The Activists on the Front Lines of the Battle for Educational Justice in the US

As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh objects to being held accountable for his behavior in high school, we look at the criminalization of black and brown students that has led to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. We speak with a roundtable of community activists engaged in the fight to save schools and push for alternatives to punishment and privatization. Their voices are highlighted in a new book titled, Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement. In Chicago, we speak with Jitu Brown, the national director of the Journey for Justice. In Washington, DC, we speak with Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, the co-founder of Racial JusticeNOW! and Field Organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign. And in New York City, we speak with high school teacher and restorative justice coordinator E.M. Eisen-Markowitz and Mark Warren, co-author of Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out.


AMY GOODMAN: As Brett Kavanaugh objects to being held accountable for his behavior in high school, we look at the criminalization of black and brown students that’s led to what is known as the school to prison pipeline. The movement saw a setback on Sunday when California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have expanded a statewide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten to third grade to include fourth through eighth graders. The ban focused on suspensions for “disruption and defiance.” A recent UCLA study found black seventh and eighth graders lost nearly four times the number of school days to such suspensions than white students. Just last week at Oak View Elementary in Decatur, Georgia, two teachers resigned after students complained they punished them by zip-tying their hands behind their backs like they were under arrest by police. The students were four years old. Writer and activist Sean King tweeted, “This is the pre-school to prison pipeline.” One of the girls’ mothers spoke to WSB-TV.

PARENT: — has really shaken me to the core. She said that one teacher tied her up and the other cut it loose. And she said, mommy, I was scared to tell you because I thought I was going to get in trouble. I want them to pay. I want them to not have any license to teach because they don’t need to teach. Who would do this? I mean, would they like this to happen to their own kids?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by a roundtable of community activists engaged in the fight to save schools and push for alternatives to punishment and privatization. Their voices highlighted in an incredible new book titled, “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement.” In Chicago, Jitu Brown joins us, National Director of the Journey for Justice. He’s been an education activist for the past quarter of a century. In 2015, he led a successful 34-day hunger strike to prevent the closing of Dyett High School in Chicago’s South Side. In Washington, D.C., Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is Co-Founder of Racial Justice NOW!, Field Organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign, became active when her black son was repeatedly suspended in pre-school in Dayton, Ohio. She then campaigned for Dayton Public Schools to adopt a moratorium on pre-K suspensions. Here in New York, E.M. Eisen-Markowitz is a Restorative Justice Coordinator and High schoolteacher, a board member of Teachers Unite. Also with us, Mark Warren, who along with my brother, journalist David Goodman, co-authored “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out,” which brings together these voices and many more. Mark is a professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Founder and Co-Chair of the Urban Research-Based Action Network. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Jitu Brown, I want to begin with you. And posit that issue. Brett Kavanaugh and many of his supporters saying, why are you going back to high school? He should not be held accountable for his high school behavior. Even if it involved an attempted rape, that’s the allegation. Can you talk about what is happening to black and brown children, not just 17, 16, and 15, but as young as four years old in school?

JITU BROWN: Absolutely, and Amy, thank you for having me on. I would just say that we don’t have a policy problem in public education. We have a values problem. There’s a believe system that is rooted in the hatred of black and brown children that fuels education policy. Just think that parent, Zakiya, had to fight because her son was being suspended in preschool. I’ve seen the story over and over again. In Pittsburgh, parents had organized to stop the suspension of kindergarten through third graders. In New York, this has been a fight. In Chicago, young people fought to stop 10-day suspensions in Chicago public schools. If the discipline policies are administered through a lens of hatred that often these policy makers would not apply to their own children. And that’s why the numbers around the suspension of black, brown, and white students for the same infractions are so glaring. That there is a believe system — and we know research says this, first — that black and brown children are viewed as older than their white counterparts.

So, I think we have to challenge that. And not just challenge that strictly around discipline, but also around just the starving of neighborhood schools. I’ve experienced in Journey for Justice Alliance across the country black and brown schools not having pre-K services. Half-day kindergartens. Not having libraries. No teacher aides in the building. Overcrowded classrooms. But, then in the same cities, their white counterparts having a completely different experience. Now, we don’t have any acrimony toward those babies that happen to be white or wealthy having the things they need, but the fight should be to make sure that all children have what they need, not punish those schools for being starved. So, along with the suspension policies, the policy of closing — of starving and then closing schools, has had a disastrous impact in our communities across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go now to Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, who is now in Washington, D.C., but talk about what happened to your child when he was four years old in Dayton, Ohio, Zakiya.

ZAKIYA SANKARA–JABAR: Hi Amy, thank you for having me on. Yes, I began organizing very organically as a parent, pushing back when my son was actually three, what is now known as the preschool to prison pipeline as you mentioned. One of the things that I did as a parent, you know, not thinking initially that it was a race issue or a class issue, is that I just questioned their policies and practices or questioned what was actual normal behavior for a three-year-old to be exhibiting in a classroom. Some of the things that they would complain about was, oh, he has problems transitioning or he’s having temper tantrums. And so, what I saw was happening and began to realize was that there was a pathologizing of normal childhood behavior of my son. I then began to take a deeper look and noticed that he was the only black boy out of only two black students in a class of 19. And then just the overall, teacher representation, as well at the school, was overwhelmingly white. The administration was all white. And beginning to put those factors together as I began to ask other black women, black parents at the school if they were having similar experiences. And so, once I did that, I went to my co-founder of Racial Justice NOW, Professor Vernelia Randall, and talked to her about what I was experiencing. And that was basically how Racial Justice NOW was founded in her living room, saying that we needed to really have a response to this, to organize and begin to shift and change policies and practices of how young people, particularly black students and our families, were being treated in the school at that time.

And so, that has led to a deeper analysis. And until just recently, because of the work of working-class poor, and working class black parents, in the city of Dayton, Ohio, just recently passed the law house Bill 318 to ban most out of school pre-K through third grade suspensions across the entire state. And so, that’s a huge victory for a small organization of — community-based organization like Racial Justice NOW, in a very conservative state like Ohio, but it took years of organizing and being supported by national organizations like Dignity in Schools campaign, and even Journey for Justice Alliance — being supported on the ground to be able to get that work done, and be able to get something so big accomplished in a very conservative state.

Read the entire story featuring grantee Racial Justice Now! 

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