Young men of color, breaking the school to prison pipeline

theGRIO REPORT - They are not only changing the conversation about the perception young men of color, they are identifying partners and policy makers to discuss how to change trajectory of young men of color across the board...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, the saying goes. However, the perception of people of color, particularly men of color, has been a point of contention for some time now. It was seen on full display during the Trayvon Martin case. It was brought up in a recent candid statement by President Barack Obama.  The one common theme is that perception can be reality.

One reality is that young men of color do face daunting challenges and obstacles every day.

“From the data we discovered that men and boys of color were having the worst outcomes as compared to their peers,” says Maisha Simmons, program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A Promise to Move Forward

The foundation recently introduced the Forward Promise initiative, a $9.5 million investment to promote opportunities for the health and success of young men of color — African-American, Asian, Latino and Native American — in middle and high school.

“We saw the outcomes that were deemed as success measures, and [men of color] would be at the bottom of [those statistics],” states Simmons.

Each program was selected due to its innovative approaches that could serve as models for other programs to emulate. They are not only changing the conversation about the perception young men of color, they are identifying partners and policy makers to discuss how to change trajectory of young men of color across the board.

Creating a Brotherhood

One of the programs selected was The Brotherhood/Sister Sol program in New York City, New York. The program, which was established in 1995, caters to youth ranging from age 8 to 22, and focuses on “issues such as leadership, education, sexual responsibility, sexism, misogyny, politics, and social justice,” according to their website.

The young men’s reasons for joining were different.

“I learned about it by way of word of mouth, and I was interested in the trips” says Anthony Keller, 19, a rising junior at Staten Island College, who started with The Brotherhood program when he was in the 8th grade.

“Honestly I went because of the pizza, says Exiel Sanchez, 18, a rising sophomore at Onondaga Community College who started with the Brotherhood at the age of 13.

But, they quickly learned the value of the program.

“I was intrigued by it,” says Keller. “The second time I met them I felt that it was a place that I could belong and be a part of it.”

“Over time I began to think about my environment, and I realized I didn’t want to be a [negative] product of it, I saw I could be a greater man.” adds Sanchez.

Each had found the program challenging and engaging. They felt that the program dared them to be something better and they accepted the challenge.

“They asked me the first day what did I want to do with my life. Most of us said we wanted to be ball players or rappers and they showed us how to plan,” says Keller.

Not every one stuck it out though, Sanchez says.

Those who never participated, or did but left early later approached the young men with mixed feelings and regrets, says Keller.

These young men’s perceptions changed in how they viewed the world, and with it people’s perceptions changed in how they viewed these young men of color. They were routinely asked by their schools and program leaders to speak with at-risk boys and teens of color at their schools to try and steer those young kids onto better paths.

Dismantling the ‘School to Prison’ Pipeline.

Another program funded by the initiative is the Community Coalition (CoCo) in Los Angeles, Calif. Founded in 1990 by U. S. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA 37th district), the program provides community-centered solutions to address the root causes that fuel crime, addiction and violence in the community.

One of the major aims of CoCo is to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, which was becoming a growing problem in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Even though African-American males make up four percent of the population in L.A. County, they represent, on average, forty percent of those who are suspended and expelled from schools.

“We have fought for reform of the disciplinary system to be more progressive and place suspension and expulsion as a last resort,” states Marqueece Harris-Dawson, President and CEO of CoCo.

One L.A. high school, Crenshaw High School, boasts a very dubious distinction — having the most students on probation attending high school than any other school in the country.

Willful Defiance

Students were suspended for actions ranging from talking back to teachers and not wearing school uniforms to seemingly harmless offenses such as not having their shoes tied or rolling their eyes.

Suspension is justified for “willful defiance.” Yet, the willful defiance rule does not entail any act of violence, selling or using drugs or the possession of weapons, it is subjective in its meaning and application.

“It ultimately was anything the teacher or administrators wanted it to be,” says Harris-Dawson.

“To me, the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” says Damien Valentine, 16, a rising junior at Manual Arts High School in the LAUSD, who states he was suspended for two days in the seventh grade under the willful defiance rule when he refused to move a 3rd time during class because he felt he was being unfairly singled out.

He felt that being suspended did nothing to resolve the issue and puts students at even more of a disadvantage for graduation and finding employment.

“When they suspend you, they send you to the streets, every time you get in trouble, they send you to the streets, and eventually you’ll want to stay in the streets,” adds Valentine.

Over time, as the number of suspensions mount, the chances of being a “push out” increases. According to the data, if you are suspended one time you are 60 percent more likely of getting pushed out of the LAUSD. With the second suspension, 80 percent and with three or more it was almost a certainty.

The perception of the students raised questions of how suspensions were utilized.

“There are 23 possible ways to be suspended in LAUSD, and 56 percent of those suspensions were for willful defiance. You start to see kids getting kicked out, which was a huge component to the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Alex Stewart, a youth organizer who has been working with CoCo for several years.

Restorative Justice

With the help of CoCo, the willful defiance suspensions ended. Instead of suspensions, they helped implement a system of what’s called “Restorative Justice” to help rebuild relationships between students and teachers and allow the students to face their actions head on and take responsibility for them.

“The Forward Promise grant allowed us to really organize parents, students and the larger community to help prevent push outs,” says Harris-Dawson.

The members of CoCo also helped put together the School Climate Bill of Rights in the LAUSD to help create a more welcoming environment for students of color in the school system, which entailed more transparency and more accountability.

Hope and Change

All of these young men of color have better outcomes and positive outlooks on life, Keller says. They all have promising futures. However they all share a common tie — without those initiatives they all had similar outlooks on where their futures might have been.

“Before I joined them, I was only doing negative stuff. I didn’t get arrested, but I was definitely was going down that path,” says Keller who now is pursuing his college degree and hopes to go into construction to help rebuild communities.

“Before I got involved [with CoCo] I wasn’t doing much of anything. But I started seeing how successful people were and it motivated me to do more,” says Valentine who hopes to be a physician when he grows up.

“If I didn’t get involved with the Brotherhood, maybe I would have graduated high school, I’m not sure after that,” says Sanchez who now wants to be a police officer and hopes to eventually become an FBI agent.

Words of Wisdom from the Future

When asked what they would tell other young men of color about making positive choices despite the perceptions against them, they shared:

“From the [Trayvon Martin] trial, I realize I am completely capable of being afraid, but because of my skin color, I’m perceived as being the creator of fear. But you have to know who you really are and take that negative and utilize it as fuel and motivation to be successful,” says Stewart.

“Explain to kids the rights they do have, so they won’t be clueless when they go out into the real world, and how they shouldn’t be a statistic,” Valentines adds.

“Whether you join a program like this or not, you are taking a risk. If you choose not to, you’ll be taking a risk to get arrested, to be in violent situations,” says Keller. “If you join the program, you’re still taking a risk. Yes, you will be walking away from the [neighborhood] block. Yea, some of your friends may not want to be friends with you. However, you will gain just as many friends if not more. You will definitely gain a better mindset and more critical thinking. And you will gain a network that will make you way more successful than you ever would by staying on the block.”

“Joining the Brotherhood was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m blessed that they came to me when they did. I’m the first in my family to go to college and I would tell anyone to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. Because of them, I’m moving up, little by little,” says Sanchez.

Dr. Terrance McGill is an aspiring family physician with a passion for writing and increasing health awareness in the community. He recently completed his master’s in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.