Feb 11 2015

Prison Prep For Black Girls…

Last week, the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies released a report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.”

The report found that while black boys were suspended three times more than white boys, black girls were suspended SIX times more than white girls.

source: Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies

source: Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies

For those of us who focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline, this finding is unfortunately not a surprise. The trend toward the increasing criminalization of black girls in schools and society is not new.

Recently, Dr. Connie Wun published a very good article (PDF) about the role of anti-black racism in school discipline and punishment for girls. I highly recommend reading the article for a better understanding of how & why black girls are particularly targeted for harsh punishment in schools.

Regular readers might recall that I wrote about a Black girl named Dorothy Young a couple of years ago. Dorothy was sentenced to a reformatory for allegedly cursing at a white boy in 1969:

For allegedly calling a white boy a “bastard,” telling him where to kiss her and using the words “damn” and “goddamn” on a school bus, Dorothy Young, 14, of Sylvester, Ga., is confined indefinitely to a reformatory known as the Regional Youth Development Center in Sandersville, Ga. She is the first child sent there from her county in three years.

Dorothy’s sister, Yvonnne, 11, was accused of using similar profane language to a white boy a year older than she and is serving a year’s probation.

You can read the rest of Dorothy and her sister’s stories here to see how schools have played a role in criminalizing black girls for decades. Unfortunately as the “Black Girls Matter: Pushed out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected” report makes clear this issue remains undertheorized and too often neglected since the focus has been disproportionately on the criminalization of black boys in schools. However with scholarship like Dr. Wun’s and the report by AAPF along with on the ground organizing, maybe we will begin to better address black girls’ needs and concerns.

Jan 18 2015

“Free Us All:” Love in Action in Chicago

It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday on Thursday and Chicago was in the mood to celebrate through study, action and protest. As part of an effort to #ReclaimMLK, Chicagoans demanded reparations for police torture survivors, gathered to discuss the radical roots of the Black Freedom Movement, called out a list of the system’s crimes against those most marginalized and finally marched by the hundreds in solidarity with a youth-led protest on the near Westside of Chicago.

Listen to these words offered by Kaleb Autman, a 12 year old student at Village Leadership Academy & co-organizer of the ReclaimMLK march and by Page May, a young organizer with We Charge Genocide who helped VLA students bring their vision to fruition. Listen to their words to better understand the current rebellions led mostly by young people of color taking place across the country.

I was invited to speak at Thursday’s rally and march. I had jotted down a few words but when it came time for me to speak I decided to focus on what was in front of me rather than on what I had planned to share. You see, by the time I was called to speak, we were in front of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (Chicago’s youth jail) and I could hear the children who were locked in cells insistently pounding on their windows.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

Their message to us on the outside was urgent and unequivocal: “Free Us.”

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez  (1/15/15)

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez (1/15/15)

I turned and looked to my right. I saw my friends of the Chicago Light Brigade holding light boards spelling out “Free Us All” as they projected the words “Indict the System” on the side of the courthouse. I struggled to hold back tears.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

It was the vision of a group of Black elementary school students that we march 2.5 miles from their school to the juvenile jail to underscore how close they are to being funneled through the pipeline to prison. My friend Kelly Hayes, who helped organize the march, wrote beautifully about the proximity of incarceration for these students:

VLA student Jakya Hobbs told us, “It is this system that keeps us from the world.” Her use of the word “us” was very intentional in this context. These student organizers see no distinction between themselves and the incarcerated, and rightly believe that as long as black and brown children are criminalized and caged, no young person is truly free. In elementary school, they understand what it took me decades to comprehend: Prisons don’t simply confine prisoners. They confine hopes and ambitions, and dampen the faith of those who might otherwise dare to believe in better things. Living as a black or brown person in a country where the prison industrial complex cages over two million of our brothers and sisters means walking through the world with the knowledge that, while you may have eluded the slave catcher, many of your people will not.

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Over 600 people braved the Chicago cold to march alongside the young organizers of the protest. I was so proud to live in this city as people of all ages, genders, class backgrounds and races responded to their call to action. I felt hopeful.

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

One of the children in the jail scrawled out the words “I <3 You” on his window. It read crystal clear to those of us standing outside of the jail. People responded by calling out and signing their love in kind.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

Thursday’s #ReclaimMLK march was a manifestation of love in action. It’s that simple and that complex. If these uprisings and rebellions are to develop into a movement, love will have to be centered alongside power. This is a truth gleaned from past movements and leaders:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Source: pp. 324-325 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998).

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

In the end though, I will remember three words from this action: “Free Us All.”

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

These words will ring out as we continue to struggle and fight for a more just and peaceful world. “Free Us All” is our North Star helping us to find our way in our journey toward liberation.

Jan 06 2015

New Resource Available: Teaching About the PIC & Criminal Legal System

As classes have resumed this week for high school and some college students across the country, my organization, Project NIA, is making a new resource available to educators and organizers today.

My friend and long-time NIA volunteer Dr. Michelle VanNatta wrote and compiled an invaluable guide last year. “Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas” offers activities that can be adapted, shared, and transformed to meet the needs of different groups. These activities are offered as potential tools in the hopes they may be useful in sparking discussion and in the development of more curricula.

Anyone who is interested in the guide can complete a short survey below to receive the link to download a copy at no cost.

The guide is in no way meant to provide a comprehensive look at issues in the prison industrial complex or criminal legal system. This is not a systematically developed, integrated group of exercises intended to provide a thorough view and analysis of all the critical issues about the prison industrial complex that communities, students, and activists need to learn about. Rather, it’s a set of tools intended to be adapted and integrated into curricula, popular education, or training efforts by teachers, organizers, and community builders.

I want to thank Michelle for her generosity in creating this resource and making it freely available. I also thank my friend Jacqui Shine for lending her design talents.

Finally, while this guide is offered at no cost to those interested, it is not “free.” Lots of time and effort went into creating the resource. Project NIA is a small organization that relies heavily on individual donors to do our work. If you want to contribute to the work, you can mail a check to us here. In addition, you can read our 2014 year in review highlights here.

I hope that these resources are helpful in building knowledge about aspects of the PIC. Please feel free to share the link to the survey with others who might also like to download the guide. As a courtesy, we are asking that everyone first complete the survey before accessing the guide.

You can complete the survey below and then download the guide.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Dec 14 2014

Free Lookman, Kidnapped by Chicago Police…

Update: Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing this post. I have just returned from bond court and have some “good news” regarding Lookman and his case. His charges were dropped to two misdemeanors (battery and resisting arrest). The charges remain bogus and will be fought in court. Lookman will be represented by my friend Joey Mogul in his next court date. For now, we are told that he will be released later today on a $10,000 I-bond. The money raised so far will go towards the legal fees that will accrue. But for now, Lookman should be home later today. Thank God and thank all of you for your support.

On a related note, two other young people of color were arrested at yesterday’s protests. One was badly beaten by the cops and taken to the hospital before being returned to jail. They too were represented by Joey and Molly Armour of the National Lawyers Guild today. Unfortunately, they are still charged with felonies. They have a $150,000 bond between them so they will need $15,000 to be bailed out. Some of their supporters are currently working on an online fundraiser for this. I will share the link once I have it.

Update #2: Lookman is out of jail. However, two other young men remain locked up on felony aggravated battery charges on a police officer, a felony. One of those young men was badly beaten by the police and had to be taken to the hospital. They are without resources for bail. Here is their bail fund. Please help them get out of jail as soon as possible. Any amount helps and please share the link with others. Thanks.

It’s his smile that draws you in… Mischievous and precious because it isn’t bestowed to everyone. You have to earn it because his ‘unlucky’ life has offered little to smile about. To bask in that smile is a gift.

I was at a visioning and strategy session about how to end police violence yesterday when I heard that Lookman was arrested.

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

He was protesting police terror along of hundreds of other Chicagoans. As soon as I heard that he was snatched by CPD, my heart dropped. I knew that he was close, so damn close, to getting off probation for a nonviolent offense. I knew that nothing good would come of this. Nothing.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the police station last night, I heard that he was being charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony. Witnesses who saw the entire episode unfold say that he did no such thing. These are trumped up charges. We will fight them starting today in bond court.

Lookman is a young black man living in Chicago. As such, he is a walking target. This takes its toll over the course of a young life. Along with the relentless police surveillance and harassment, Lookman was a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

When Lookman talks about his time in the “Audy Home,” he means the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Below is a photo of a cell at the juvenile jail. Lookman talks in the audio clip about looking out of the window in order to feel “human again,” you can see what that window looks like.

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

In Chicago, we lock black boys up to cage the rage but it doesn’t disappear, it only grows. To heal the walking wounded, we cling to anything that we can find. We beg them to talk, to express, to let go. We have almost no resources. The state is allocating those to the military and to build more cages. Some of them like Lookman channel their feelings in spoken word. “I’m tired,” he says.

Over the years, Lookman has grown as a person within a leadership development program that my organization incubated for many years called Circles and Ciphers. Lookman has traveled across Chicago leading peace circles in schools and other community spaces.

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

He spends most of his time these days looking for ways to bring more justice and some peace into this world. For this, he should be respected and uplifted. The Chicago Police department is hell bent on harassing, targeting and destroying him instead. We will not allow them to kidnap and disappear Lookman. He has a family and community that loves him. We want him back. He has work to do in the world. He has a life to live. We will not stand for this injustice. Please help us fight.

We need to raise money to bail Lookman out of jail. Click HERE to donate (this link will be updated with information after today’s bond hearing, we are just getting a head start). Thank you in advance for your support and help.

Oct 25 2014

Damo, We Speak Your Name: Resisting Police Violence in Chicago

Dominique (Damo) Franklin, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life mattered. Look at what you’ve inspired…

In May, I wrote about the death of a young man known to his friends as Damo at the hands of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Months later, answers about his killing are still elusive. To conclude my post about Damo’s death, I wrote:

“He was managed throughout his life through the lens of repression, crime, and punishment. And now he is dead and those of us left behind must find a way to heal while building more justice. We’ll continue to fight in Damo’s memory because we won’t allow his death to have been in vain…”

We are keeping our promise. On Wednesday, hundreds of people participated in manifestations of Damo’s legacy.

Damo, in a couple of weeks, your friends and peers are on their way to the United Nations in Geneva to tell your story that of countless others who have perished and been tortured at the hands of the CPD.

Your death has inspired this song though we would rather have you alive and here with us. The telling of police torture is a mourning song. But the protest on Wednesday evening reminds me that it is also a freedom song.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life matters.

At Wednesday’s protest, your friends and peers invoked your name; placing it alongside Roshad, Deshawn, Rekia and Mike’s.

“Protect and serve that’s a lie, you don’t care when black kids die.”

I am really tired and I am incredibly inspired. I am still struggling to find the words to express my feelings. So I am going to rely on photos taken by friends and comrades to end this post. I am privileged and humbled to organize with a wonderful group of people. I wish Damo was here to join us.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life still matters… In your memory, we will continue working to shut down oppression.

Read more »

Oct 06 2014

#NoSchoolPushout: The Girl to Prison Pipeline

Much of the discussion about the school to prison pipeline focuses on the plight of young men of color (particularly black boys).  This is understandable given the dire statistics that illustrate how susceptible they are to being pushed out of school into future incarceration.  The most often cited statistic is that 1 out of 3 black boys born in 2001 is likely to spend part of his life in prison.

However young women are also impacted by the school to prison pipeline.  Their trajectory is different.  Incarcerated girls are often victims of sexual and physical abuse in their early lives, and this is often neither recognized nor identified by school officials or other adults.

Sociologist Beth Richie has made the case that a key to understanding and responding to women as offenders is understanding their status as crime victims[1]. Laurie Schaffner (2007) extends this argument by suggesting that “young women adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court report suffering inordinate amounts of emotional, physical, and sexual trauma in early childhood and adolescence.”[2] She contends that “a disproportionate number of girls come into the juvenile justice system with family histories of physical and sexual violence and emotional neglect” (p.1229).

Many of the problems that young women face that relate to school failure and potential future incarceration stem from physical and sexual abuse.  This has led some to characterize the experience of interpersonal violence as a “Girl Prison Pipeline.”  In order to interrupt the girl prison pipeline then, particular attention must be paid to the physical and sexual abuse histories of young women.

Over the last few years, black girls in particular have been increasingly subjected to harsh disciplinary policies that push them out of school. A new report, Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity, released a couple of weeks ago suggests that:

“In the 2011-12 school year, 12 percent of all African American female pre-K-12 students were suspended from school, six times the rate of white girls and more than any other group of girls and several groups of boys – despite research showing that African American children do not misbehave more frequently than their peers.”

Girls of color and particularly black girls are increasingly pushed out of school and criminalized. But this story is not a new one. You can read about a young woman named Dorothy Young’s story here, for example. Also watch this video about Kiera Wilmot’s more recent incident:

Further Reading and Resources

Disciplining Violence by Connie Wun

Girls in the System by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)

Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls by Monique Morris (2012)

School to Prison Pipeline for Girls: The Role of Physical and Sexual Abuse by Sandra B. Simkins, Amy E. Hirsch, Erin McNamara Horvat, and Marjorie B. Moss


[1] Research on Women and Girls in the Justice System: Plenary Papers of the 1999 Conference on Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation – Enhancing Policy and Practice through Research, Volume 3. (September 2000). Office of Justice Programs. NCJ 180973.

[2] Schaffner, Laurie. 2007. Violence Against Girls Provokes Girls’ Violence: From Private Injury to Public Harm. Violence against Women, volume 13 no. 12. Pp.1229-1248.

Oct 03 2014

#NoSchoolPushout: Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

dscposter2014-page-001 Tomorrow kicks of the 5th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout. This year, my organization will join with youth, parents, teachers and community members in over 40 cities to resist school pushout and policing. Project NIA released a short paper this morning documenting the gains and challenges in the fight to end Chicago’s school to prison pipeline. I hope that those interested in these issues will read the paper authored by my friend, Dr. Michelle VanNatta.

I thought that I would use the occasion of the week of action to offer an introduction to the school-to-prison pipeline for those who might be new to the concept. I’ll also provide some resources for those interested in further study.

Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)

In an article that we wrote earlier this year, Erica Meiners and I defined the STPP in this way:

“Less a pipeline than a nexus or a swamp, the STPP is generally used to refer to interlocking sets of structural and individual relationships in which youth, primarily of color, are funneled from schools and neighborhoods into under- or unemployment and prisons.

While the US public education system has historically diverted non-white communities toward under-education, non-living wage work, participation in a permanent war economy, and/or incarceration, the development of the world’s largest prison nation over the last three decades has strengthened policy, practice, and ideological linkages between schools and prisons. Non-white, non-heterosexual, and/or non-gender conforming students are targeted for surveillance, suspended and expelled at higher rates, and are much more likely to be charged, convicted, and removed from their homes, or otherwise to receive longer sentences.”

Facts and Figures

To help provide some context for the scope and impact(s) of harsh school disciplinary policies, Project NIA created a short quiz to test your knowledge. Thanks to @cronehead and @MuffMacGuff who digitized this quiz. How do you fare?

Critique of the STPP Concept

Dr. Damien Sojoyner (2013) has challenged the concept of the school to prison pipeline. The abstract of his paper titled “Black Radicals Make for Bad Citizens: Undoing the Myth of the School to Prison Pipeline (PDF) summarizes his main argument:

“Over the past ten years, the analytic formation of the school to prison pipeline has come to dominate the lexicon and general common sense with respect to the relationship between schools and prisons in the United States. The concept and theorization that undergirds its meaning and function do not address the root causes that are central to complex dynamics between public education and prisons. This paper argues that in place of the articulation of the school to prison pipeline, what is needed is a nuanced and historicized understanding of the racialized politics pertaining to the centrality of education to Black liberation struggles. The result of such work indicates that the enclosure of public education foregrounds the expansion of the prison system and consequently, schools are not a training ground for prisons, but are the key site at which technologies of control that govern Black oppression are deemed normal and necessary.”

Others have offered other critiques of the STPP concept pointing out, for example, that we need think of the process of educational and societal marginalization as one that in fact begins from the cradle or even the womb.

Activism and Advocacy

The past decade has found increasing numbers of policy makers, advocates, academics, educators, parents, students, and organizers focusing explicitly on the relationships between education and imprisonment. A lot of organizing has happened around the issue of school pushout. The Dignity in Schools Campaign (organizers of the National Week of Action) brings together over 75 organizations across the country who are working to transform school discipline policies.

Just this week, advocates and organizers in California presided over Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of a bill to limit “school administrators’ use of an offense called “willful defiance” to suspend students in California schools.” This was the result of a long-term organizing campaign. Earlier, I referenced our newly released paper that documents some of the gains made by Chicago and Illinois organizers in the fight to interrupt the STPP.

Here are some organizations and projects advocating and organizing to end the STPP.

Teaching Youth About STPP: Curriculum Resources

We at Project NIA have developed several resources that can be used by educators and organizers to discuss the STPP with young people in particular. These resources have also been used by many people to lead discussions with adults as well. Others have also developed useful tools for teaching about the STPP.

Curriculum: Suspension Stories

Curriculum: NYCLU School-to-Prison Pipeline Workshop

Comic: School to Prison Pipeline by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

One page comic with discussion questions: Sent Down the Drain

Find many other audio, video, etc… resources at Suspension Stories

Further Study 

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline Edited by Bahena, Cooc, Currie-Rubin, Kuttner and Ng (2012)

From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline Edited by Nocella, Parmar and Stovall (2014)

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios (2011)

There is a list of other reading here and here.

Over the course of this next week, I will be posting information about the specific components that make up the STPP. Stay tuned!

Aug 26 2014

Hope in the Struggle: Chicago’s Young People Resist…

One of my touchstones, the brilliant scholar-activist Barbara Ransby, tweeted something yesterday that I agree with completely.

I write about the activism and organizing of young people in Chicago a lot. I do so because my work and purpose are focused on supporting young people to make their lives more livable. It’s been a long-term commitment. So when other adults persistently disparage and discount ‘young people these days,’ I can’t relate. The young people who I am privileged to know are some of the most talented, creative, dedicated and intelligent activists I’ve ever encountered in my now-over 25 years of organizing. This is a fact, lost on many to be sure, but true nonetheless.

Over the course of this summer, I’ve been engaged with several young people in a group called “We Charge Genocide” and I’ve paid close attention as they have taken the lead in writing a report, in creating workshops and trainings, in using social media to convey the message that oppressive policing must end, and in generously sharing their stories and talents. The source of my hope for the future is rooted in their gifts. We will win because of them.

I call out the young people of BYP 100, We Charge Genocide, Chicago Freedom School, Circles and Ciphers, Fearless Leading By the Youth, VOYCE, Chicago Students Union, Students for Health Equity, Black and Pink Chicago and many, many more that I am leaving out but are doing important work.

In just the past few weeks in Chicago, young people have spearheaded & co-organized a local National Moment of Silence vigil to commemorate the killing of Michael Brown and to stand in solidarity with the Ferguson community.

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Bob Simpson, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Bob Simpson, 8/14/14)

Read more »

Jun 08 2014

Poem of the Day: Why I Cry

Why I Cry
by Sharee M (Free Write Jail Arts Program)

I cry because so many thoughts
go through my mind.
I cry when I feel that I have been mistreated
I cry so that someone could come and comfort me
I cry so that things could go my way
I cry when I feel that everything’s over
I cry when I think about what I should have done
instead of doing time
I cry for a second chance
so that I could be something
I cry when I think about
when would I see my family again
I cry because I have not found myself
I cry for the family who lost a loved one
I cry for not going with my first mind, the right one
I cry because bricks surround me
I cry because I am in a box
I cry because I am not free

(Source: Big Dream I’m Chasing, Free Write Jail Arts Anthology Vol 6)

May 21 2014

More Sights From Locked Up & Locked Out March & Action

So many wonderful images from Monday’s Locked Up and Locked Out action and march keep coming in and I also couldn’t include all of the photographs in yesterday’s post

by Tommy Callahan (5/19/14)

by Tommy Callahan (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Holly Krig (5/19/14)

by Holly Krig (5/19/14)

by Sehar Sufi (5/19/14)

by Sehar Sufi (5/19/14)

Read more »