Silly bias, prisons aren’t for kids?
Today I attended a neato meeting at the Jefferson’s Peoples House. The meeting was called “No Incarceration, Yes Education.” The basic reason for the meeting was concern that many youth, especially those of color, are sent from schools into juvenile detention centers and prisons. Many issues related to this were brought up, such as the inability of schools to accommodate diverse behaviors to how non-profit organizations meant to help youth often oppress them. I will focus on the latter, as I have several years of youth work experience at the Boys and Girls Club, Neighborhood youth services, and Youth and Families in transition.
One of my frustrations doing youth work is that these organizations operate with a lot of unquestioned middle class, white assumptions. One example is that while working at the Boys and Girls club, my boss used the example of a BGC in Texas wherein there was high crime. Youth were often members of gangs and the club was situated in a “bad” neighborhood. However, the staff had high expectations. When the youth entered the building, they turned their hats around and pulled up their pants. To me, this is respectability politics writ large. To my boss, this was awesome, since it showed that the youth were respectful. To me, it was kind of horrific. Since, who determines what is respectable? White people. White people feel uncomfortable with low hanging pants and backwards caps. So as long as you act like a white person, you are welcome. Now, my boss was a nice guy who truly cares about youth, but in his mind, respectful looked middle class and white. Likewise, in another incident, my supervisor began a staff meeting by showing us a video about broken windows theory. The main idea of this theory is that if you punish the small things and keep a neighborhood tidy, people will begin to show pride in their community and crime will diminish. I wanted to scream! Basically, this says, nicely painted houses with well kept lawns…and lots of policing = less crime. That’s the most middle class, white garbage I’ve encountered. It was also plain old racist considering that broken windows theory, when applied to New York City, had a negligible effect on violent crime, but did result in 7.1 million police summonses (81% of which were directed at people of color). http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/summons-broken-windows-racial-disparity-garner-article-1.1890567
Nevertheless, we were told to keep the club clean and be consistent with behavior management. Now, sure, clean is fine. However, at that point in time I was rather overworked. I had spent the year doing Americorps, putting in 50+ hours of work each week for less than minimum wage. The idea that I should do more cleaning did not settle well with me. Entropy becomes the norm when there is little prep time or time between areas to clean. Worse, was the blame that the messes in the club were causing behavior problems was ridiculous. Perhaps poverty, racism, hunger, annoyance with white staff, attention seeking, mental health issues, health issues, or a hundred gazillion other variables contributed to behavior problems. But, messiness? Maybe, just maybe, behavioral problems are subjective. Granted, they don’t feel subjective when directed at me….but, with a really open mind and enough emotional support, standing on the table, swearing, or throwing things aren’t behavior problems as much as they are means of communication or different values concerning space and property.
There are many good things that the Boys and Girls club did. There are enriching activities, free meals, staff supervision, and so on. Without the club, kids might be home alone or hungry. They might also be abused at home or may not even have a home. With that said, I don’t want to critique the existence of such organizations. However, because of grant funding, these organizations exhibit a certain conservativism. Funders want results. These results are improved graduation rates, grades, school attendance, club attendance, or other quantitative indicators of success. However, in this world, success is measured by white, middle class measures. Success is defined by white, middle class terms. The long, diverse narratives of individual lives, where people may drop out, engage in crime, or runaway, spend decades struggling, but still find a modicum of meaning and happiness doesn’t matter. To some, success might be rejecting narratives that a house, one child, and drug free life is good. Success might be crime, a big family, or money from any means. Is this okay? What is okay? I would want youth to determine for themselves what success means for them. I have decided what success means to me. To me, it is endless education, travel, and activism. I am okay not having a house, kids, respect, or much money. So, if I can define success differently, shouldn’t youth?
There are so many ideas that I could explore. Today’s discussion was rich and interesting. I sat aside and listened. I heard radical people of color who wanted their own institutions. They were tired of non-profit organizations run by white people, imposing white values. Now, as a white person, certainly….I have some of these values. But, at least I felt good hearing that there are other people who have those frustrations. As a white person, it is hard to navigate how to serve and relate to minorities. I don’t want to be a white savior, coming to bring social justice. At the same time, I want to have a meaningful life where I help people. I care about injustice and inequality. I guess… it is a learning process. Today was part of a listening process. There are structures and ideologies that prevent non-profit organizations from helping minorities. However, I think that these structures and ideologies are malleable. With a mass movement, people can move against them and promote new ideas, discourses, reforms, and institutions.