On the first day I taught in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center I arrived nervous and unsure of how I would navigate the environment and earn the trust of my students.
As I was buzzed through the fourth door into the facility I remembered something my friend Josh had said: “Art is Freedom.” With that in mind I asked the students that first day to draw a picture of the house they would live in 10 years from now. I read them Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and asked them to make a map of the choices they would need to make to get to that house. The students wrote and drew and worked quietly and respectfully until it was time to present their futures. When they did my heart exploded.
The children, ages 13 to 17 and living in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, wrote about having houses with enough room for their grandma who would need a ramp for her wheelchair. They wrote about wanting to travel and go to college and fall in love. One student wrote about all the tests he would take in medical school.
It’s moments like these that inspire me to look forward to voting for my students and reading their books and seeing them use their leadership to change the world. It was looking at their first assignments that made me question the outcomes that incarcerating children typically promotes, outcomes like adult incarceration and chronic unemployment. The GSAFE curriculum we use invited incarcerated students to defy the odds and define their own paths to academic achievement and civic engagement.
Mentors are vital
It is easy for me to look at my students and see myself. I was raised here in Madison. Throughout my childhood my family struggled with money and I received free or reduced-price meals from my schools. I was labeled learning disabled when I was seven. Struggling in school is something I have in common with so many of my students, and the majority of youth I’ve worked with in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center are eligible for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
School for me felt humiliating and pointless. I was always behind and struggling to do things that seemed to come so much easier to my classmates. I was too ashamed to ask for help until sixth grade when my teacher suggested I join an after school homework club.
It was in that club where I meant my mentor, Amanda Postel. She was the first person to make me feel smart, capable, hardworking, and loved at school. It was her encouragement that lead me to fall in love with learning. My admiration for her is what made me want to be a teacher, because I wanted to be there for my students in the same ways Amanda had been there for me, to see them for their intelligence and celebrate it with them. It wasn’t that she had magically made school easy for me, it was that Amanda taught me to embrace the hard parts and learn as much as possible from them.
Paying it forward
My drive to uplift young people who struggle with the learning process is what brought me to the detention center. My work is inspired by a profound gratitude for the teachers who believed in me and saw me for who I really was before even I did.
The classroom experience inside the walls of the detention center mirrors the context of another GSAFE program called Foundations of Leadership, an advanced learner’s course that is based in the experiences of LGBTQ youth of color. The majority of my students come from communities that many of their classes fail to recognize, include, and learn from. When designing the curriculum, I found myself bewildered by how to bring representation of LGBTQ+ people of color, differently abled communities, immigrants, and so many more identities into our classroom to ensure the students would see themselves reflected in what we were calling leadership.
Subversion for liberation
I set out to create curriculum that promotes consent while giving students the space they need to take ownership of their right to an education. Often when I describe the leadership development work I do with students I tell people it’s an orientation of the imagination. We at GSAFE teach young people how to turn obstacles into opportunities and how to turn tragedy into triumph by challenging them to study what impacts them, and then supporting them as they create innovative and sustainable ways to address the needs of their communities.
One of my students summed it up perfectly when she wrote, “Just Because You Were Planted in The Desert Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Be Watered and Grow into Something Utterly AMAZING” at the top of her tree of opportunity project.
Teaching social justice concepts and making space to question authority and systemic oppression to incarcerated youth and marginalized youth is subversive. It is also essential to their liberation and the liberation of all of our communities.