Young and Restless in the South
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Whether they are petitioning to get a skate park built in Tennessee, raising awareness about sweatshop labor in Florida, rallying against police brutality or organizing for affirmative action at magnet schools in urban parts of Kentucky young activists all over the South are fired up to make a difference. So why, doesn't the rest of the country know about it?
According to Greg King, 21, of the Highlander Center, a Tennessee-based organization that supports youth organizers all over around the South, the rest of the U.S. is quick to make assumptions about that neck of the woods.
"There's a stereotype that the youth here are not doing very much organizing," he says "But, in fact, we have a long history of activism and organizing."
Historically, as in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, local organizing in the South, such as the famous struggle against segregation in Selma, Alabama, has had huge potential to effect regional politics. And Greg points out that while youth in the South are often more geographically isolated, and therefore their efforts are often still very focused on local issues, their engagement also has the potential to have an impact nationwide.
In fact, since the South has the highest rates of imprisonment in the nation -- meaning southernersare more at risk of being criminalized and imprisoned -- southern youth might just have the potential to lead the national in its' struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex (see sidebar for definition).
Prison Industrial Complex: a marriage of public and private interests working together to institutionalize repressive policies, enforcement practices, activities, and culture that target, control and exploit poor communities of color and rural communities, youth of color, women, immigrants and the lesbian and transgendered communities, among others.
--Definition by the Prison Moratorium Project
"As a region, the South ... locks up more African Americans and youth than anywhere else in the U.S. In addition, southern prisons hold more people on death row than any other region in the country." So reads a statement by Critical Resistance (CR) a national organization with branches around the country working to build a movement to challenge the prison industrial complex. CR is planning a 4 day conference and strategy session that will bring together activists from 12 Southern states in New Orleans in April.
But youth organizing in the South is unique for other reasons, as well. For one, Greg says, religion plays a bigger role in the "bible belt" than it might in other parts of the country and there are considerable cultural differences between youth from different states. For instance "Deep South," which includes the most Southern states like Alabama and Mississippi, is very different than the Appalachian region (states like Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia).
Greg points to the traditional music in the areas as an important symbol of this difference. "It's like the difference between folk and blues music," he says. "The two have similar roots but the sounds are very distinct. That extends to other aspects of culture, as well."
For this reason, gatherings that bring together youth from different parts of the South -- like the upcoming Critical Resistance Conference and Strategy Session -- are vital in the creation of a unified southern youth movement."Politically, it's important for youth in the South to have a sense of the larger movement and the work happening in other communites," Greg says.
Why the Big Easy? New Orleans can be seen as a sort of microcosm of youth organizing going on around the South -- specifically around issues relating to the prison reform and anti-racism movements, two efforts which are closely tied together. It is also a place where the youth involved in both efforts have been directly effected by the Prison Industrial Complex.
Tamika Middleton is a student at Xavier University of Louisiana and a Volunteer Coordinator at Critical Resistance. She estimates that she knows "at least seven or eight people" who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
"Most young people today, especially youth of color, have some kind of personal connection to the prison system," she says. "I know people who have been involved in the system in one way or another -- friends, family members, or acquaintances that have been in jail or on probation. It's almost like second nature these days. It's as common as knowing a high school graduate."
Tamika says she got involved when she started to learn about the numbers of her peers who were being imprisoned. "It has become amazingly obvious to me how many young black men are affected by the PIC. The female to male ratio at most Historically Black Universities is about 11:1."
"People would quickly assume that it's because young Black men just aren't going to college," she adds. "And they're correct -- they're going to jail." Tamika sites a study by the Justice Policy Institute that found that in 2000, there were 791,600 Black men in jail or prison, and only 603,032 enrolled in institutions of higher learning.
Working with Critical Resistance has helped Tamika feel like she's actively counter-acting this trend. "I love knowing that I'm not a bystander; I'm actually involved in it," she says.
Courtney Smith is another young person involved with CR. She feels that what she's learned about prisons has opened her mind to much more about "the social problems that plague our society."
"This is very crucial," she says "because how is anyone going to be able to combat social issues such as poverty or the prison system if they lack the knowledge about it. Once you have the knowledge and are aware about the problem then you can strategize."
Courtney has experienced some resistance by other kids her age when she tells them about her activism work. But, she says, it's been worth it.
"When I tell someone where I work they look kind of puzzled. However, I tell them some of the facts that I have learned about the prison system and their expression changes from confused to interested. At that moment I know that I have caused someone to take a different look at the situation. Now, it may not have been a radical, life-changing experience, but from the look in their eyes I know that it had an effect on them."
Like Tamika, Courtney has had friends and family who've done time in prison and in the juvenile justice system. She says, "I know that it isn't easy to have someone that you love and care about taken away from you."
The organizers at Critical Resistance South see the South as particularly vulnerable to the Prison Industrial Complex because of its history of slavery and segregation. "At the same time," the organization states in its official literature, "it is our history of resisting and overthrowing these seemingly unchangeable systems of state-sponsored terror that is the inspiration for CR South."
Unfortunately, not everyone who grows up in the South learns about this history of resistance. That's where the Freedom School, a peer-to-peer educational program of The People's Institute's People's Youth Agenda (PIPYA) comes in.
At 14, Aubrey Jean Jacques was resistant to the idea of going to Freedom School. He was spending his summer just like he always had, hanging out, chillin', taking time off from school, when he got a call from his sister Ariel.
"She had asked me to come to the Freedom School before," He says, "but this time she had one of the staff people on the phone with her, a guy we called 'Kool Black'. He was very convincing and I decided I'd stop by and see what it was like."
Aubrey did stop by. And he stuck around.
The Freedom School is a project of People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, a 23-year-old organization that has become known in communities across the country for their "Un-Doing Racism" workshops.
"As a black male," says Aubrey, "I figured the history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow laws, etc., the stuff you're not going to hear in school, was some something I should start learning about."
The Freedom School combined a lengthy process and analysis based on the People's Institute's approach to looking at the connections between racism and other social injustices with fun activities and field trips to historical sites such as the burial place of the Reverend Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia.
At 18, Aubrey is now in his first year at Tulane University and is a Student Leader at the Freedom School. Last summer, when the Institute was low on funding and couldn't staff the Freedom School, he and other the student leaders took over. As he tells it, the group put together a series of fundraisers -- from car-washes to talent shows - so they could make the Freedom School possible. The seven student leaders were able to work with the existing curriculum to "take it to their own level."
"We are a group who cares not only about our history," he says, "but we wanted to train one another to become strong community organizers and to strive for a future we could believe in."
Also important is the fact that the group is made up of youth from a variety of racial backgrounds.
Kendra Christos-Rodgers, 16, is one of two white student organizers involved with the Freedom School. She has a lot to say about the importance of doing anti-racism work. "I see myself as benefiting from almost everything that goes on in society because I'm white," she says. Like other white anti-racists Kendra feels motivated by this knowledge, not stuck.
According to Kendra, New Orleans is seen as one of the more progressive parts of the South. And, for that reason, she believes it is more important than ever to point out places where what is commonly referred to as "institutionalized racism" is still at work.
"People think that [New Orleans] is different, because you can see a gay couple walking down the street, for instance, but the whole layout of the city lends to segregation," she says.
Kendra sees the issue of race as key to a number of movements taking place in the South today. "When I look at all these different movements," she says, "I can't help but see the way race plays into it. Like the Women's Movement, for instance -- it was seriously stalled because the women involved didn't come from the same backgrounds and they had a lot to work out around race issues before they could really move forward."
Holler to the Hood
Southeast Hip Hop
Knoxville Free Amendment Radio
Young and the Restless
(including the "Seeds of Fire" youth leadership camp)
Empty the shelters
The prison reform movement is another good example. She believes that activists have to approach the prison reform work in an anti-racist way now that the two issues are so closely tied together.
A lot of anti-racism work is very internal work, she points out. It means looking at your own place in the larger system and taking responsibility for your role. In order to work on external problems, especially the really large ones like the growth of the prison industrial complex, Kendra believes that activists need to move from the inside outward.
"You can't just do internal work," she says. "You have to involve your friends, your family, your community. You have to motivate yourself to talk to people."
Like Kendra, Aubrey, Tamika, Courtney, and Greg and the youth who attend the Critical Resistance Conference and Strategy session will do a lot of the kind of talking she is referring to. Together they and their peers represent a whole generation of Southern youth who are taking their futures into their own hands.
Photos of the Freedom School taken by Elizabeth Jeffers.