“It is our collective obligation to shape each generation to control their own thought processes, to have a strong racial/ethnic identity, and to be ‘authentic strugglers’ for the advancement of people of African descent.”
– Dr. Marcia Sutherland, Chair of Africana Studies, University at Albany
The youth are powerful.
Standing next to a 17-year-old activist, you can feel the power, especially when they’re fighting for the rights of black and brown people.
Not to sound like an old head, but back in my day, would you find me raising a fist for any cause except for my own? Probably not. That’s why, when I pulled up on the youngins at the Gathering of the Youth Conference, in Harlem, hosted by Gathering for Justice, not only was I surprised, I was impressed.
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They’re so mad. They’re so empowered and they’re hopefully going to fix things. Why? They’re tired. Our current justice system is ridiculously twisted and is set up for Black and Brown people to ultimately lose.
From childhood, our youth are pumped into a pipeline that is designed to nab us from the classroom and put us into prisons. The numbers are scary, the stats are more than surprising, and no matter how much we try, there seems to be little hope of restoring a system that is not designed for us to win.
So, what do we do?
These young adults seem to have an answer and Gathering for Justice is pushing their missions even further. Hand in hand, they are organizing and marching for the rights of those who would otherwise go unheard.
In search of a solution, a three-day “Gathering of the Youth” conference was orchestrated to develop an agenda to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Here youth leaders engaged in conversations, panel discussions, workshops, trainings, and more.
Criminalization of the youth
School policing has made it almost impossible for Black and Brown students to succeed. Once instilled to protect students, the scrutiny and authority of law enforcement have now gotten way out of hand.
According to data released by the U.S. Education Department, Black students were four times more likely to be suspended from public schools and Latino students were nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
What does that mean?
More research shows that a single suspension in the ninth grade doubles the odds for a student dropping out of high school or ending up in the criminal justice system.
What started out as Zero-Tolerance policies, that were mandated in 1974 (Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act) and 1994 (Gun-Free Schools Act) to expel students who brought firearms to schools, have become a model for a broadly punitive approach to youth behavior in schools.
The rigid enforcement of these “zero-tolerance policies” is not only archaic but it also doesn’t solve the issue. The thing is, these kids are more likely to get into criminal trouble once they are upended from their classroom seats.
Furthermore, the American Psychological Association found that these practices actually harm academic achievement for all students while increasing the chances that those excluded will be held back, drop out, and become involved with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
It’s been proven over and over again, especially with the heavy presence of school safety officers. That’s another issue that is linked to more student arrests. If you treat kids like criminals in a school, outside of structure they’ll act like that too, and ultimately act like criminals in prison.
Last year, Catherine Lhamon, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights in Obama’s Department of Education told a story about one elementary school where a black girl was suspended for poking a student with a pencil.
When a white girl in the same grade threw a rock that hit another child in the head and broke the teacher’s sunglasses. Instead of getting suspended, she was made to help the teacher clean the classroom during lunch.
That’s just one out of thousands of examples, fam.
Overall this gives power to whom scholastic institutions want to educate, deprives the youth of meaningful opportunities for education, future employment, and participation in our democracy.
One of the main figures in the fight for justice against the school to prison pipeline is CEO President of Gathering for Justice, Carmen Perez-Jordan.
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Carmen chose to do this work because of her childhood. She grew up on a small farm town outside of L.A. around a slew of negative community and home issues, including gang violence, domestic violence, alcohol addiction, and community unrest.
She credits positive adult influence and father figure, Pat Bell for helping her cope and get out of the negativity in her young life by playing basketball.
For a time, administrative school staff was seeking to expel Carmen Perez, claiming she was a gang member involved in a police investigation.
From a young age, however, Perez knew she wanted to help people. But she really didn’t fully realize her reason to live until her sister, who she viewed as her protector, died in a car accident.
“When I do this work, it’s not necessarily a job. It’s a lifestyle.” – Carmen Perez-Jordan
Perez-Jordan went on to study psychology in college because she wanted to understand why she did not become a statistic while the people around her did.
She sought to find ways to break the cycle of oppression so many kids fall into, and credits several femtors (female mentors), who were also Latinas, Chicanas. It was those same mentors who made her realize that she could succeed as a Latina as well.
Later, Perez-Jordan met Harry Belafonte, who created the Gathering for Justice organization. As a bridge between youth and elders, Perez-Jordan takes it upon herself to make sure that the youth have the resources that the elders fought for.
Perez is also one of the co-founders of the Women’s March on Washington. Along with Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez sought to help communities recognize how issues intersected and promote participation in political marches and events that may not seem to obviously connect to all community members.
Gathering for justice
On the third day of the Gathering for Youth Conference, those who were in attendance were able to listen in on a panel focused on “Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline through Transformative Politics” moderated by Zarina Iman along with Kay Galarza, Luis Hernandez, and Senator Brian Benjamin.
At 17, Kay Galarza has made quite a name for herself and besides applying for colleges, she’s focused on pushing the initiatives she believes in forward. At the panel, Galarza emphasized the need to go beyond hiring teachers of color to combat race-based disparities.
She is quite aware of the buzz going around to hire more teachers of color. Still, she knows that throwing just any teacher that may look like your son or daughter won’t solve the problem.
We need teachers that are “equipped to handle the school culture.” The high school senior explained the need for anti-bias training for all teachers in order to affect students in a positive way.
“Teachers need training and professional development focused around implicit bias training and tier-one restorative justice training, as well as for the administration and other school staff.”
Galarza also spoke on the psychology of why students of color are penalized more than their white counterparts, and how this implicit bias manifests.
“I think that they [students of color] do the same things as white children but are getting punished differently because of this idea that whiteness as a social construct is what people should be acting like…”
“When teachers or administrations see that students aren’t conforming to this standard of whiteness they automatically think that it’s a criminal activity or that it’s a criminal way of behaving.”
Kay Galarza fights for justice as an activist with the understanding of her own privilege as well as the generational trauma, and ancestral pain that she and others inherited.
In her own words, the reason why she does this work is in order to understand both herself and others. And more importantly, to preserve her ancestral history.
Alliyah Logan, founder of Growing Naturally and managing director at NYCLU’s TAP program, echoed the need for self-reflection in relation to other identities and how oppression impacts them.
“It’s very important, this idea of understanding your experiences but also being an ally and being an advocate for other communities, to be able to uplift their voices in the movement”
The 17-year old Jamaican-American youth advocate also stated that the most impacted groups and identities should be at the forefront of the moment and should be speaking the most.
Andrea Gonzalez, director of operations for Youth Over Guns explained that the way to open the lines of communication between races on the importance of issues is through education first and foremost. The 18-year-old sophomore at Baruch College said this about POC being at the forefront of the movement:
“It’s not our [Black and Brown people] jobs to always educate people, but when we do choose to educate people, when we take the time out of our day to retraumatize ourselves and relive our experiences, we expect people to listen.”
Gonzalez also highlighted the need for media to emphasize the deaths from the hands of police brutality and state violence at the same importance as mass shootings.
“Every single life is a trauma for a community.”
Luis Hernandez, head of Youth Leadership and Engagement Coordinator for Gathering for Justice and Executive Director of Youth Over Guns lead the Gathering of the Youth conference.
Hernandez’s take on how to help foster communication for the dismantling of oppressive systems focused on the actual language organizations and the oppressive systems use.
Hernandez recalled an anecdote of a mother seeking support for her son who was having legal troubles, who was sent to the district attorney’s office.
Unaware of the district attorney’s role in the criminal justice system, the mother asked for resources for her struggling son and instead, the office advocated for the incarceration of her child at his trial.
Hernandez explained that it’s due to a lack of knowledge of the oppressive system and the language it uses that those most vulnerable have trouble navigating it.
“We need to meet people where they’re at.”
Assistant edits by Chorouk Akik.