I was invited by my friend Katherine Cheairs to see a screening of the documentary, “For Ahkeem” produced by Iyabo Boyd and Nicholas Weissman. The film captures many of the important issues that challenge us as a community and indeed as a nation: racism, education, poverty, the criminal justice system and all the intricate ways that they intersect in the life of Daje Shelton. The filmmakers follow Daje as she is sent off to an alternative high school, falls in love, becomes pregnant and struggles to earn her diploma and secure her future. Her entire experience is highlighted by the backdrop of St. Louis, Missouri with the murder of Mike Brown by police becoming woven into the story as well. It is a must see for all educators in my opinion because of the way it delves into these crucial social issues.
Aside from this wonderful opportunity to see this movie, I was also happy to engage in the post discussion that was being moderated by Katherine. The panelists included two attorneys, Angelo and Sarah, whose work centers around youth advocacy and social justice. The third panelist’s expertise was in community programs that provide assistance to families navigating the social service system. I was eager to hear the panelists’ thoughtful reflections on the meaning of this narrative for us as educators, and a community.
While Angelo and Sarah affirmed the picture painted in the film, bringing to our attention statistics like as many as 60,000 children being processed through the juvenile justice system on any given day, they also discussed the disability labeling of students in the education system and the over criminalization of Black and Brown children both in and out of school. Now we get to the third panelist who prefaced her comments by saying she wanted to remain “positive.” Now normally I would not be opposed to that approach but I kept thinking, “Did you not see the same film we did?” The story of Daje and her boyfriend Antonio sadly and very powerfully illustrate the ways our current education system continues to marginalize Black youth without providing the necessary supports and resources. These inadequacies deserve more thoughtful and deep understanding and analysis if we are to make meaningful changes in our schools and communities. Yet the third panelist spent a good portion of her time trying to convince us that the real issue was that “parents need to be better consumers” of the plethora of services and solutions that are available to them. I was both stunned and disappointed at her attempt to oversimplify the challenges presented in the documentary. But it also brought to my mind the countless times I have seen us as educators engage in some form of blame.
To suggest that parents just need to know what numbers to dial or forms to fill out when they are faced with issues like substandard housing, helping a child that has been identified with a learning disability or worse, having to comfort their children who just experienced the shooting of their closest friend is absurd at best. Nonetheless, I find that when we attempt to tackle the myriad of social ills that affect our students we can fall into this theoretical pit too easily.
Drawing attention to family dysfunction or what steps were not taken by parents or other caregivers is a convenient way to dismiss the complexity of changing the education system and the larger structures that keep it from functioning. As the discussion continued, the other panelists brought attention to the inordinate role of law enforcement in many of our schools and the ways that schools fail to nurture and support all students, but she kept plugging all the services available. Certainly, the resources that the woman mentioned are relevant but they are not more relevant than the difficult and ongoing conversations that we need to be having in all aspects of our society about the intersections of race, education, the school to prison pipeline, and generational poverty. We must keep these discussions in the forefront of our minds as we work to dismantle the systems that cause the story of Daje Shelton to be retold countless times over.
Daje and Antonio represent the many thousands of Black and Brown students who our public schools deem to be “out of control” and “out of options.” They are not viewed as whole human beings; young people who are developing and worthy of a second chance. As depicted in the documentary, students like Daje and Antonio are pushed out of their regular school environments and blamed for their inability or unwillingness to play by the rules of schooling. The “alternatives” that are offered to them may often involve court mandates they must adhere to or risk being completely rejected by the school system.
If there is blame to go around it belongs on folks like Betsy DeVos, the 45th and others who seek to maintain the status quo and destroy any and all efforts to educate and liberate Black and Brown children. Don’t blame poor Black and Brown mothers, fathers grandmothers, or anyone else who is struggling to love and provide for their children. Don’t tell them they need to be better consumers because to do that means you participate in the lie; the lie that says that this system is fair and everyone can succeed if they just try.
Peace and love good people.