Education

'Pretty Much a Catastrophe': Anna Deavere Smith and the Disaster of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The playwright takes to the Yerba Buena stage on July 17 to unmask zero-tolerance policies.

Photo Credit: iofoto / Shutterstock.com

In the last 20 years, there has been a shocking rise in the number of schools that embrace zero tolerance policies that regularly leave students suspended, expelled or arrested for the kinds of infractions that once would have meant a trip to the principal’s office. Over the same period of time, police presence in schools has increased dramatically, making it more probable that these same kids will be sucked out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

The students affected by these policies are disproportionately black and Latino. The education secretary, Arne Duncan, has highlighted data showing black students are three times as likely to be suspended as white ones. Multiple studies show that for students who get suspended, the likelihood of graduating high school plummets. The issue is so stark that the Obama administration has released recommendations that aim to change these discipline policies and NAACP leaders have called putting an end to zero tolerance, one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time.  

Now, playwright, actress and professor Anna Deavere Smith, who has a history of tackling social issues in her one-person shows (health care in Let Me Down Easyand racial unrest after the Rodney King verdict in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), has turned her focus to addressing the issue--specifically the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels minority and low-income children from classroom to penitentiary at an alarming rate.

The Obie, Tony and MacArthur fellowship winner will be approaching the issue via a “Town Hall” format, presenting a staged reading of her work-in-progress, Field Notes: Doing Time In Education: The California Chapter,and then “[opening] the floor for public dialogue and engagement.”  Developed in partnership with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the evening will feature material from dozens of interviews Smith has conducted with people impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline as well as the music of jazz musician Marcus Shelby. The aim? To jumpstart powerful conversations about a disturbing national trend.

Smith, who in addition to her stage work has appeared in movies (American President, Rachel Getting Married)and on TV (Nurse Jackie andThe West Wing),sat down with AlterNet in San Francisco to talk about zero tolerance, the relationship between trauma and cognitive development, and the role of art in getting people engaged with social issues.

Emily Wilson: Why have you chosen to focus your energy on the school-to-prison pipeline?

Anna Deavere Smith: People I knew started talking about it. I hadn’t thought about education as the place I’d be making a play because it seemed so huge, but this is a very specific group of people. Most of the people I talked to were concerned about disciplinary measures, which I now know means zero tolerance, but they were telling me stories about stuff that [would] be considered mischief if it were St. Paul’s or Dalton or a place like that. For kids with means, there’s a cushion. Not even really rich kids, just where there’s parental help and supervision.

I started thinking about it in 2008, and now we know even the president of the United States and [Attorney General] Eric Holder and people like that have data that show that black, brown and Native American kids are disproportionally suspended from school. Certainly it’s no surprise the relationship of those suspensions to ultimate incarceration. So I got very interested in it.

EW: How many people have you interviewed so far?

ADS: I’ve talked to people [in San Francisco] and in Philly, so between the two places, maybe about 100. I’ve talked to judges, teachers, politicians, deans at Stanford, activists, kids’ parents.

EW: Are there issues that come up again and again?

ADS: Well, I’ll tell you, there are certain words that keep coming up and one of them is trauma, because of historical trauma, like [that of] the Native Americans I’ve been talking to. Or it’s trauma in relationship, [or from] the kind of violent broken communities some of the people come from who end up in this situation. For a lot of them, if you graduate from high school, that’s a major victory.

EW: What are you learning through this process? What have the kids you’re speaking with about their experiences taught you?

ADS: So much, because I didn’t know anything, really. I’ve only taught artists and I’ve only taught in environments where people have a lot of advantages—Stanford, NYU and before that USC, Carnegie Mellon, and Yale. So the people I’ve taught had a lot of privileges; I call them Maseratis. The students I teach are all very healthy intellectually. But with the students [I’m talking to for this project], it’s pretty much a catastrophe. And of course, as a dramatist, I like catastrophe. So does an emergency room doctor.

EW: Why is it a catastrophe?

ADS: Because I don’t know how it’s going to get fixed. I’m just trying to expose the problem with this presentation—it’s not a performance, it’s a presentation—by reading some of the material I’ve collected. Really what we’re doing is gathering people in the room we think are the smartest people to have around, people who are either victims of this or who are trying to do something about it. And I’m just trying to convene them in one room in ways they may not have met before in the hopes that they can take their talent and their knowledge and find new ways of networking to fix the problem.

Look, the former dean of education at Stanford is the first person I interviewed, Claude Steele. He said, “We really are asking too much of the schools ... it’s a problem of poverty.” I think that’s right, and how do you solve poverty? Well, I don’t know if as a nation we like it that we are going on this course of extraordinary inequity, such a huge gap between rich and poor and such a huge gap between the middle class and the poor… Do we like that or do we want to change that?

The people that have really dropped out of the system are the poorest people and they don’t get a chance to be educated. It’s not a right in our country, but there are ways that we behave as though it is a right. We expect it; if you want to thrive and have a job and have a family, you’ll be educated, and I don’t think that’s just [about] a certificate. I think other things happen to us when we’re educated that help us maintain relationships, help us have healthy children, help us perpetuate the best of ourselves—that’s what education is.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more something that’s tied to a vocation, but there are other benefits to being socialized through educational institutions: learning to have a moral core, learning the difference between right and wrong, learning about friendship and generosity and all these things.

You heard the president’s very lengthy impromptu speech after the verdict about Trayvon Martin’s death: he said that he and Mrs. Obama were very concerned to try and help our black and brown boys be more productive members of society. And since that time a lot of very accomplished African American women have come forward and said, 'What about girls?' And my guess is they’re weaving girls in now.

EW: Have the people you’ve spoken to brought up much in terms of intervention?

ADS: A lot of people talk about early childhood. I don’t know. I met with a kindergarten teacher who had some pretty gruesome tales. But I think science is useful because physicians and scientists now have done studies that show the effect trauma and violence have on cognitive development, and I think the fact that medicine is stepping in and starting to talk about this is also terrific—because again I think we are asking a lot of schools. These types of [violent] environments have effects on kids’ hormones, and so I think if science begins to speak up, there will be more resources available. Foundations that have had social justice as their mission, and thank God for them, have been stepping up—now maybe medical institutions will step forward. Deborah Prothrow-Stith who was the dean of public health at Harvard, was, as long ago as 1998, talking about violence as an epidemic, thinking about it as a disease.

EW: What is your sense of where this all started? What are the roots of the zero tolerance effort?

ADS: Well, Columbine is the beginning of zero tolerance. This began with Columbine and it intensifies every time there’s violence in schools. By the way, Columbine and things that have happened like that, which people would say are related to mental illness, don’t tend to happen in poor schools where black and brown kids are. But people cite Columbine as a moment when this really took off.

EW: Why did you decide to have musician Marcus Shelby join you on stage?

ADS: I admire him. The piece is being created in three or four different geographic areas, so I thought it would be good to have local artists work with me. Also Marcus is very politically savvy. I think his father was the director of a social justice organization, and Marcus is dedicated to social justice, and he’s out there working with some of the kids [affected by this] in schools. Mainly, I love his music and lately have been collaborating with musicians.

I just did, in March, a piece with "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King’s letter. I read it with Bobby McDuffy who’s a concert violinist. I’ve also been working with a celloist on a piece about grace. So I guess I’m interested in string instruments and putting somebody else on stage with me and trying to find a new way of telling the stories I’ve been telling. But Marcus is just a terrific person who’s taught with me and he has an extraordinary amount of compassion. Why Marcus? He’s just an extraordinary cat.

EW: This project is structurally different from things you’ve done before. What are you hoping will come out of the process?

ADS: I’m sort of working outside the auspices of theater, so, yes, I’m working in a new way. In the past, I would work with a theater, get a commission and start to develop a play in different cities, but this is a different type of work in progress. It’s not really what you do to try to get your play ready for regional theater.

This thing I’m working on is to really be a member of a conversation about a big problem. So there’ll be, I hope, in our audience, judges and professors and jailers and kids— and what am I? I’m an artist. I just want to bring that fact of being an artist into a conversation that is really starting to rev up in our country, so it’s a different type of relationship. It’s not about a finished work of art. It’s about using certain skill sets I’ve developed as an artist over time to convene this conversation here.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will host a Town Hall for the general public on Thursday, July 17 at 7pm at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard Street, San Francisco.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer who teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.