At thirteen years old, I was almost engulfed by the school-to-prison pipeline. After being truant only twice, I was arrested and placed on probation. For the remainder of the school year, teachers and staff exploited my vulnerable position with threats of arrest/incarceration whenever I exhibited behavior other students received detention for (e.g. talking in class). Fortunately, with my mother’s advocacy, I was able to avoid the carceral funneling that many of my peers and family could not, and later embark on a journey of de-carceral activism at UC Berkeley. During my second semester at Berkeley, I took an Ethnic Studies Course on Prison Abolition Pedagogy which immediately resonated with me when the professor opened with, “Mass Incarceration succeeded as a tool for repression in the post-racial state in the form of a War on Drugs, Zero-Tolerance in Schools, Mandatory Sentencing…” I felt solace and purpose as I learned a language to deconstruct the socio-historical structures that made my community in South Los Angeles vulnerable to incarceration than affluent communities. Recognizing that my escape was a privilege, I committed myself to urban justice through anti-prison/de-carceral advocacy and pedagogy.
My commitment to de-carceral work began with a summer internship after my first year with the Youth For Justice Coalition (YJC) in South Los Angeles- a youth grassroots movement dismantling policies that disproportionately incarcerate low-income people of color. As an intern, I was responsible for supporting their G.E.D. program, coaching youth to voice their demands on public forums, participating in community outreach and mobilization, and conducting local policy research. By supporting research, I became exposed to the disproportionate budget allocations to law enforcement, and policing mechanisms compared to the allocations for tutoring, community centers, and social services. The materialized effects of prioritizing policing and incarceration were more than blatant as all the students I supported in the G.E.D. program had experienced contact with the criminal justice system, where school was often their first site of contact. They were all impacted by poverty, violence, displacement, and without resources to grapple, they externalized their trauma through misbehavior that “Zero Tolerance” deemed criminal. Furthermore, I learned the power of restorative justice. Instead of criminalizing youth for misconduct, YJC practiced restorative interventions where youth were challenged to interrogate the root of an issue and then provided the necessary support for reparations and growth. In this model, youth were not shamed or branded, but instead, comprehensively challenged to be accountable to themselves and others.
Utilizing the skills I acquired at YJC in community mobilizing, I decided to spearhead a prison divestment campaign at UC Berkeley upon my return for my second year. My fall semester was dedicated to facilitating campus awareness workshops around the prison industrial complex, building coalitions with student organizations, and drafting our prison divestment bill SB100. In the spring semester of 2013, SB 100 was proposed to The Associated Students of the University of California, succeeding in divesting a little over a third of million dollars of investments in companies profiting from prison labor. The money was reinvested in restorative justice programming at Castlemont High School in East Oakland California to aid in dissipating gang violence and support at-risk youth.
My most profound de-carceral project as an undergraduate was my participation in the establishment of the Berkeley Underground Scholars Initiative (USI). USI at Berkeley is a campus-based recruitment and retention center that creates a pathway for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals into higher education by building a prison-to-school pipeline. Although establishing a physical space was a two-year-long battle, the campus momentum and awareness raised from the prison divestment campaign cultivated a platform for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students to validate their place in higher education. Prior to the establishment of USI, to identify as system impacted or formerly incarcerated was a shameful taboo, a dirty secret we either kept to ourselves or described as the result of a self-deficiency we overcame by “getting right.” Our work symbolized what restorative justice work meant in practice as we restored human dignity by institutionalizing a space that directly challenged recidivism through educational access and de-pathologized the idea of a criminal.
After graduating, I returned to South Los Angeles as a substitute teacher with the initial intent of pursuing a teaching credential. I was appeased to find South Los Angeles schools were shifting away from “Zero Tolerance” disciplinary regimes that support the school-to-prison pipeline and implementing Restorative Justice (RJ) programming/centers. Unfortunately, many of the RJ programs I encountered mistakenly deduced RJ to a space solely for self-reflection without a thorough investigation or assessment of the underlying causes that called for an intervention. Students who did not reform themselves after self-reflection were subject to punitive measures and the school-to-prison repositioned itself to nullify the “unreformable” student. This is not restorative justice. A fundamental pillar of restorative justice is there must be institutional accountability to providing remedies to the needs of the individuals/community involved in RJ interventions.
Thus forth, I have redirected my focus to social work and will be attending Columbia University starting fall 2021 to obtain a master’s in school-based social work. As a future school social worker, my goal is to integrate social work practices into Restorative Justice (RJ) initiatives in South LA schools to promote decarceration by rearticulating school as a site of service instead of criminal branding. In my practice, I will address the following questions:
How do we create alternatives for addressing student behavior without resorting to police/citations as a first response?
How do we as social workers develop holistic plans that promote both student accountability and professional accountability to students’ needs and cognitive growth?
Ultimately, with a master’s from the leading school in social work, I aim to materialize a decarceral social work praxis that confronts student (mis)behavior as a social and mental health problem instead of a criminal offense, providing a framework for students to recognize self-destructive patterns and learn self-advocacy in the face of adversity.