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Upcoming Event on US Prison System

Hi Everyone,

If you are located in the NYC metro area, come check out this awesome event on Thursday!

Developing Justice Roundtable: Mapping the Intractability of the U.S. Prison System
Thursday, January 30th, 7:00-9:00
Columbia University School of Social Work, ROOM C06

Join the NYC Student Collective to End Mass Incarceration for a conversation about the United States prison system. Our discussion will be structured around a mapping exercise used in the conflict resolution field. We will share knowledge about what factors perpetuate or interrupt mass incarceration, in order to try and strategize how the collective can can best engage in anti-prison work.

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.

Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani

Last week, thanks to Andrea Elliott‘s five-part series in the NY Times, the name Dasani came to mean much more than a label found on the side of a slender, blue-hued, plastic water bottle.

The series, which profiles young Dasani and her family as they experience various dimensions of homelessness and institutional forms of support and challenge, has received a significant amount attention in the mainstream press as well as across local contexts including our twitter stream, classroom discussions, hallway conversations, and, in one instance, a bus ride debate.

I am still very much mulling over the intricate layers of information and analysis of child homelessness that Elliott’s narrative offers, so in the meantime I thought I would share a collection of resources that I have gathered to help my own ongoing analysis and sense-making:


Additional Resources (taken from the Reading Club and other sources)

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).   


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