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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?

Who are you?

“Who are you?
Please, tell me anything you would like to.”

 

This narrative is the story of an encounter. It is her narrative, it is mine, it is ours, it is the present. How could we represent it?

            “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” (Morrison, 1993)

How do I connect with someone at a first encounter? What is the meaning of our experiences? How could the narrative be voiced without being manipulated by the producer?

  “Perceiving something from two different angles creates a split in awareness” (Anzaldua, 2003, p.549).

The process of making this video was the whole purpose. The final production simply engages the audience to listen, listen, and listen again.

What narrative(s) are you hearing? Are you certain? At which moment, do you connect with the voice? What does listening means? What does understanding means? How do multimodal artistic pieces impact your life? How do you build from it?

If a space for possibilities is created, youth will take the opportunity.

“We have the power because we are together in speech and action, and because possibility spreads before us, and because there are boundaries to break through.” (Maxine Greene, 1982, p.9)

Now, plug your headphone, click on the link, and listen.

 

References
Anzaldua, G.A. (2003). now let us shift. This bridge we call home.  (p. 540-579).
Greene, M. (1982). Public Education and the Public space. In Educational Researcher.
Morisson, T. (1993). The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. Retrieved from: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html

Emerging questions via mentoring

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.

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.

From Wait Time to Creative Time

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:

I believe

in justice for all,

though no one opens a door.

in opportunity,

though the best ones don’t reach me.

in freedom, in equality,

but mostly I believe

in me.

TAISHA WILLIAMS

———————————————–

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.

MARLITA DALTON

————————————————————-

Today,

I’m a life.

I’m not just passing by.

CRISTY BAPTISTE

Rehabilitation vs. Criminalization: The Need to Rethink Juvenile Justice Programs in New York

An editorial from this week’s New York Times, “When Children Become Criminals,” engages the question: at what age and under what circumstances should a minor be tried as an adult? This is in response to Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, recently announcing that he would be putting together a commission to develop a plan (recommended changes in laws and procedures) for raising the age for adult criminal prosecution by the end of 2014. Nearly 40,000 adolescents are sent through the New York criminal courts every year, most charged with nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, jumping the turnstile in subway, or possession of marijuana. As is well known, Black and Latino young people, especially young men, are highly overrepresented in New York’s court-involved youth population. One of the major takeaways from the article is the mention of the effects of putting children as young as 16-years-old through the adult court system:

Federally financed studies have shown that minors prosecuted as adults commit more violent crimes later on and are more likely to become career criminals than those sent though juvenile courts, where they receive counseling and family support. Beyond that, neurological science has shown that adolescents are less able to assess risks and make the kinds of mature decisions that would keep them out of trouble.

In 2007, Connecticut raised the age of criminal prosecution from 16 to 18, a law which took full effect in 2012. The state has also adopted new strategies for court-involved young people based on “rehabilitation, not lockups,” working to reduce arrests and save the state money. The Connecticut Legislature created a council of experts from law enforcement, mental health, and other fields to coordinate policy changes. The interdisciplinary collaboration is significant. Connecticut has ceased trying cases involving “nonthreatening adolescent misbehaviors,” like possession of tobacco. Most importantly, the state invested in counseling and intervention programs that “allow young people to make amends for minor misdeeds without going to court.”

I was surprised to learn that New York is one of only two states (North Carolina is the other one) in which 16-year-olds are still automatically tried as adults.  The New York law came into effect with the state’s creation of the juvenile justice system under the Family Court Act in 1962. Unable to agree on an age at which offenders should be declared adults, lawmakers temporarily set it at 16, but “…as often happens with public policy, inertia set in and ‘temporary’ became permanent.” More than 250,000 youth under the age of 18 are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year. And in New York, almost 90% of boys released from juvenile incarceration are arrested again.

As mentioned above, there have been growing conversations about the repercussions of sending young people through the criminal court system as opposed to providing them with rehabilitation services that might help to address underlying emotional, physical, mental, sociocultural, and environmental factors influencing behaviors. When young people are labeled as criminals or delinquents and tried as adults, their education is disturbed, their psyche is affected, and their re-entry into school and life can be extremely difficult and damaging, especially as they are going through crucial developmental stages of pre-adolescence and adolescence.

In addition, critics argue that many detention centers wrongly focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for young people. In a recent article on activists’ call for juvenile justice system reforms, AlJazeera America, highlights a new campaign working to change the procedures that the justice system uses with children and adolescents. It’s called Raise the Age:

Raise the Age New York is a public awareness campaign that includes national and local advocates, youth, parents, law enforcement and legal representative groups, faith leaders, and unions that have come together to increase public awareness of the need to implement a comprehensive approach to raise the age of criminal responsibility in NYS so that the legal process responds to all children as children and services and placement options better meet the rehabilitative needs of all children and youth.

I encourage you to check out the Raise the Age website and learn more about the reasons for the campaign and the holistic impact that raising the age could potentially have on the state’s juvenile justice system.

Reading the NYT article and learning about the Raise the Age campaign served as reminders about how the juvenile justice system needs a lot of work, but it is also highlights how imperative it is that we–society, educators, activists, parents, mentors, allies–work hard to challenge dominant narratives about “juvenile delinquents.” It is easy, especially in a sensational-news-saturated world to make snap judgements about young people incarcerated at a young age (who continue to lead lives of crime and punishment). Instead of just accepting the idea that young criminals look or act a certain way, lead certain lifestyles, or have the ability to make different choices but choose a life of crime instead, I encourage us all to take a step back and think about the programs and procedures that are set up to address and hopefully prevent such lifestyles and trajectories. Let’s think about productive and meaningful ways to support young men, in particular, labeled as failures and delinquents before they even grow facial hair.

How can we raise awareness? What kinds of conversations can we have? What new strategies and laws must be put in place in order for legitimate change to occur? Ask yourself these questions, pose them to others, and find more answers at Raise the Age.

Love Letter, Part II: Reflections on Mentoring a Court-Involved Young Person

Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.

* * *

Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,

It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.

Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.

To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.

What we have done.

Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.

Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.

…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;

…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.

What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?

She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.

What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…

How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?

What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.

Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?

I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”

And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.

And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.

I am not qualified for this shit.

The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.

And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.

I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.

I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.

And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.

My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.

 I am not qualified for this shit.

The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.

I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.

We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.

I stand up.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”

She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.

That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.

…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…

But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?

I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.

In love and gratitude,

Emily

What is family?

The winter premiere of the ABC Family show “The Fosters” is set for tonight (Monday, January 13th) — part two of the first season of a show that has captured people’s attention with its varied representations of underrepresented narratives: lesbian parents, trans-racial adoption, and youth in foster care. At the heart of the show is the (not at all simple) idea of family — as a reminder, the trailer for the winter premiere (airing tonight at 9:00 EST on ABC Family) opens with the question: “how do you define family?” (watch below)

If you are new to the show, you can view the first ten episodes on the ABC Family website. There are complicated family dynamics, and in all fairness there are more than a few “hollywood” elements intended to keep the viewer hooked. But I continue to appreciate the range of delicate issues that the show’s producers seem to be willing to tackle, albeit somewhat imperfectly:

  • the role of biological parents in the lives of children they have placed in foster care
  • range of portrayals of caring adults
  • sibling relationships (biological, forged through foster care, and others)
  • range and variation in what constitutes a “normal” adolescence
  • constraints as well as affordances of a child welfare institution like foster care, where not everyone fits a stereotype (i.e. savior complex, uncaring grunt, abuser of power, etc.)
  • nuanced representations of law enforcement
  • multi-racial families

I’m hoping to do a bit more blogging about the show this spring, and would love to know what others think  as well. In prep for tonight’s winter premiere, here’s a sneak peek of an exchange between two new siblings:

And for another reflection on family, check out the latest blog post by a member of the YMEJ family, Emily Bailin: Love Letter, Part II: Reflections on Mentoring a Court-Involved Young Person

See you on the flipside!

home for the holidays.

home for the holidays.

there are songs about it.  hallmark makes a fortune selling cards either affirming the practice or lamenting ones ability to get there.  its something i look forward to with great anticipation.  however, this year, while i was sitting in my dad’s recliner that he never actually sits in when i’m home, eating a dinner lovingly and deliciously prepared by my mother, while enjoying silly conversation with my 6.5 year old niece and nephew, i thought back to the youth we have had the chance to talk about over the last semester.

what does it feel like to experience the holidays without a home? something i always take for granted.  something that seems to me to be as special a time in the year as any, that i have, for the first time stopped to think, that many do not enjoy.  learning too early that santa only brings presents to some people (perhaps not in the foster home or group home, certainly not in prison or juvenile detention centers).  or perhaps of being in a foster home, away from siblings, extended family and parents.  wishing you had such a luxury to go “home to the holidays”.  perhaps not even able to comprehend what that might look like.

and i enjoyed my time even more.  but with a hint of guilt, or sadness.  at the experiences, holidays being just one, that i have always known and take for granted which i am now keenly aware is not the case.  and i wonder what it is like to not be home for the holidays.  not have a home to go to, or even if you do, not be able to get there.

soon after the joy of christmas we welcome the new year.  hallmark sells more cards filling us with the rhetoric that it is a time of new chances, new opportunities, where anything we dream can be true.  yet, once again, that rhetoric is only true for a select few.  those who perhaps didn’t have many struggles in the previous year, or even if they did, were surrounded by the warmth of home, support and family needed to overcome.  but to add salt to a fresh wound, we celebrate new opportunities and new chances with people who have little to no control over their outcome.  who rely on other adults to make their future better and brighter.  and while the world celebrates opportunities and fresh starts, they are left with the same slate, the same past, the same obstacles as they had at 11:59.

happy holidays.

happy new year.

full of promise and opportunities and new beginnings.

for some.

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