Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.
– Adrienne Rich
Early in the summer a couple of years ago, I attended a screening of a film called “No Place for Kids.” The filmmakers, Parker Seniors Nina Friend and Keely Mullen, introduced this film about juvenile justice by describing the journey of self-discovery that the documentary process became for them. Wanting to tell the story of the injustice that their city and the legal system had done to young African American males, they realized that telling this story required that they ask themselves questions about race and privilege in their own lives. A pivotal moment was when they drove across the city for an interview with a man named Mr. Williams.
They knocked on the door and entered his house. Right away Mr. Williams challenged them: “what are a couple of white girls doing making a movie about incarceration?” This older African American man, who had been wrongfully convicted as a young man and who has spent most of his life in prison, turned their world upside down with his question. They drove back to their side of town, and stopped.
Suddenly the boundaries of segregation in the city loomed huge for these young women. They saw that the geography of the city was mapped out in the story of incarceration in Chicago. Everything about their lives took on a new register when plotted on this map: the car they drove, their physical appearance, but especially their freedom.
The story Nina and Keely told that night to this auditorium of 200 people was about their own transformation. They learned to name patterns of privilege and oppression; this helped them to grow parts of themselves internally. Whereas they started the project as a way to carry out an independent social action plan, they found that their learning ended up depending on encounters with others. It was in watching the learning journey of these young women, and many other young people, that I came to recognize that meaningful social action is embedded in internal processes. Though the film the two young women made was a fine achievement, I want to argue that what happened to Nina and Keely internally was more important than the project itself.
Where are you in this story?
Here’s how the students introduce themselves:
“Our Chicago lies between Irving Park and Roosevelt, and as far west as Kedzie. But our Chicago isn’t everyone’s Chicago. With our fair skin and our private school education, we will never be a suspect class… we will never be tossed around by Chicago’s justice system. So who are we to tell you that this system is unfair? We are young, we have a camera, and we have a voice…”
In their film, we hear the young women’s voices alternate – they claim a collective voice that emphasizes their uneasy awareness of their class identity — and watch the streets of Chicago pass by as they drive along their social justice pilgrimage. By situating themselves within the bounds of a moving car, they are signaling their search and their movement – as well as the protection they have as they confront the system that they see their African-American peers persecuted by. They are noticing the boundaries of neighborhoods, and asking questions about why they hadn’t explored the boundaries before.
The more closely they study these boundaries, the more determined they become to challenge them. They are learning that the geography of the city is a matter of life and death for many Chicago youth – in many neighborhoods, young people are trying to navigate the Scylla of gang violence and the Charybdis of racial profiling. Nina and Keely are overwhelmed by the numbers of their peers who don’t make it.
They realize, though, that there is a danger of falling into despair; and they want their peers – the privileged ones, who “care,” to reject the temptation of resignation: “If you begin to believe that the system is too big, and too out of reach, you willingly give up your part in the conversation…What we see is a racist history of disempowerment. What we see is privilege that protects the privileged. What we see is a responsibility to stand in solidarity.”
Nina and Keely emphasize what they see – and they are starting to notice what they don’t see. Because of their experience, and their reflection on their experience, they are gaining the ability to be aware of multiple contradictory realities at once. They know that telling the story of what they see is important.
It took them a long time to find themselves in their narrative, to start to balance their focus on injustice that others experience with attention to the privilege that protects them, themselves, from injustice. Mr. Williams turned the young women away from his door – and showed them where to look instead. He urged them to talk with a white ally, and sent them to Bernadine Dohrn.
Later, Keely and Nina reflected, “after talking to Mr. Williams, we realized we were overstepping our boundaries in making this film. But learning about Bernadine had a big impact. She represented for us a white person respected as a voice of the people despite not being affected by the issue.” Dohrn, who at the time was the Director of the Children and Family Justice Center, says when they interview her for the film, “if you engage in the big issues, you find yourself with populations that otherwise are invisible to you. And then you get changed by it.” Through their interviews, the young women came to see patterns of oppression that had been invisible to them before.
Another door opened for Nina and Keely when a young African-American man who had been incarcerated said to them, “I love righteous white people. They can go places I can’t go and people who won’t listen to me will listen to them.” The words of this young man reassured them that they could learn to follow in the footsteps of the white allies they so respected. Taking this as the permission they needed, though still ambivalent, Nina and Keely continued their project.
Adult Allies and Adultism
The film No Place for Kids weaves together their journey of growing self-awareness with the voices of juvenile justice advocates and incarcerated youth. The young women open the film with an excerpt from a poem by Giuliano B., a young man in jail:
“My mind’s playing bricks on me. I don’t know what to do. For some, these bricks turn to bars as they pass time. It really doesn’t matter, because both are messing with your mind. People walk past and think, look at the brown kids in the brown bricks. I’ve been knowing them so long, that these bricks became my home.”
In his poem, Giuliano describes a process of transformation embedded in perspective. But whereas Nina and Keely experienced an opening up of their perspective and themselves, Giuliano’s poem expresses a closing off of perception, and therefore, self.
Giuliano is a member of Circles and Ciphers, which, Nina and Keely explain, is a hip-hop forum that fosters internal change through hearing and sharing stories and young participants’ reflections on the political realities that shape their lives. In the film, each of the Circles and Ciphers members emphasizes the difference between how they see themselves and how they’re being socially conditioned to see themselves. They tell stories of being handcuffed in their school hallways, neglected in jails, denied the supports they need to survive difficult lives.
One young man explains, “I smoke weed, and that’s the only illegal thing I do. It’s not because I want to get in trouble, not because I want to go to jail, I guess it’s because it’s the only way I can cope with life. I struggle at home, at school, and it’s not right that I have to go outside and worry about the cops, too.”
The adult world has targeted this vulnerable young man instead of nurturing him. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is also featured in the film. She says, “too often we see young people in schools as suspects, who we need to crack down on… instead of young people as deserving of our care and concern and support.” Adults in schools and in other institutions are distorting the perspectives of the young about themselves and one another.
Once young people see how this is working, they are loud in their outrage. Young people with the group Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), for instance, confront the assumption that the War on Drugs needs to be waged to protect young people from drugs. At a protest against the War on Drugs, Parker student leader Maddie Mullen spoke before a crowd of some 300 people, addressing the assumption that the War on Drugs is necessary to protect young people: “I stand before you as a member of this generation that refuses to be used as an excuse for this drug war.” She and other SSDP activists denounce the hypocrisy of politicians who know that the war on drugs is not really about protecting children, who know that it is a racist policy that drives mass incarceration and the devastation of whole communities, but who hide their knowledge behind political rhetoric.
Both sets of youth – the white youth from affluent neighborhoods and the youth of color from at-risk neighborhoods — are challenging the boundaries of who they’re supposed to be, according to their neighborhood and skin color. They are speaking out about those boundaries. In No Place for Kids, Michelle Alexander says to her young interviewers, “You look back in history, and you see that so many of the major movements were driven by young folks, who weren’t willing to believe the myths any more, who weren’t willing to accept the status quo, who were willing to take great risks, and speak the truth LOUDLY, and we need that today.” Alexander points out that adult society binds young people not only in schools and in prisons but also in ‘myths’ that perpetuate an unjust status quo – and that young people have the power to counter these myths.
The young people who made this film have the support of adult allies – not as teachers or as authorities, but as wise and wily traveling companions. History teacher Jeanne Barr leads the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy group. She sees challenging power as a necessary democratic skill for young people to develop. Ms. Barr put Nina and Keely in touch with Mariame Kaba.
Ms. Kaba became Nina and Keely’s project advisor. She is the director of Project Nia and a leader in juvenile justice advocacy. Ms. Kaba helped Nina and Keely with interview contacts and with planning their project. This kind of structural support aligns with the model of adult ally work that she has engaged in and taught for many years. She describes her role as “walking beside” youth: “We let young people know we’re walking beside them, including when they fall. Then what? We say what are we going to do? – you’re not alone with it when you fall.”
And Ms. Kaba knew that Nina and Keely were going to fall. Sooner or later they were going to run up against race and class barriers that would shake them up. She thought long and hard about how that difficult experience could be weathered safely. She hoped it wouldn’t cause the young women to lose heart. But she also had the backs of the people the young women were interviewing: she wanted to make sure that the students’ explorations and evolving understanding didn’t unintentionally harm any of their interview subjects.
So, she made sure that early on in their project they would talk with Mr. Williams, who she knew would challenge them: “I wanted them to talk to him before they talked to the young men in our neighborhood. They need to know their own location: where are you in this story? What made them extraordinary was how they took criticism and used it in a positive way.”
The question, “where are you in this story?” encapsulates the democratic education process. It posits that there is a story, a big picture, and that the person perceiving, telling, hearing the story has a place in it. The question is also a reminder that “where” a person is has a great deal to do with their place in the story.
The students were aware that their “where” was multi-dimensional: not only geographic and demographic but also historical, long-term, and current. And deeply contradictory. Their school educates some of Chicago’s wealthiest families – as well as the families of Black Panthers and people who have devoted their lives to fighting wrongful convictions and the school-to-prison pipeline. “No Place for Kids” pays tribute to this latter group. The film explicitly situates present-day drug war policies in the framework of police state tactics with 40 year-old footage of Black Panther leader Huey Newton pointing out, “the police in our community couldn’t possibly be there to protect our property, because we own no property… it’s very apparent that the police in our community are not here for the security of our community but for the security of the business owners.” By putting Huey Newton’s words and face alongside those of wrongful convictions and juvenile justice advocates, the young people are challenging the status quo that they have been born into, that expects the police and the law to be representatives of justice and peace. They are beginning to deconstruct the myths.
In reflecting on her project, Nina explained,
“The people we talked to, the places we traveled, the concepts we thought about have contributed to an ever-evolving sense of myself. One of the biggest questions that emerged for me throughout this experience is my role as a white, educated, privileged youth in today’s world, today’s America, and today’s criminal (in)justice system. I often wonder about the role of youth, particularly privileged youth, in shaping the system and the movement to reform the system. Nearly every person we interviewed was an adult, and something just doesn’t seem right about that to me. How can we let the adults of society take over a system that affects the youth? The criminal justice system is one thing, but the juvenile justice system is another thing, and I think it’s so important that youth begin opening their eyes to bring what’s out of sight (prisons and youth incarceration in our own city) into mind.”
Nina is questioning the system, critically analyzing the flawed institutions adults have constructed. The more she acknowledges the extents of her race and class privilege, the further she develops a new identity. She is naming herself part of a young generation that is connected by awareness of injustice and commitment to justice. This new identity doesn’t replace her inherited identity – in fact, the different identities must co-exist to function. Nina discovers that her embrace of a collective identity energizes her position of privilege from something she feels uncomfortably stuck in, to something that she can infuse with purpose and meaning.
One of the hazards of people using their privilege to “make a difference” is that it can further isolate them in their fixed class. But the person of privilege who develops a collective identity that relies on connections with people from different backgrounds creates thereby a porous and agile identity. As Maxine Greene writes, “It’s that you become a person… the more perspectives, the more viewpoints that you can internalize, the more eyes you can look through, the more people you feel are your brothers or sisters.”