by James Miles
When Tamir Rice was murdered by a police officer in November of 2014, Urban Arts Partnership had just received the Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination Grant to work in middle schools, in Brownsville, New York. The grant would fund the Fresh Ed initiative and I would be the Project Director. (Fresh Ed is designed to use culturally responsive pedagogy and hip-hop music to boost ELA and Social Studies achievement.) The students we would serve were the same age as Tamir Rice, and they were all Black and Brown, just like him. How was I supposed to help them focus on academics, knowing that they were (are) just as vulnerable to police brutality? The system is set up to relegate Black and Brown people to the underclass, where we are deemed violent, uneducated, and unworthy. How was I supposed to go into these schools, where most of my students are Black and Brown, and tell them the exact opposite?
Then, in December 2015, the policemen responsible for the death of 12-year-old Tamir were not charged. Tamir was hanging with friends just outside of his neighborhood rec center in Cleveland, playing with a toy gun. A neighbor called the police to say that someone had a gun and was waving it around, but that “it was likely a kid” and that the gun was “fake.” When police showed up to the scene and saw young Tamir Rice, with his toy gun tucked into his waistband, they shot and killed him. Only two seconds after arriving, an officer shot this boy. The worst part is that when the officers realized he was a child, and that the gun was fake, they refused to administer aid that could have saved his life. They also refused to allow any family members near a young, convulsing Tamir; instead they arrested his sister for trying to hold her mortally wounded brother. The offending officer was not indicted and the shooting was ruled justified (Almasy, Fantz, & Shoichet, 2015).
We are routinely murdered by the police, and they are rarely indicted or even disciplined. If this persists, police officers will continue to believe that their actions are correct and that there should be no punitive consequences. In fact, one officer went so far as to file a lawsuit against the estate of his victim, Quintonio LeGrier; citing emotional stress, Officer Robert Rialmo stated that he needs remuneration for having to kill an unarmed Black teenager (LeGrier) and his neighbor (Graham, 2016).
"According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population” (Mullainathan, 2015, para. 5). Pair that with the fact that “the graduation rate of African-American students declined significantly in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California, and Illinois. Those states educate about 40 percent of the nation’s African-American students” (Brown, 2015, Graduation Gaps section, para. 6). Not only are we murdered indiscriminately, we are deprived of the education we deserve and need to succeed in life. I wonder how these statistics would change if the funding allocated for policing communities of color went into those same communities to create better schools with better teachers.
Until then, we are doomed, and they don’t care about us.
The new program that I was managing was off to a slow start because one of the schools we were supposed to serve had closed its doors. The US DOE maintained that I would have to find another school, with one caveat: It would need to be on the Schools Improvement Grant (SIG) list, from 2012. Not only was this list two years old, but all the schools were on it because they were failing, which meant quite a few of them had also closed their doors. Another troubling observation was rooted in the fact that all of the schools on the list served only Black and Brown children. New York City houses the most segregated school district in the United States, and the disparity in resources and educational outcomes proves it. At 31 of the city’s schools, with a combined enrollment of 1,065 Black students, none passed the state math exam. At another 28 schools, none of the 613 Hispanic students passed the math test. And state reading exams saw similar results (Brown & Chapman, 2014).
Based on the SIG List, I would have to convince one of three Brooklyn schools that my program should be implemented on-site, midyear. And if each of them turned me down, I would still be required to identify a school from the list, with the next nearest located in Connecticut. The skills I had learned as an actor would need to serve me as I tried to sell this program, only two months before the dreaded ELA standardized exam.
The system is set up to relegate Black and Brown people to the underclass, where we are deemed violent, uneducated, and unworthy. How was I supposed to go into these schools, where most of my students are Black and Brown, and tell them the exact opposite?
The first school I contacted wanted nothing to do with me. “Hip-hop in class? No, my kids wouldn’t like it and they don’t need it.”
The second school seemed interested until they saw me. “Wait, what’s your program? Why didn’t the program manager come to this meeting? You’re the manager? Really? Hmmm ... I don’t know if this will be a good fit, but you’re welcome to try and convince my teachers.”
I had wondered when systemic racism was going to rear its ugly head.
For years, I had been able to navigate the school system with very little conflict. I was a funky teaching artist and the kids thought I was cool, so there was nothing at stake for the schools; moreover, the sponsoring arts organizations were all run by White people, who were ultimately responsible for arranging the programming in schools, and then I would come in and teach. Now that I was the one negotiating programs, I had to wonder if race would be a factor. And, until I arrived at this second school, it hadn’t.
I readied myself to lead a workshop for an administration (and faculty) that didn’t want me there.
But, before the “impression session” I was set to facilitate at school number two, an administrator at the third (and final) school invited me to meet with the principal. When I walked into the main office, she looked at me and said, “Who are you?” I told her that I represented Urban Arts Partnership and we had a program perfect for her school; then I offered to sit down and talk about it with her (as we were still standing in the heart of the bustling hallways). She told me she couldn’t take on a program unless the teachers were onboard, so she invited me into the inner sanctum, where all of the ELA and Social Studies teachers were already seated, awaiting my presentation.
I opened up my PowerPoint and started selling the program, when the principal suddenly stopped me and said, “Wait, did you say Fresh Ed? I was on that grant!”
It turns out that she had been principal of the original school, the one that closed. She was now principal of another failing school (on the SIG list) and was ecstatic that we had found her again. And most of the teachers seemed happy because the principal was happy. Except for one, who just stared at me. “Did you used to work for Outlaws and Justice?” “Yes, I did,” I replied. “That’s why I know you! You were great! The students loved you! Fantastic, these kids will love you, too.” And like that, we had our final school—to hell with the others, one of which had a principal who was also a racist—it would never have worked. Now Fresh Ed was ready to launch, so we began to refine our curriculum to best meet the needs of the students.
And yet, I couldn’t shake my feelings about the abundance of people of color being murdered by police officers. In January of 2015, as I held the first professional development for our partner teachers, a video of the Tamir Rice shooting was released. In it, a police car pulls up outside of the park, where we can see Tamir. Within two seconds, he is shot by a policeman, who was not charged with murder or any other malfeasance. The shooting was ruled justifiable.
A 12-year-old boy shot, and then allowed to bleed to death; even when caught on video, a person of color can be murdered by police, without any repercussions.
Still, Fresh Ed was off to a running start in four Brooklyn middle schools. The students were ready for something new, the overworked teachers were pleased to have other educators in their rooms, and the hip-hop music excited both teachers and students because it offered multiple entry points into academic content. The program was designed to impact teacher performance by providing them with strategies through which to engage youth culture in the classroom. And, though the teachers didn’t fully participate in each Fresh Ed lesson, they supported the teaching artists in their work. Even the biggest curmudgeon of the group began to smile at the students (a couple times she even “rapped” a word or two in unison with her class). Yet another goal of the program was to adequately prepare students for their ELA standardized exam, administered each April. The students we served were prepared for the test and had high hopes. They sat exams the second and third weeks of April 2015. We were having a good spring semester in the Fresh Ed schools.
Then, on April 19, Freddie Gray, who had been illegally arrested and recklessly transported to a police station in Baltimore, died from injuries sustained while being thrown around inside the back of a van. Gray’s crime was possession of a knife, which was not found until after the arrest was made. In other words, the police had no reason to detain and murder another Black child (Fenton, 2016). I was becoming inured to feelings of powerlessness and barely reacted. Baltimore, however, responded by staging nonviolent protests against police oppression.
During this time, I saw a change in the students with whom we were working. They were tired of the violence and the way they felt when they saw a police officer. The students started to create songs about Freddie Gray. Then they were able to tie what was happening in the news to the writing of argumentative essays. They were inspiring and helped foment the power of Fresh Ed in these schools. Students expressed their feelings through art: the feeling of knowing that most of society doesn’t care whether we live or die; the feeling that, no matter what we do, we will always be considered “less than”; and the feeling of fear we have when we see a police officer (even if a crime is being committed, the sight of a police officer sparks distrust). Fresh Ed was providing a judgment-free space in which students could articulate their emotions.
And yet, emotional manifestation, particularly for young girls of color, is what gets them in the most trouble.
From 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12%, compared with just 2% for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity. ...Researchers say black girls tend to be penalized more subjectively, like for having a bad attitude or being defiant.
Vega, 2014, para. 6
In 2012, when I was still a teaching artist, teaching circus to fourth-grade boys and girls in East New York, Rekia Boyd was murdered by a Chicago police officer for talking too loudly (“Rekia Boyd,” 2015). In 2015, a few months after Freddie Gray was killed, Sandra Bland was pulled over for a traffic violation, near Houston, Texas. The attending officer told her to put out her cigarette. When she refused, he told her she was under arrest; when she asked why, he tried to pull her out of her car and threatened to tase her. And, after she was in fact pulled from her car, she was arrested while lying on the ground. The entire time, Sandra Bland can be heard screaming and crying, asking the officer why she is being arrested. She was then taken to jail and placed in a cell, alone, because she was deemed “a risk to others.” Three days later she was found dead, due to hanging. Sandra Bland’s death was ruled a suicide, though mysteriously, at the time this occurred, there is no footage of the cell, yet the rest of her movements while incarcerated are documented on video. Neither of the officers involved was indicted, and the Waller County Jail, where Bland was held, seemed to avoid much scrutiny (Montgomery, 2016). Both women, Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland, were Black women and considered “emotional.”
In October of 2015, while Fresh Ed was beginning its 2nd year of programming and expanding its work into more classrooms with more teachers, a young Black girl in Columbia, South Carolina, was dragged from her desk by school security. Sixteen- year-old Shakara was caught texting during math class and refused to leave the classroom when asked by both the teacher and vice principal. A school security officer was notified, went to the classroom, and told Shakara to get off her phone. When she quietly refused, Officer Fields wrapped his arm around her neck, choked her, and dragged her from her seat. She suffered an injured neck, back, and shoulder and required a cast on her arm. The officer was fired, but what made him think it was necessary to treat a human being like a rag doll? Why would his superior, Sheriff Lott, say that Shakara was to blame for her “disrespectful actions”? Why would this young girl be put in jail for being “disorderly,” while the officer was exempt from such allegations? Yes, he lost his job, but he did not go to jail, nor were any charges brought against him (Yan, 2015).
Fresh Ed presents a new way to both teach and learn. Students not only engage in academic content but also build confidence in that content and are therefore more willing to express themselves. In addition, teachers are exploring different ways to incite learning in their classrooms and empower their students. One teacher who works with Fresh Ed says,
"The first and most important aspect of the projects that have benefitted the students is the tone of the lessons. I can see that they truly recognize the teaching artist’s interest in them as people—I was impressed with how quickly she made it her business to learn their names and address them personally, and it’s made for a positive & supportive environment. The kids don’t hold back—they share their ideas and express themselves with enthusiasm. Secondly, major ELA concepts are woven into the lessons, reinforcing content knowledge and providing ways to apply that knowledge and connect to creating music and art. But it’s the creation of the music, both the lyrics and the beats, that captivates them the most. They are so willing to think and create because they are familiar with the cultural context they are immersed in during these lessons. It also allows me to connect to literature and contexts with which they aren’t familiar, and this makes them more receptive. And the aspect of these lessons that have benefitted me the most are the creative ways to pique the students’ interests and get them wanting to work together to complete the activities."
She is not alone.
Another one of our teachers had this to say:
"The experience with Fresh Ed has been a pleasurable and fruitful one. The teaching artist is able to present very important information in a different modality that the kids gravitate to easier. Because its music and the kids love music they are learning and expressing themselves in ways they never have before. The result is the children are learning about how to create music but they are also learning about social studies in new and interesting ways and being called to synthesize creative responses to the subject matter so they can analyze and talk about social studies."
Amidst the turmoil taking place in the world and the way young people of color are under siege, there are people that care about us. The teachers working with our students want the best for them and are excited to collaborate with us to bolster student success. The schools that open their doors to us allow new ways of engaging their teachers and student populations. The communities that have invited us into their neighborhoods want us to use the arts to cultivate conversations around topics facing them. Maybe there is a change in the air. The middle school ELA exams are taking place in early to mid-April, and teachers are helping get the students ready. I see smiling faces. Teachers and students and school administrators look confident. The security officers inside these schools look rested and calm. Police officers in the streets look observant but not aggressive. Although the weather is chilly in April, I see warm faces.
But, on April 5, 2016, the first day of ELA exams for our Fresh Ed students in New York, a cell phone video surfaces, showing a young Latina being body-slammed to the pavement by a safety officer at her school in San Antonio, Texas. The video shows the 12-year-old talking with her classmates when the officer interrupts, suddenly forces her to the ground, and proceeds to arrest an unconscious young woman (Bever, 2016).
Why did he do that, you ask? He thought she was about to fight another girl. The officer was put on administrative leave, but the girl was suspended....