The Common Good

What Faith Leaders Can Do To Help End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

September is often associated with the celebratory beginning of a new school year. It’s a time of hopeful anticipation for students, parents, and teachers filled with new school supplies and new friends.

In many communities, however, the beginning of the school year is a cause for concern and anxiety.

Instead of hallways filled with artwork and sports trophies, many students will walk into prison-like environments complete with metal detectors, and the presence of police and armed security officers. These officers have more than a chilling effect. They also have the authority to arrest students, often for minor misbehavior. When you couple the harshness of the school environment with zero tolerance policies that criminalize children’s non-violent infractions like being late to class, violating a dress code, or even chewing gum, one can begin to see the school discipline crisis.

The patchwork of overly harsh disciplinary policies that funnel children directly from the classroom to the juvenile justice system is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. In schools across America, students, especially students of color, who should be sent to the guidance counselor to find out what’s really wrong end up at the police station. These policies are expensive, unjust, and ineffective. They also lower academic achievement, lead to dropout, and do little to make schools safer.

Even more troubling, we find that the rules are different for children of color, who are punished more often and more severely than white students for the same offenses. These students are not behaving any worse than others, but they are disciplined at a higher rate because of racial bias. These same patterns we see in schools are also playing out in the criminal justice system: African Americans are imprisoned at higher rates and given more severe sentences than whites for the same offenses.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a moral and racial justice crisis. Solving the problem will require an all-hands-on-deck solution.

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Cradle-to-Prison vs. Kindergarten-to-Graduation

With a new school year upon is us it's appropriate to take a closer look at the troubling and complicated relationship between our nation’s public schools and its criminal justice system.

Growing up in an economically challenged neighborhood in Detroit, it still pains me to remember the sheer number of kids, disproportionately African-American boys, who passed through the juvenile detention system and would later go on to either spend time in prison or who are still in prison now. America’s criminal justice system was omnipresent.

The sad fact is that not much has changed. It’s actually gotten a whole lot worse. America represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Since the 1970s our prisons have grown by 700 percent. This growth has been most explosive and disproportionate among people of color. Looking at males over the age of 18, 1 out of every 15 African-American men and 1 in 36 Hispanic men in the United States are currently incarcerated. Meanwhile, only 1 in every 106 of white males over 18 are behind bars.

It’s tough to ignore the glaring racial disparities at the center of America’s prison industrial complex. As an African-American woman, Christian, and mother, it breaks my heart and, at times, even tests the limits of my faith. But I also believe in a faith that can move mountains. When it comes to our nation’s criminal justice system, we’ve got mountains to move.

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The Image of God vs. The School-to-Prison Pipeline

I walked across the school yard and through the ominous painted doors of St. Athanasius Elementary School for the first time. My mother and I had walked hand in hand the long city block from home to the school, across the school yard, through the entrance, down the hallway, heels now echoing against linoleum and lockers as the smell of chalk and mimeographed copies wafted from each classroom we passed.

We entered my second-grade classroom where I was greeted by the teacher who told me to take my seat four heads from the front. That seat was my second home for half of every day for a year.

I had high hopes for second grade. At the very least, I hoped it would be safe. It wasn’t.

The girl who sat behind me demanded 25 cents per day to be my friend — or else. But worse, the white woman charged with teaching our classroom full of African-American children ruled us as if we were in her military camp … or worse… prison.

My teacher once punched me in the back because I forgot to hand in an assignment — in second grade.

Now take that single act of aggression and magnify it: a punch in the back becomes a suspension, an expulsion, or an arrest. Then systematize it. Call it a “Zero Tolerance” policy and spread it across 90 percent of schools in the United States. Then apply the policy inequitably, such that African-American children are punished at higher rates and more severely than white children. That is what happened when the culture of severe punishment promoted by the Tough on Crime movement permeated education systems throughout the 1990s.

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The Blood Did It: Why Michael Brown's Death Was Different

One month ago, the city of Ferguson, Mo., was violently shaken by the shooting death of an unarmed black man whose name is Michael Brown, Jr.

This is not the first time we’ve stood in this place. Michael Brown has been added to the roll call of unarmed black people killed by those hired to protect and to serve. His name joins the names of:

John Crawford , an unarmed Ohio man gunned down inside of a Walmart while examining a toy gun sold in the store.

Eric Garner , an unarmed New York man killed, after stating several times that he was having difficulty breathing, by an officer using an illegal choke hold.

Sean Bell , an unarmed New York man shot multiple times outside of the venue for his bachelor party the night before his wedding.

Oscar Grant , an unarmed Oakland man who was handcuffed, face down, before he was fatally shot.

And so many more black lives, both male and female, ended by the reflexes of a legal system designed to police some and protect others.

So why did the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. ignite such a firestorm of rage in a region and a nation where slain black bodies are commonplace?

This is not one of those neighborhoods that cause political analysts to pontificate over “how something so tragic could happen here.”

These are not deaths that leave communities and congregations struggling to find deeper meaning and psychological factors that might have contributed to the tragic loss of life.

As a matter of fact, since the death of Michael Brown, there have been two killings of black men with documented mental challenges, Ezell Ford of Los Angeles and Kajieme Powell, killed only a few miles from the site of Michael Brown’s death. Yet there have been no roundtable discussions of the role of mental illness in our society sparked by these deaths.

What made Michael Brown’s death different?

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Gratitude as Resistance: An Ancient Idea for our Collective Anxiety

You know that time when the apostle Paul says “don’t worry about anything” I sometimes wonder if he could get away with that today.

For example: Did you know that Congress recently had an approval rating of 9 percent? To put that in perspective, 11 percent of citizens want the Unites States to be a Communist country . It’s a lower rate than people who would approve of polygamy! While this is sort of hilarious, it’s also pretty depressing.

Thank God (literally) there isn’t a poll on the approval rating of the church, but as a ministry leader in Seattle, trust me when I say that what makes the headlines is not what anyone would call good news. Throw into the mix the global unraveling we are witnessing in the Middle East, Iraq, and our own treatment of immigrants, and it’s sort of difficult to keep our collective chins up.

So yes, it might feel tough to log onto Facebook, or read the New York Times these days and feel like there is no reason to be anxious. Good thing for us the verse doesn’t end as a pejorative blanket statement. You know, the kind that so often feels like a cheap mandate to simply ignore reality? Instead, it names that that there lots for reasons for why we are surrounded by anxiety. But, in the eloquent paraphrase of the Philippians passage by Eugene Peterson, we are invited to:

“let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.”

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3 Ways to Cultivate Joy While Working for Change

I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.

Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.

I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”

I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”

Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.

I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.

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The Nature of Joy

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12

War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?

These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?

Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.

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Where is the Joy?

How do you talk about joy in times like these and not sound like a traveling salesman with a bottle of snake oil up his sleeve?

Recently, I received word that Robert Gittelson, the cofounder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, had died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Over the next seven days, the prolific 63-year-old comedian and actor, Robin Williams, committed suicide, and revered screen legend, Lauren Bacall, passed away at the age of 89.

Track back a few weeks, reports of three separate senseless deaths of black men at the hands of police officers rocked the nation:

1.     Eric Garner, 43, was selling untaxed cigarettes on a street in Staten Island when two police officers approached him and attempted to arrest him. Mr. Garner put his hands up, but Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner, an asthmatic, in a chokehold—which the NYPD has banned—and wrestled him to the ground. He continued to apply the chokehold even after Garner warned that he couldn’t breathe multiple times. Garner died.  

2.     John Crawford, 22, was in an Ohio Walmart speaking on a cell phone with the mother of his children while holding a toy rifle that he’d picked up from a nearby shelf. A shopper got concerned and called the police. According to reports, police demanded that he drop the weapon. Crawford allegedly said, “It’s not real.” They shot him. He screamed and cried, according to the woman on the cell phone. Then he died.  

3.     Michael Brown, 18, was a few days from entering his freshman year in college when he was gunned down by a police officer while walking home from a convenience store. Eyewitnesses and police have offered disputing accounts.  

Over the same period, the nation was glued to news of missionary doctors entering the United States to receive treatment for the Ebola virus. Then, this week, the U.S. manufacturer of the experimental Ebola antibody said they had run out of the drug.

CNN aired dramatic footage from one of its reporters embedded on an Iraqi military helicopter mission that dropped boxes of food and water and rescued desperate Yazidi Iraqis hiding on a mountaintop to flee persecution by the Sunni militant group, ISIS.

Oh, did I mention that House Republicans voted to sue President Obama for not enforcing part of the Affordable Care Act that they tried to prevent earlier? Meanwhile, the president announced plans for executive action on immigration reform despite the most inactive Congress in modern American history.

So … to think of joy right now, reminds me of snake oil.

When we planned to focus this issue of Faith in Action on the spiritual discipline of joy we had no idea how challenging that call would be.

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Silence for Peace

“If, as Christians, we believe that peace is rooted in Christ, then how we build that peace within us, in one way, is through the disciplines of solitude and silence; through spending time with God. Solitude is not necessarily extremely easy process, because it will bring to the fore all sorts of things that are within us. We will get to know ourselves in a fuller way. In solitude, where you know that God is with you, you can just be with God, and there is no need for a mask. Also, your humility might grow because you will see yourself as you really are — in a way that needs to be healed and transformed.”

 
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Occupy Good Pasture

The interesting thing about human nature is that even among the oppressed, people will seek supremacy, a pecking order. We human beings have great capacity for tenderness and compassion, and we’re also the meanest things in the world! And even when we are oppressed together, we will try to find some advantage or superiority over others.

“As for you, my flock, saith the Lord, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” 

In other words: Do you have to get what’s yours and at the same time mess it up for others?

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