Thoughts on 13th, School, and Prison

by Katherine Wang

Last Friday, my team and I watched Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary, 13th, during our monthly social justice talk. As someone who usually only has the attention span for animated movies and sitcom television, I want to highly recommend this documentary. I’d consider 13th to be “required viewing” for anyone living in America.

The documentary starts off with an ominous reminder of the loophole in the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words, all people are free… except those indicted for crime. Quoted from the documentary, “If you have [“except as a punishment for crime”] embedded in the structure, in this constitutional language, then it’s there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it.”

This loophole was immediately exploited. States began criminalizing black people for minor crimes. A law preaching “freedom” turned into something that allowed for the mass incarceration of black and brown people. A statistic mentioned in the documentary said that 1 in 3 black males born today will go to prison in their lifetime, compared with 1 in 6 Latino males, and 1 in 17 white males.

Beginning from these historic crossroads, the documentary unpacks the history of racism, racial violence, politics, the prison-industrial complex, and why things haven’t changed as much as we thought since 1865 and the “end of slavery”. 13th explains with unsettling clarity why and how black and brown bodies have become stripped of their dignities and basic human rights. The film turns “how could people let this happen?” and “how did Trump get elected?” into rhetorical, almost laughable questions. DuVernay invites a handful of scholars to explain and analyze moments in history, and her film illuminates how each law, each presidency, each media headline, each development in the United States was yet another step forward in the goals of white supremacy.

What worried me most after watching the documentary was how we may not be able to recognize the new iterations of racism. I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the damage done to people of color cannot be reversed. But how can we work towards dismantling this system? What can we do so that this country is a place where marginalized people no longer feel threatened? It feels a little silly to be asking questions with such vast implications, as if people haven’t already been asking that and working to piece together answers. However, I think it’s important for every individual to be pondering that, because our differing social identities affect the ways we engage with the answers.

I did not go into City Year thinking I could create some big change, nor do I think this is me doing my part in “giving back”. Who am I to go into a community I am not from, and believe that they need help that only I can provide? After the documentary, my teammates and I discussed what we think City Year is really doing for our predominantly black and brown students. We are definitely not saviors, not teachers, not police officers. We are trying to provide more support in their academic and social-emotional learning. We build “near-peer” relationships with our students, and I hope that they can trust us and feel validated in ways that they can’t with teachers or administration.

I do think that we are succeeding in those fronts, but our job also has downsides. I am still trying to decide if the positives outweigh the negatives. Much of our role requires monitoring that verges on policing, and we need to conform to institutional rules. We support students in the classroom, but that also means supporting a teacher who must teach by strict curriculum standards, leaving little room for student-driven learning.
During transitions through the stairwells, City Year members are positioned throughout the stairs about 20 feet from each other. We make sure students only go up the left side of the stairs, and yell at students to quiet down, slow down, or hurry up. We carry walkie-talkies and sometimes share our position with a police officer. We assist with lunch and recess, but we are told to stand by a table and keep a quiet eye on our students. Students must always stay seated in the cafeteria and must ask permission to do anything. It’s the lack of freedom and autonomy, all in the name of safety. How do my students feel when there is an adult, dressed in uniform, vigilantly watching them eat during lunch? How do they feel that an adult must walk them to the bathroom? Do they feel safe? Do they feel uncomfortable? How do I feel when my job requires me to do that?

I don’t want to discredit the work and structure that our principal and staff have put in place, because I do think the school is very safe. But I am wary of the consequences of how we treat and speak to students. Suspicion is the automatic reaction expected from City Year by staff and students alike. I feel that students aren’t reprimanded for lying to adults as much as the blame is on adults for trusting and falling for their lie. I’m wondering if these safety measures end up doing more harm. They learn that adults do not trust them. They learn that in order to earn good grades and not get in trouble with authority, they must be quiet, docile, and follow directions.

My service year with City Year ends on June 22nd, but I know I will continue thinking about and challenging this type of service work in urban education. Where is the line drawn between policing and behavior management? In what ways does public education need to shift (not just in urban areas) to encourage students’ self-expression and simultaneously, safety? What drew me initially to doing this program was the fact that there are brilliant students, and that maybe I could encourage them to draw out some of their idiosyncrasies that the education system (either intentionally or unintentionally) tries to muffle. My work is far from done, and I hope to be held accountable to keep questioning everything, including my own identities and motives in the spaces I inhabit.

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