Illustration: Thea Gahr
Several years ago, I taught a unit on power in my 9th-grade social studies classes at Berkeley High School in Californias Bay Area. Its a diverse school - rich folks from the hills, middle- and working-class from the flats; about one-third each of African American and white students; the other third a combination of Latina/o, multi-ethnic, South Asian, and others.
For our initial activity, I asked students to interview someone - a relative, neighbor, or themselves - about an encounter with the police. I emphasized that it could be any kind of contact, positive or negative. The questions were basic: Where were you and what were you doing when the encounter began? What did the police do and say? What was the result? How did it make you feel?
The next day, I had the students tell their stories in small groups. Then we rotated the groups so each student ended up hearing everyone elses story. After we returned our desks to a large circle, I asked the students: What did you hear? What does it make you think?
The results were stark. As Valerie, a Filipina student, said: At least in terms of the cops, there are two realities happening in the same city, one for white kids, one for everyone else. To be sure, some white students told stories of being hassled for skateboarding or followed in stores, but there were also stories of lost children reunited with their families and of petting police horses in the park. Among the African American, Latina/o, and Muslim students, the stories piled up of being stopped while walking down the street, thrown against walls, and frisked; immigration agents breaking into apartments; visits to older brothers and other relatives in prison. I was stunned by how sharp the differences were. I was also surprised by the level of openness in the room. The students with painful stories were eager to share them, and the other students were interested and supportive.
One student wrote in a reflection on the activity: My brother is in jail, and it makes everyone in my family upset. But I never talk about it at school or with my friends. That makes it even worse. Like Haniyah, many of my students of color were describing the impact of the criminal justice system on their families and communities. They were also describing their own fears and vulnerability to getting trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline, and their need to have school be a place to share, analyze, and put their experience in a broader context.