similar circumstances.”
During his time at Juveniles for Justice, Shirkey worked with his peers to create a legislative campaign to ensure staff in detention facilities were not harming youth. He travelled to Washington, D.C to meet with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill to advocate for this important cause, urging them to pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that was then up for reauthorization. Back at the Justice Law Center, Shirkey recruited new Juveniles for Justice members, led community meetings, and advocated for change to members of the Philadelphia School Board, city government, Philadelphia Police, and Department of Human Services. According to Juvenile Law Center’s Staff Attorney Riya Shah, “He (Shirkey) knew he was speaking on behalf of the thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system and he made sure that his voice was heard.”
Shirkey was a role model for his fellow youth advocates and for those in his community. As Shah explains, “He watched as many people in his life were pulled back into the juvenile or criminal justice system. But he was determined to stay on track and complete his goals.” Prior to his tragic passing, Shirkey had recently completed his GED, gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, and found a job at the Logan steel plant. “With each advancement he made, he was always reaching back to pull the next person forward,” offers Shah.
Shirkey’s tragic passing left behind his mother, daughter, fiancée, nine brothers and sisters, and 14 nephews and nieces. Reflecting on his legacy at Shirkey’s memorial service in 2012, Shah poignantly explained,
“His resilience and passion for making a difference influenced not only his peers but also me and the rest of our staff. In our work, we constantly see young people who are defeated by broken systems. But Shirkey wasn’t defeated. He was inspired by the broken system – inspired to make it better. He didn’t just want to change his own life; he wanted to change the lives of others. He didn’t just want to better himself; he wanted to better his community.”
Perhaps Shirkey’s greatest legacy is captured in the third stanza of his poem “Paint Me Like I Am,” now immortalized in the mural watching over his old neighborhood, “Paint me in my real authentic self/Somewhere in the southwest/Somewhere on 54th Street/With all the fellas, all the chicks/Chillin’ & partying in the streets/Where we need 2 decrease/The violence and increase the peace.”
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