for Etheridge Knight

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2010 by Michelle Kurta

No Moon Floods the Memory of That Night

by Etheridge Knight

No moon floods the memory of that night
only the rain I remember the cold rain
against our faces and mixing with your tears
only the rain I remember the cold rain
and your mouth soft and warm
no moon no stars no jagged pain
of lightning only my impotent tongue
and the red rage within my brain
knowing that the chilling rain was our forever
even as I tried to explain:

“A revolutionary is a doomed man
with no certainties but love and history.”
“But our children must grow up with certainties
and they will make the revolution.”
“By example we must show the way so plain
that our children can go neither right
nor left but straight to freedom.”
“No,” you said. And you left.

No moon floods the memory of that night
only the rain I remember the cold rain
and praying that like the rain
returns to the sky you would return to me again.

The poet Etheridge Knight says that the revolutionary is a doomed man. Why? I get something of it now. Those among us who are most aware of the struggle for liberation from something, anything – left, right, up, down – are the most indebted to our foes. It is for us that some god pleads that we love our enemies, for what would our struggle be without them? And let not one among us claim that beauty is not within the struggle, that love and creativity are not experienced through liberatory resistance. The peaceful world, on which some radicals meditate, is a utopic image within the sustained practice of liberation, of revolution. We experience this best-of-all-possible-worlds not at some distant point in time when we will get there, we experience it as we imagine it, as we dare to imagine it and speak and write to it. We live there in our revolutionary poems and songs and dreams.

The poet Etheridge Knight says that the revolutionary is a doomed man. Better, he says, to teach the children what is right than to teach them how to fight. Better, he says, that we spare them the paradoxes of our souls, the grave and fertile uncertainties of desiring and loving, accusing and forgiving, remembering and forgetting in a chaotic universe.

Better, he says, that we show them no road but the road, to freedom. The straight road to freedom. The revolutionary laughs and weeps, knowing only that the road to freedom is not straight, but a dance between endless mirrors, and a tunnel, and a light. Better – he lies and knows it – we put an end to the struggle and raise our children free. No.

The revolutionary is doomed to struggle, to paradox, to uncertainty. To revolution! To struggle and paradox! To uncertainty!

sometimes, writing is for sharing

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2010 by Michelle Kurta

Something moved me to come back to this blog; a project i started, whole-hearted, a couple of years ago. It began as a place to share some writing about my work with young people as a young person. i think the aim is not so different now, but youth needn’t be taken literally. Mainly, i will keep the title as a wish and a bow to youth: the force which makes language move. Let’s see how it goes, shall we? i hope beyond hoping that anyone who reads it will share something with me, in return. Thanks very much.

Exclusion Is Not A Solution

Posted in Uncategorized on May 15, 2009 by Michelle Kurta

A thirteen year old student in a Baltimore City Public School was accused of starting a fire in the trash can of the boys bathroom. The fire alarm went off, but the fire didn’t make it past the trash can. He was found with a lighter in his pocket, hand-cuffed and escorted out of the school by police officers. The boy was expelled from his school, put in an Alternative school, and then he and his mother were told that – come the end of this school year – he would be “permanently excluded” from the Baltimore City Public School System.

Permanent Exclusion, in BCPSS, is a punishment currently reserved for students who set fires or detonate explosives at school. No other offense carries this consequence…yet. When a student is permanently excluded it means they cannot attend a Baltimore City Public School ever again…ever….for the rest of their lives. So for this thirteen year old boy – and the 33 other students permanently expelled since the policy took effect in October 2008 – this could very well mean the end of their Education.

It is important to remember that it is law in Maryland that everyone under the age of 16 is required to be in school. If the child is not in school, parents face steep consequences; fines or jail time.

It is also important to remember that most students in Baltimore City are poor, and that poverty is immobilizing. The argument that these Permanently Excluded students could legally attend public schools in another school district if they lived in that district is nearly irrelevent. What is a poor parent, grandparent, or other guardian supposed to do? What sacrifice can they actually afford to make?

This particular thirteen year-old boy has no prior history of suspension from school. This incident, with the fire in the trashcan, has now landed him a Juvenile Delinquency case, in addition to the punishment of permanent exclusion.

But here is the sinister irony: He was found guilty in the delinquency case and given six months probation. While on probation, he was required to receive educational services, so BCPSS was required to place him in an Alternative school until June, which is also the end of the school year. After his six months probation is up, however, the Permanent Exclusion takes effect and he is no longer able to receive a publicly funded education in Baltimore City.

So, if instead of receiving probation, this young man had received a year long sentence in the Juvenile Detention Center, he would have been entitled to an education during that year. Which means that if this young man – who set a school trash can on fire, causing no property damage beyond the melted trash-can, no harm or injury to any students or staff – had shot and killed someone, and gotten locked up, he would have been given an education. But he is not imprisoned, so he is entitled to nothing.

Make no mistake, I do not believe in denying any young person a free and robust education, no matter what crime they are found to have committed. The crimes of individuals are reflective of a criminal system, and I am against punishment that seeks to destroy the individual while upholding the unjust structures that create that individual’s circumstance. Education is a natural right, what some might call a Human Right. As long as a system of free and public schools is our best method of strengthening and expanding this right, then I believe all people should be allowed to participate. And while we fight for freedom and rigor in our public schools, we must also fight for access, because mis-information and exclusion are the chicken and the egg of oppression.

What we have now in Baltimore is a public school system that throws away young people. Regardless of what other factors exist in these students lives, regardless of where the root causes to their misbehavior and mental and emotional disturbance actually lie, the Baltimore City Public School system is dropping the ball, giving up, throwing away young people who have little else to rely on. I just want to make that clear. Because the message that BCPSS is trying to send is one of protection and detterrance. Protection of the rest of the students not committing these offenses, and detterance for any student who might have lit a trash can on fire, but now will not, because they don’t want to get kicked out of school forever.

I’d like to hear a school system official try to defend this policy. I’d like to hear them answer to how they think denying these students access to an education (an inadequate on to begin with) is actually protecting anyone. There is much more proof that young people who are not in school pose a greater danger to others and themselves , than there are numbers to prove that Permanent Exclusion actually solves anything.

On one hand, BCPSS is investing resources into increasing student attendance, reducing out of school suspensions for minor “offenses”, and improving school climate. On the other hand they are throwing out students, very young students, who make one mistake. The ripple effects of being denied a public education in your city of residence, for a poor student, are enormous. The additional strain placed on poor families whose children are denied an education could prove to be unbearable. For a mother already bearing the great responsibility of raising a young black man in Baltimore City, the denial of school system support must be devastating. And furthermore, what’s to stop any young person from setting the whole damn school on fire, whether he or she is a student there or not?

The truth is, this is an injustice that could be unpacked and exposed on so many levels. It is hypocrisy, it is oppression, and it is arguably illegal. Thirty-four students have been permanently expelled since October. I was recently at a school system Code of Conduct meeting where there was a proposition on the table that the category of offenses eligible for the Permanent Exclusion consequence be expanded, beyond firesetting, to include other violent behaviors. Should this actually happen, 34 could easily turn into 100 next year. What will happen to those 34 children? What kinds of opportunities will be available to them? It is a battle to secure opportunity and freedom for those young people that remain in school, how do we begin to support hundreds of teenagers being forced out and given no alternative?

I guess I’m not surprised that BCPSS is in the business of criminalizing young people. I’m not surprised, but I am angry. Parents and communities need to hear a voice besides that of BCPSS on this issue. People should be given the space to process the ramifications of this policy so they are not made to believe that Permanent Exclusion is actually protecting their children. Let’s talk about this, loudly, and persistantly.

This philosophy, that exclusion of people perceived to be dangerous is a valid solution to anything, causes nothing but problems. Fear and perception of danger are historically and consistantly tools of oppression. And when the “dangerous” individuals in question are young people, adolescents, 13 year old boys and girls, it should force each and every one of us to gaze inward and ask, what, really, are we afraid of?

Don’t Wanna Grow Up

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2009 by Michelle Kurta

I have so much to learn. Its becoming a recognizable pattern that whenever I feel intensely frustrated with certain systems, certain individuals and their attitudes, certain policies, I usually end up learning something very deep and very valuable.  And since I feel frustrated, even outraged and indignant, so often, it only follows that I’m learning a lot, and I am confident that there is a lot more to learn.

I’ve been honored with the opportunity to serve on the Community Advisory Board for the Johns Hopkins  Center For Adolescent Health; not so much for anything I’ve done, but because my former boss was on the board, and when she left The Legal Aid Bureau, she recommended me to take her place.  I’m still figuring out exactly what the Board and Center are and do, so far it goes something like this:

The Center for Adolescent Health is a Prevention Research Center (PRC) one of 30 or so PRCs around the country and one of about 3 to focus on young people. Funded by the Center for Disease Control, PRCs are long term projects, funded for 5 years at a time, that conduct research in the area of public health. The focus of this Center is adolescent health, and they take the term “health” in a necessarily broad sense. For instance, the Center partners with a youth employment project (Youth Opportunities Baltimore) to provide mental health screening and comprehensive mental health services for youth who are involved with YO Baltimore. The partnership both gathers information about the mental health issues facing many youth in Baltimore and targets services to meet the unique and various needs of these young people as they seek education, job training, and employment.

So every PRC is required to have a Commuity Advisory Board (CAB) because the type of research that many PRCs are now doing is called CBPR, Community Based Participatory Research. CBPR (click for the Wikipedia definition) is conducted with and for communities as opposed to aboutthem. CBPR is meant to take place at every level of a community, not just in the halls and labs of academia or in heavily controlled research studies that only produce papers and scholarly articles. Its certainly academic, but humanely and progressively so. Unlike many other methods of social research, CBPR – when done right – is founded in a genuine respect for people and people’s power, knowledge, and experience. The research only exists to augment these assets.

 So that is the romanticized, yet true, picture of the Center for Adolescents Health’s goals. The purpose of the Community Advisory Board is to make sure that the Center is truly working at all levels of the community and to “work with people who work with young people”. I guess that would be me.

Yesterday, the CAB (community advisory board, remember? keep up with the acronyms!) had a “retreat” (a concept that has been fairly corrupted) to bring its stakeholders around the table and envision the goals for the next 5 years of the Center’s work.  I took my seat at the table with researchers from Johns Hopkins, various program administrators, evaluators, and coordinators (basically, people that work with people that work with young people, so, “twice removed”) . We were asked to spread ourselves into five groups, each dedicated to discussing and envisioning the work and goals of each of the Center’s focus areas; reproductive and sexual health, after school programming, Healthy Minds At Work partnership with YO Baltimore, homeless youth, and the Center’s Healthy Adolescent Guide/ Authentic Communication initiative. I chose the last, because the idea of Authentic Communication between young people and adults is something that stood out to me as an important, long-term, and potentially very political, project.

The Healthy Adolescent Guide is a collaborative project between the Center’s researchers and young people  to further the perception of adolescence as a fluid developmental process with diverse manifestations and outcomes, in order to change the way society sees and treats youth, from a “bundle of problems and abnormalities” to normal, developing, young, people. The guide will serve as a training tool and a reference for adults that work with youth, and one of the key emphases is the concept of authentic communication between youth and adults: communication that is based on the acknowledgement that young people have knowledge and experience and that they are the best source of information about their own lives,  and on the committment to resisting the socially constructed power dynamics that dominate youth/adult interactions. 

It all sounds good. Great, even. I was really vocal during our group work. In fact there were times when I knew I was probably talking too much, yet I felt that I just had to say what was on my mind, that I, as a Youth Worker, had invaluable insight to contribute. And when my insight was met with less than enthusiasm, or with correction, or even with laughter, I became frustrated.

Sounds fairly adolescent, I know. But according to their Healthy Adolescent Guide, I’m technically still an adolescent. No one on the CAB knows that, though. I’m assumed to be an “adult” because I have this job, and I am a “person who works with young people”.  And even I couldn’t decide, at times, whether I wanted to be heard as a young person or as a professional, as a youth or as an adult. In fact, I became so wrapped up in my struggle to have my voice heard and valued that I forgot how much I have to learn, and particularly from these adults; academics, though they may be.

I wanted to channel the voices of young people into a conversation where there were none. I wanted to be a professional young person, the voice that bridges the two worlds, speak truth to the power of the ivory tower, and all of that. I didn’t want to believe that we have to go through all of this – research, studies, journals, program development, certifications, degrees, centers within departments within divisions within colleges within universities! – to change the world. I couldn’t believe that we were actually doing anything, or even talking about doing anything, because it sounded like we were just strategizing to build more levels of beaurocracy. The last comment I made was that we should use community organizing models to train and certify people in Authentic Communication and using the Healthy Adolescent Guide. I said that instead of training “trainers”, we should train powerful community leaders, and let them disseminate the information and perspective throughout their own communities, where it matters most. No one responded. I felt foolish. It was one of the last comments of the day because the conversation had already started to wrap up, and I was sure I could hear and see people around the room grinning and laughing at how naive I sounded. In the silence ( not without sound, just without response) after I spoke, I felt furious and embarrassed. I left, completely overwhelmed with the great tasks for which I felt responsible and all of the knowledge and experience I seemed to lack; overwhelmed with my desire to speak and my uncertainty of who to speak for, who to speak to; feeling fundamentally opposed to the “study and research” approach, yet without a studied and researched alternative. 

A wise mentor (my mother) advised me to relax, and remember that I can learn a lot from the academics and researchers from the Center, and that I am really lucky to have access to them as resources. Research brings the money to fund projects exactly like the one I am doing. I am lucky to be welcomed into a community of researchers who see the faults and flaws of academia, and who are seeking to re-make the purpose and practice of social research. The more I can learn, the more I can humble myself and just listen, the stronger the “bridge” I can build between the University and young people. I may not believe that transforming oppressive institutions into systems of freedom begins in universities, but I could believe in building authentic alliances with them.

Yeah, I felt foolish, I felt frustrated. Yet at the end of the day I found some measure of restless comfort, some inspired calm, in remembering how much I don’t know, how much I have yet to learn, and how grateful I am for just that.

Youth. Believing that we know everything, learning – time and again – that we know nothing, and continuing to boldly pursue the questions –  taking risks, bruising knees, and pushing on. I never wanna grow up…

“Your Report Card Is Your Paycheck”

Posted in Uncategorized on April 24, 2009 by Michelle Kurta

I heard this the other day from a young woman, a senior in a Baltimore City public high school. I had brought the young people I work with to a student focus group organized by the Student Attendance Workgroup, a collaborative project of the Open Society Institute and the Baltimore City Public Schools created to investigate the “phenomenon” of students not coming to school in Baltimore City, and create sustainable and innovative ways to draw students back to school.

This student focus group – one in a series – was meant to engage students in thinking about the reasons they don’t come to school and the reasons why they do, or would. It was working. I sat silently and listened carefully while the high school students hashed out the reasons why school was important and why it wasn’t, what frustrates them, what challenges them, and ultimately, what an education really is. Now many of them might not have been aware that they were having a conversation about what education IS. Many of them were just expressing themselves (and that’s part of what education is), many of them were passing on their knowledge of “how to get through” to one another (also, what education is), and there were a few who were connecting their personal experiences to their experiences as a group (part of what political education is). And in responding to one younger student’s comment that “school is school, its not a job”, this young woman said, “school is your job. Your report card is your paycheck.”

I couldn’t immediately understand why I took that so hard, but i felt those words in my gut; a visceral sense of anger and pain. My thoughts must have gone something like this: paycheck, capital, capitalism, racism, mental slavery, accountability….to…whom?, education=money? it does, and thats the problem, education for money, education for capital, education for capitalism, education for racism, education for oppression; this eloquent, intelligent, soon to be high school graduate in baltimore city, african-american, young, woman thinks that her report card is her paycheck!

Down at North Avenue (school headquarters) they call this a success. It is a success because they are educating for the workforce, they are educating towards the mainstream. Their loftiest goal is that 100% of their students graduate and go on to college (a goal that remains elusive in a very big way). Their biggest obstacles in acheiving this goal have been in one way or another related to poverty and all of the unjust consequences one faces in a culture of poverty. But they push ahead: lift more children out of their circumstances, improve their test scores (don’t get me started…yet), give them an equal education to their middle class peers, and on and on. The flaw in this plan, this system that dominates the institution of Education in this country, is truly a matter of pedagogy. How can we expect to educate ourselves out of poverty, without educating ourselves about poverty?

My anger is not directed at this young woman who stated that her report card is her paycheck. She is a truth-speaker. She learned exactly what this Education system had to teach her. I have learned over the past several months to trust young people, to assume that what they say is right, is truthful, is real, and it is my responsibility to interpret it as such. When she spoke that statement, she spoke the system. Loud and clear. I doubt she realized that with those words she was exposing something about the Education system that wasn’t really meant to be exposed or said out loud. The only problem I see, is that she said it with reverence instead of outrage.