For my final post I decided to create a service learning project which summarizes the work I have been doing within the criminal justice system. As one who understands the history behind the prison industrial complex, and having lost many friends to the system, this particular initiative was one of major importance to me. The question I grappled with, was how could I begin to advocate for those who are incarcerated. The motivation behind this project was to explore ways in which we have, and could further develop a culturally relevant curriculum, one that would embrace the whole existence. This experience has forced me to expand my understanding of social justice, while simultaneously, challenging my own biases and preconceived notions. Although this project is not in journal format, I have done my best to document the work in chronological order as it occurred. Our target population are incarcerated men, housed within a level 1-4 prison facility, with a maximum capacity of roughly 1400 inmates. The demographic majority of the students we serve are African American men between the ages of 21 and 60, with a few men from other ethnic backgrounds. Therefore, we sought to create a culturally relative educational program geared towards African American men that would encompass the social sciences from an African perspective.
The initial idea for this project started when the Vice President of Public Programs of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, gave a powerful speech for the prison facility’s Kwanzaa celebration. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response, Macomb’s NAACP Prison Branch President, Deon Dawson reached out to the museum, and requested a follow up program centered on some aspect of the Black experience. At the time, I was an intern with the curatorial staff, working to document some of the museum’s thousands of artifacts. I was approached about transitioning to an intern position in Public Programs, where I eventually found myself spearheading the development of this prison outreach program, in coalition with the NAACP Prison Branch of Macomb County Correctional Facility.
The NAACP Prison Branch consists of roughly around 10 members, each of whom were selected through a rigorous selection and voting process. However, our participants range anywhere from 35 inmates, to nearly 100, depending on the program. My contact since I began this initiative has been Deon Dawson, (AKA Heru Bantu) who has been instrumental in helping to get this program off the ground. Deon is an inmate housed at the facility who seeks to educate, uplift, and inspire the other incarcerated individuals. And so, in collaboration with the Macomb County Correctional Facility, and the Macomb County NAACP Prison Branch, we’ve initiated the first prison community educational outreach program through the Charles H. Wright Museum.
As I mentioned earlier, this is an educational program. There is a large body of literature that has concluded that education programs within the prison system help to reduce recidivism rates among ex-offenders. There are prison education programs popping up all over the country, many of which are in coalitions with major universities. However, there are very few, if any, that provide an African centered approach to education. Utilizing the rich resources that the museum has to offer, we’ve been able create a new pathway to enlightenment for incarcerated men.
After all the pushback and setbacks that we got from the prison administration, our program was finally approved in December of 2017.
Steps for Event Proposal:
- Brainstorm with Branch President about future programming and topics.
- Find a presenter.
- Presenter must submit LEIN clearance form
- Event proposal form must be created and submitted to the prison administration for approval.
- Outline of presentation must be created and submitted to prison administration for proposal.
- Syllabus outlining presentation content and readings must be created and submitted to the prison administration for approval.
- All materials to be used in the presentation (Articles, books, journals, etc.) must be submitted to the prison administration for approval.
- Once all of these steps have been followed, and program has been approved by the administration, presenter is free to move forward with their presentation.
Special Activities Event Proposal Form
Examples of Presentation Outlines (Previous Programs)
Reflection Letters from Incarcerated Students
Why an African Centered Approach to Education?
Just as there is an African centered approach to Social Work, there is also within education. Since most of what we have been taught is centered around Western history, values, and ways of knowing, it is imperative that an African centered approach to education be applied within the educational curriculum serving the African American population. “It is understandable that challenges to the European-centered curriculum engender alarm in establishment circles, but an Afrocentric curriculum is not an attempt to destroy Western content. It is an attempt to correct and balance history (Gilliam, 1990). Abena Walker, a poet, performer and former D.C public school teacher states that “An African centered teacher is one who has internalized the value system that is based on cooperative learning, seeing discipline as lovingly helping children develop self-control, who can think and plan holistically, combining subjects through projects and integrating the arts into these projects” (Gilliam, 1990). In relating the Afrocentric paradigm to transformational learning and transformational education, it can be demonstrated that this theory can be used to identify African cultural values that can be incorporated with transformative learning to make it more culturally sensitive. The term cultural sensitive is used here to mean acknowledging and being accommodative of other ways of knowing, value systems, and their understanding of reality (Ntseane, 2011).
West African Adinkra symbol of unity and human relations A reminder to contribute to the community, that in unity lies strength.
NABSW Code of Ethics
If a sense of community awareness is a precondition to humanitarian acts, then we as Black social workers must use our knowledge of the Black community, our commitments to its self-determination, and our helping skills for the benefit of Black people as we marshal our expertise to improve the quality of life of Black people. Our activities will be guided by our Black consciousness, our determination to protect the security of the Black community, and to serve as advocates to relieve suffering of Black people by any means necessary.
Therefore, as Black social workers we commit ourselves, collectively, to the interests of our Black brethren and as individuals subscribe to the following statements:
- I regard as my primary obligation the welfare of the Black individual, Black family, and Black community and will engage in action for improving social conditions.
- I give precedence to this mission over my personal interest.
- I adopt the concept of a Black extended family and embrace all Black people as my brothers and sisters, making no distinction between their destiny and my own.
- I hold myself responsible for the quality and extent of service I perform and the quality and extent of service performed by the agency or organization in which I am employed, as it relates to the Black community.
- I accept the responsibility to protect the Black community against unethical and hypocritical practice by any individual or organizations engaged in social welfare activities.
- I stand ready to supplement my paid or professional advocacy with voluntary service in the Black public interest.
- I will consciously use my skills, and my whole being as an instrument for social change, with particular attention directed to the establishment of Black social institutions.
The NAACP prison branch is doing some amazing things there at the facility. The branch members act as mentors and educators, and give guidance to the younger brothers within the general population. They seem to be reaching a lot of individuals there on the inside. It is quite a spectacular sight to see. Brother Bantu has been doing a phenomenal job as Branch President. His organization and leadership skills far surpass those of many I know who hold leadership roles within major organizations. And still, surviving under the most oppressive conditions, relatable to slavery itself, these brothers are still kind, they smile, and embrace each other with respect and dignity. Notice the intentional language that I am using to refer to the inmates, that is because we must first see the humanity within these individuals if we are going to be a part of their rehabilitation process. I must add that this program is one that is conceptualized and led by the incarcerated students. What I did not do, was come into this prison with a savior complex. I listened to the needs of the inmates, and executed where they could not reach. However, it is the persistence and the tenacity of those incarcerated students, those who sought to obtain whatever resources they could to continue to educate themselves, and better themselves, that brought this program into existence.
There are some limitations that have come up with this project. For once, all communication is limited to either mail, or email, until the date of the presentation. Also, there is a significant lack of literature available on the impact of African-centered educational practices within the prison system. While there are plenty of works available on the African centered educational paradigm alone, and plenty of literature on the significance of education and its impact on the recidivism rates, little to none exists as an interdisciplinary and systematic approach through an African lens, given to inmates who occupy the deepest and darkest corners of U.S Society. Much attention should be given to the influence that a culturally relative approach has upon any given population. Both quantitative, and qualitative methods should be used as a means to measure the success of such programs, upon a strong theoretical foundation. Hopefully, in the near future, more research will be conducted and used as a frame of reference. I fully intend to start my own research, where I will be able to also include research conducted by the inmates as well. It is important that we continue to emphasize the voices of those who need to be heard, and using whatever platform, and any means necessary to accomplish this social victory.
Elias, Dean (1997). “It’s time to change our minds: An introduction to transformative learning“
esthermsmth, “Transformative Learning Theory (Mezirow),” in Learning Theories, September 30, 2017, https://www.learning-theories.com/transformative-learning-theory-mezirow.html.
Gilliam, D. (1990, November 19). Afrocentric Education Would Benefit All. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, p. B3.
Ntseane, P. G. (2011). Culturally Sensitive Transformational Learning: Incorporating the Afrocentric Paradigm and African Feminism. Adult Education Quarterly, 307-321.