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JDC Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1: Equal Justice

Equal Justice

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Brownsville Middle School Falcon Fest

I attended the annual Brownsville Middle School Falcon Fest. The fest was to honor the students who completed Saturday School Academy. These classes prepare students to pass the Florida Standard Assessment test. Some of the students received bikes for their academic achievements. It was a good way to bring the community together.The event got me thinking more critically about the Florida Standard Assessment Test. This test is a product of the No Child Left behind Act of 2002. The law on Florida standardized testing actually expired in 2007, but the policy is still in place. Although there have been many concerns about the affects of standardize testing the practice still remains the same. Parental concerns are that teachers are now relegated to teaching “the test”.

I experienced this practice in high school. If enough students in the advanced placement classes passed the advanced placement test the school would get some kind of special accreditation. In my first English class we read Shakespeare out loud. I loved it. I was later moved up to the AP English class where all we did was go over test answers and strategies. I ditched class and hung out with the other delinquents who felt they had better things to do.

There are a lot of students who react to testing the way I did when I was in high school. My mentality was if I’m not learning anything, then why do I need to be here? Fortunately for me standardized assessment test were not used to determine whether or not you were passed to the next grade level. Your teachers determined that based on your overall classroom performance. Testing requires a certain level of memorization that may not reflect a student’s full understanding of the material. As cliché as it sounds, some people really don’t test well, I know because I am one of those people.

My fear is that the test has saturated the learning experience. It is very difficult for students to be excited about learning when there is the pressure of this test looming over their heads. It is my hope that young people today are getting a well-rounded education despite standardize testing.

Cash for Kids

Today’s critical reflection takes us to Luzerne county Pennsylvania. In February of 2011 former county judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted on 12 out of 39 rackateering charges and sentenced to 28 years in Federal prison. Although Ciavarella was convicted under the RICO statute, his true crime was taking part in a scheme to open a private juvenile detention center and keep it filled by any means necessary. The headlines read, “Cash for Kids”. It was not reported if Ciavarella and the other investors received a certain amount of money per child that entered the detention center, but Ciavarella admitted to receiving a $2.2 million finders fee from the contractor on the project.

Ciavarella did not act alone in this. Former Luzerne county judge Michael Conahan was responsible for putting the project in motion. First, he removed funding from the old juvenile facility so that he could shut it down. Then he signed a placement agreement with the county agreeing that juveniles would be sent to new the facility. John Mericle won the contracting bid for the construction of the facility by way of recommendation from his friend Mark Ciavarella. Attorney Robert Powell was friends with Conahan and agreed to handle the legalities of the deal. Under other circumstances this would be considered a normal business deal. What makes this case so different is the violation of civil rights that occurred. Parents were not made aware of their right or even the need for counsel. Children were incarcerated to support a business, not for rehabilitation as Ciavarella claims.

When the children were arrested the arresting officer told the parents to come down to the courthouse and everything would be straightened out there. Parents were confused on whether or not they needed an attorney because these were minor offenses that were normally solved on school grounds with the principal. When they arrived at the courthouse there was an officer at the entrance who asked everyone, “Are you here with an attorney?” If they answered no (which most of them did) they were given a waiver of counsel form to sign. The process was very swift. Some parents said it was over in a matter of minutes. Ciavarella acknowledged the waiver of counsel, read the charges, read the sentence, shackled the children and sent them on a bus to the new detention center. One mother said it was the most traumatizing thing watching her 13-year-old son shackled and taken away from her. He was sentenced to four years for possession of stolen property. His parents purchased a stolen bike and gave it to him for his birthday.

This is not an isolated incident, it’s just one where the higher up’s got caught. Currently 19.1% of United States prisons are privately owned facilities. The problem with turning our justice system into a for-profit business is that money becomes the motivation. Our criminal justice system was founded on the principles of rehabilitation for the prisoner and protection for the community, not to turn a profit. When a prison’s population rate directly affects its financial bottom line you have to start questioning sentencing practices. Is there an ulterior motive to incarcerating people? This especially looks suspicious with sentencing practices and mandatory minimums are constantly changing. There was a time when a 14 year old could not be tried as an adult and judges had discretion in sentencing procedures. Those times have changed.

Although President Lincoln took steps to outlaw slavery in 1862, the demand for free labor had not changed. The United States was in the growing process and it needed laborers. Business owners had to become more creative with how they obtained free labor. Free black men were snatched off the roads and arrested for walking on the wrong side, accused of stealing or looking at white women. Once they were sentenced the prisons sold them to the mining companies where they worked until they died. Now why does this sound familiar? Well, because it is still practiced today. Men and women are convicted on minor charges and once incarcerated are hired out by private contractors for virtually free labor (they receive minor compensation). I was watching Lock- Up the other day and I saw a prisoner who takes care of dairy cows for a milk company.

My mom has a lot of old sayings, “You can dress it up and put lipstick on it but a cow called by another name is still a cow.” Stripping an individual of their rights and using them against their will to turn a profit is still enslavement. I am all for justice and the justice system. I believe in paying the price for the crime you commit . . . An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth. I would like to see a criminal justice system that reflects that.

Concerning Violence

Today, I watched a documentary called Concerning Violence. It ever so vividly illustrated colonialism in Africa through film footage from the 1970’s. The script used to tell this story was Frantz Fanon’s, “The Wretched of the Earth”; narration was done by Lauren Hill. I actual have this book. I bought it after I took a class on terrorism. Most of the terrorist groups we studied were fighting against colonialism. Frantz Fanon’s background and viewpoints intrigued me. I bought the book and never read it. It is sitting in a pile with the rest of my old school books collecting dust. Today, without even turning a page his words came to life.

When we think of terms like slavery, oppression and colonization we tend to think of the past. As Americans that was our country’s past. As African Americans that is our ancestral past. For many Africans, it was just yesterday (figuratively of course). I remember boycotting Reebok with my mother in the 90’s because they supported apartheid. The footage in the film was taken from the early 1970’s. In it you get to see slavery, oppression and colonialism as it happens. It is mind blowing to say the least.

One of the many things that I found interesting in the film was the parallel in viewpoints about oppression and the oppressor between Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire. Freire writes, “Analysis of extensile situations of oppression reveals that their inception lay in an act of violence” (Freire, P., p. 44). Fanon writes, “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (Fanon, F., p. 165).

Slavery, oppression and colonialism in this context can be used interchangeably because they have virtually the same meaning. To enslave a person is to oppress them. To colonize someone else’s land you must oppress them. This system has been in place ever since man learned to walk and discovered that his neighbor’s grass is greener on the other side. This leads me to question why we think the systematic institution of enslavement has stopped?

Let’s have a for instance. I am the authority figure, the governing factor, the master and I remove you from your home at age 12 and place you in a small isolated space providing only the bare necessities. This new environment is submerged in violence due to the inhumane treatment, mental instability and the constant struggle for control between the oppressed and the oppressors. This is a place that is made to kill your spirits so you will accept your new normal. It is a system of submission. Now, can you guess what situation I am describing? Is it . . .

A.) The colonization of the western United States where native people were both forcible removed slaughtered and institutionalized through Christianity and American education?

B.) The colonization of South Africa by the Dutch who decided to re-name themselves Afrikaans and claim the land as their own. Native people were forcibly moved to shantytowns with only the ability to work as servants on the fertile farm land they once owned.

C.) A juvenile detention center in Luzerne county Pennsylvania where juveniles were removed from their parents care, tried, sentenced and shackled for minor offenses. The investors in the privately run facility collected money off of every head that filled the detention center.

The answer is D.) All of the above. Each situation involves oppression, enslavement and colonization. You may think, “How does our modern criminal justice system reflect colonialism?” Step 1: A person is forcibly removed from their home and family. Step 2: The person is detained and shackled. Step 3: The person is placed in their new confined living quarters with most of their rights striped away. Step 4: An overseer is inserted to ensure compliance and submission. Step 5: Profits are generated through contracts with investors, corporations and stockholders.

I am in no means implying that criminals do not need to be locked up for the safety of our society. A sound criminal justice system is a necessity for keeping order in civilized society. I am simply pointing out the similarities in the framework of our

justice system and colonialism. As I said before the terms slavery, oppression and colonialism are interchangeable. You cannot have one without the other. When we take a look at our modern civil society we must ask ourselves if any of it is actually modern, or civilized for that matter. Or, are we implementing the same system of oppression that has been used since the dawn of time and calling it justice?

Reading Reflection on Writings of Dewey, Freire, and hooks

Growing up as a poor person of color in the south, these readings touched me in a both educational and personal manner. Going to a public school segregated by both race and class I have experienced first-hand the violence of the Southern American educational system. I developed a natural desire to analyze the educational institution critically and also change it. In the readings Freire argues that after students develop a critical consciousness praxis allows for them to alter the structures in which marginalizes them.

Historically we have constructed a society in which institutions marginalize the poor, women, racial minorities, and ethnic minorities. The educational system is no different. We can see this historical process of marginalization if we look at a few select historical examples. In 1864 Congress made it illegal for Native Americans to be taught in their native languages. This is part of a larger historical process of imperialism that has violently indoctrinated minority students into an educational system that undermines any history that (de)normalizes whiteness. From 1893-1913 the size of school boards in the country’s 28 biggest cities was cut in half. This resulted in local immigrant communities losing control of their local schools. Local businessmen on school boards were replaced by members of the capitalist class. This is part of a larger pattern of the American educational system functioning under neoliberal policies.

We can go through a long historical analysis of ways in which the American educational system has worked to marginalized minorities. But, I cite a few examples to move us away from the utopian view of the educational system as an institution in place to better the life chances of all citizens. These examples allow us to conceptualize the academic imperialism that the American educational system embodies. These readings allowed me to reflect on the ways in which the educational system has been historically used as a tool violence towards marginalized groups and it seems America doesn’t learn from the past too well.

All of the readings speaks to the ways in which education can and has been used as a tool of marginalization. For bell hooks she talks about an education of liberation (which is understandable given she is greatly influenced by Freire). She argues that education is more than about developing a person for the work force, but about allowing students to be constructors of their own educational experience. She argues that the educational system is upheld by sexist, racist, and imperialist ideals. We must constantly challenge the structure. In reflecting upon hooks’ book the sections on language and class really stood out. hooks speaks about how we must use the language of our oppressor to communicate with him. However, blacks in America have altered American English in profound ways. Typically this is referred to as slang or ebonics. However, hooks argues that this broken form of English serves as a resistance to imperialism. Frantz Fanon says, “to speak a language is to appropriate a culture”. In the American educational system students are forced to appropriate the standard American English language. Through this process indigenous languages, black urban vernacular, and other tongues are marginalized. For me, we must construct the educational system in which students can use their true voice in their process of liberation.

Coming from a working poor background I was personally invested in hooks’ chapter on teaching and class. hooks says, “It only took me a short while to understand that class was more than just a question of money, that it shaped values, attitudes, social relations, and the biases that informed the way knowledge would be given and received”. The educational system is structured around capitalist middleclass norms. hooks continues to argue that, “values of those from materially privileged classes are imposed upon everyone via biased pedagogical strategies”. When this occurs we treat the bourgeois as experts and the poor as void of knowledge. However, individuals from poor and marginalized backgrounds have a worldview that can enhance the educational system.

Reflecting on the readings have me excited to start my work with E-SToPP and specifically the Positive Peer Leadership Mentoring program. The readings helped give me a theoretical framework that can aid me over the summer. The most useful component is from Freire when he speaks on not polarizing the educational experience. Where we must move away from teachers/professionals being seen as experts that are there to liberate students. Freire says liberation cannot be a gift. I feel well intentioned people such as myself go into these situations wanting to help. But, to help is a very paternalistic notion which Freire warns us of. The students who I will work with over the summer are the experts when it comes to their lived reality. It is not my job to help them progress through life positively, but rather the students and I construct mutual relationships built on honesty and in turn we will learn from each other.

The readings have me excited about working in the detention centers this summer. As a student who frequently got expelled (never was sent to a detention center) I understand the stigma that comes with individuals who are punished. Too often society gives individual explanations for why this occurs such as the students have poor behavior. But, rarely do we engage in a meaningful conversation on the ways in which both the educational and criminal justice system fails poor students and students of color. bell hooks talks about the way in which sexism, racism, and classism upholds the educational system. We can get a lot closer to finding solutions if we try to create structural explanations in understanding this populations experiences opposed to using individual ones. I am excited about meeting and learning with the students. I anticipate my reflection will be much more nuanced after learning with the students.