Toward Empathetic Imagination and Action – by Anna Deavere Smith

“Notes for the Field” is part of a social justice initiative called “The Anna Deavere Smith Pipeline Project.” I was stunned, about five years ago, to learn of something called “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  Basically, the US Justice Department released statistics that show that poor black, brown and Native American children are suspended and expelled more frequently than their middle-class and white counterparts, and that these suspensions and expulsions are directly linked to the likelihood that they will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.  Many of the stories I heard about what caused even kindergartners to end up handcuffed were especially shocking, because their deeds sounded a lot like old-fashioned mischief.

I headed out to research schools in poor communities in Northern California, Philadelphia, Baltimore ( my home town ) and in various parts of South Carolina.  Two hundred and fifty interviews later, I sat down to write “Notes From the Field,” with the idea of using the convening power of the theater to bring attention to this matter.

While traveling in various parts of the country to do interviews upon which “Notes From the Field” is based, I was particularly influenced by two women I met in South Carolina, one in Charleston and the other in Summerton. They were both actively involved in the mid-twentieth century movement to desegregate American schools: Millicent Brown and Beatrice Rivers.

Ms. Brown helped integrate Rivers High School in Charleston, South Carolina in 1963. She told me about the trauma she suffered as the first Negro to walk the halls of Rivers when she was 15 years old, facing hostility from many students and teachers alike. After some months she began having symptoms of a heart attack. Today, at age 68, she still has those symptoms. She is collecting a series of interviews with others around her age, who were “firsts.” Many still have the same physical and psychological symptoms that they experienced as barrier-breaking youngsters.

Beatrice Rivers was a petitioner in the desegregation case Briggs v. Elliot. Filed in 1951, it preceded the more famous Brown v. Board of Education into which it was eventually subsumed. To this day, pulses go up for the old-time black folks in Summerton, South Carolina when they talk about their case. They are proud of their struggle and upset that most Americans evoke only the Brown case when they talk about civil rights history.

The case began in 1947 as a demand for equality in transportation—a story that is easy to remember, once you hear it. The community asked the county for a school bus so that their children would not have to walk as many as nine miles to the school for Negroes. The county said no. The community somehow found a broken-down bus and got it running. They asked the county to pay for gas. The county said no. The NAACP stepped up to support the community in 1949, expanding the demand to one of equal educational opportunities in Clarendon County.

The first action was for black citizens to gather at their church to sign a petition for education equality. Beatrice Rivers’s signature on that petition curls and curves in that old-fashioned, perfectly rounded “cursive” writing. She told me that all of the adults who signed the petition lost their jobs, her father among them. He was a janitor at the “white” high school, and many in the town liked him. He was the last to lose his job, but lose his job he did. Popularity was not enough to override racism.

As some of you well know, even though southern towns were eventually ordered to desegregate, they found ways around it. They created private “religious” schools for white children.

I spoke with Terry Peterson, a white man who was a young activist in those days. He is still at the forefront — fighting for social justice in Charleston. He looks like a southern gentleman, with a full head of white hair. I wanted to know his point of view about why the county refused even to supply gasoline for the bus. He shook his head. He shrugged. He pursed his lips. And he said that the same sentiments exist today. I told him that some white people say racism is not real. “It’s real,” he said simply. And he started to weep.

Have we squandered a generation’s hard-won victories? In many American cities today, schools are as racially segregated as they were in the 1950s. And other social forces and institutions are separating us from each other even more.

Thomas Jefferson constructed a plan for public education in the Notes on the State of Virginia, as the late philosopher Maxine Greene once pointed out to me. His plan was for a system that would reveal the “excellent students” and throw out the “rubbish.” The “rubbish,” Maxine said, were the poor kids who couldn’t make it.

Schools that work as sorting mechanisms are deep in our American DNA, whether the sorting is meant to find talent and aptitude, whether it is meant to weed out those who slow “us” down, or whether it is meant to keep races and social classes apart. Those working to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline” make a strong claim that schools sort out future prisoners, feeding the astonishing growth of America’s prison industry and making us the developed country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Laws were one way we looked at the problem of integration six decades ago. I am grateful for the laws. My education and my career are byproducts of laws that helped make it possible for more of us to reach our arms over the chasm of racism and classism. But sixty years later, it’s obvious that laws are not enough.

We have fine law schools in this country. Could you ever imagine The Graduate School of Empathy and Love? I know that sounds ridiculous. But I also know that some individuals have a special aptitude for these core elements of our humanity. Those gifts should be honed, nourished, refined, and celebrated in the same way we cultivate athletic prowess, intellectual productivity, and business acumen. We need a generation of leaders who are as loving as they are strategic.

We need such leaders to help us find ways to imagine ourselves as beings who could extend our concern beyond the boundaries of our front doors, our fences, our perceived self- interests, our skins. How?

As an artist, my effort has been to broaden the realm of my inquiry beyond my writing room and beyond understanding based on personal experience. For 40 years, I have been creating plays out of fragments of conversations with diverse groups of people from all over the country. When I was a girl, my paternal grandfather and I used to spend hours talking. He said, “If you say a word often enough it becomes you.” I have been trying to become America word for word. I interview people — seeking to understand a problem from a variety of points of view. This practice allows me to enrich my understanding of my country. I choose moments of crisis as the pivot points.

I now seek to extend my work beyond the artistic product that evolves out of those many conversations. I now extend the realm of my work into the audience. What do you think? What is your position on the large and complex landscape of points where failed attempts at education meet prison walls, broken families, broken dreams, broken possibilities? Even the position that is far from the nexus of the problem is a position. We all live somewhere in the landscape. We are really all connected “to the person next door, down the street or whatever,” as Denise Dodson, a woman in a maximum security prison, says in the play.

We must do the work required to make our democracy robust. While I did research in my broken-down boarded-up hometown, Baltimore, I met a charismatic, articulate man in his late twenties. He had spent a lot of his young adulthood in prison, where he developed a rich vocabulary by studying the dictionary from beginning to end, and back again. With passion he said: “We can’t wait for the leaders to make it better. We have to make it better.”

Digging Up the Pipeline – by Alisa Solomon

by Alisa Solomon
Dramaturg, Notes from the Field

Anna Deavere Smith was stunned when she first heard the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” a few years ago as she listened to a discussion among social justice experts in New York. She learned about five-year-olds being handcuffed for throwing tantrums, about older kids arrested for pranks. The sorts of mischief that once would have landed kids in the principal’s or guidance counselor’s office were now sending them swirling down the drain into the pipeline: into the criminal justice system. She set out to understand the plight of these children, using the unique and powerful form of documentary theater that she invented decades ago.

As she traversed the country, beginning in California and Pennsylvania, interviewing students, teachers, principals, mentors, advocates, judges, inmates, government officials, and more, the purview of Notes from the Field expanded. Smith arrived in her hometown of Baltimore to conduct more interviews on the heels of the death of Freddie Gay, one of hundreds of African American men to have died in police custody in 2015. She landed in Charleston, South Carolina after a young white man opened fire there on an African American Bible-study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Work on the play continued amid the terrible evens of this past July that saw the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the slaying of five police officers in Dallas, and that revealed, even more starkly in this divisive election year, national discord over not only the best policies for addressing social problems, but even over what the problems are. The pipeline gushes on in a context of racial disparity, gun violence, and racial profiling, a context in which – in the astounding words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor – an individual can become  “not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.”

During her research, Smith saw how the punitive aggression of policing in poor communities of color lines up with young people’s experiences in local schools. These students are also contending with environments that are not conducive to learning: They are surrounded by violence and poverty, suffer from trauma and physical and mental health challenges, lack the self-regulation that school culture requires, and are bereft of hope and a sense of purpose. Often schools must cede disciplinary procedures to police officers stationed in their buildings through federal and local initiatives, even as guidance counselors and nurses are eliminated from school staffs due to budget cuts. Despite the commitment and expertise of dedicated educators, schools can become places where students encounter the same arbitrary, over-aggressive policing they face in their communities. Activists say that students come to perceive the school system as emphasizing control and punishment over a stimulating educational experience, and to sense that they are being prepared more for prison than for lives as engaged, imaginative, productive citizens.

As the nation begins to review policies that led to the mass incarceration that has made America the country with the highest prison rate in the world, government agencies have also begun to address the school-to-prison pipeline.  The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated — and even sued—several states for violating the rights of children funneled into juvenile justice systems for minor infractions. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice, along with the U.S. Department of Education, published guidelines aimed at both curbing harsh, discriminatory over-punishments imposed for school discipline violations, and fostering safe, inclusive and positive learning environments while keeping students in school. “By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path,” said Attorney General Eric Holder when the guidelines were released.

Here in New York, recent reforms put into place by Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration reduced the use of suspension and arrests in response to student discipline problems, while increasing restorative justice programs and de-escalation techniques, and eliminated suspensions altogether for kindergarten through second grade.

These steps have been taken in a landscape of entrenched, intersecting problems of poverty, racial disparity, trauma, overly aggressive policing, and mass incarceration. The more she spoke to Americans across the country, the more Smith was convinced that solutions will take a new civil rights movement, one that brings healing to struggling communities as well as equality and justice.