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Lift Us Up: Meet the Activists on the Front Lines of the Battle for Educational Justice in America

StoryOctober 03, 2018
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As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh objects to being held accountable for his behavior in high school, we look at the criminalization of black and brown students that has led to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. We speak with a roundtable of community activists engaged in the fight to save schools and push for alternatives to punishment and privatization. Their voices are highlighted in a new book titled Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement. In Chicago, we speak with 
Jitu Brown, the national director of the Journey for Justice. In Washington, D.C., we speak with Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, the co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and field organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign. And in New York City, we speak with high school teacher and restorative justice coordinator E.M. Eisen-Markowitz and Mark Warren, co-author of “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As Brett Kavanaugh objects to being held accountable for his behavior in high school, we look at the criminalization of black and brown students that’s led to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The movement saw a setback on Sunday when California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have expanded a statewide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten to third grade to include fourth through eighth graders. The ban focused on suspensions for, quote, “disruption and defiance.” A recent UCLA study found black seventh and eighth graders lost nearly four times the number of school days to such suspensions than white students.

Just last week at Oak View Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia, two teachers resigned after students complained they punished them by zip-tying their hands behind their backs like they were under arrest by police. The students were 4 years old. Writer and activist Shaun King tweeted, “This is the (pre) school to prison pipeline.” One of the girls’ mothers spoke to WSB-TV.

MOTHER: This has really shaken me, to the core. … She said that one teacher tied her up and the other cut it loose. And she said, “Mommy, I was scared to tell you, because I thought I was going to get in trouble.” … I want them to pay. I want them to not have any license to teach, because they don’t need to teach. Who would do this? I mean, would they like this to happen to their own kids?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by a roundtable of community activists engaged in the fight to save schools and push for alternatives to punishment and privatization, their voices highlighted in an incredible new book titled Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement.

In Chicago, Jitu Brown joins us, national director of the Journey for Justice. He’s been an education activist for the past quarter of a century. In 2015, he led a successful 34-day hunger strike to prevent the closing of Dyett High School in Chicago’s South Side.

In Washington, D.C., Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is co-founder of Racial Justice NOW!, field organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign, became active when her black son was repeatedly suspended in preschool in Dayton, Ohio. She then campaigned for Dayton Public Schools to adopt a moratorium on pre-K suspensions.

Here in New York, E.M. Eisen-Markowitz is a restorative justice coordinator and high school teacher, a board member of Teachers Unite.

Also with us, Mark Warren, who, along with my brother, journalist David Goodman, co-authored Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! which brings together these voices and many more. Mark is a professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, founder and co-chair of the Urban Research-Based Action Network.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Jitu Brown, I want to begin with you. And posit that issue. Brett Kavanaugh and many of his supporters are saying, “Why are you going back to high school? He should not be held accountable for his high school behavior, even if it involved an attempted rape.” That’s the allegation. Can you talk about what is happening to black and brown children, not just 17, 16 and 15, but as young as 4 years old, in school?

JITU BROWN: Absolutely. And, Amy, thank you for having me on. I would just say that we don’t have a policy problem in public education. We have a values problem. There’s a belief system, that is rooted in the hatred of black and brown children, that fuels education policy. Just think, that parent, Zakiya, had to fight because her son was being suspended in preschool. I’ve seen this story over and over again. In Pittsburgh, parents had to organize to stop the suspension of kindergarten through third graders. In New York, this has been a fight. In Chicago, young people fought to stop 10-day suspensions in Chicago Public Schools. If the discipline policies are administered through a lens of hatred, that often these policymakers would not apply to their own children, and that’s why the numbers around the suspension of black, brown and white students for the same infractions are so glaring, that there is a belief system—and we know research says this, first—that black and brown children are viewed as older than their white counterparts.

So, I think we have to challenge that. And not just challenge that strictly around discipline, but also around just the starving of neighborhood schools. I’ve experienced, in the Journey for Justice Alliance, across the country, black and brown schools not having pre-K services, half-day kindergartens, not having libraries, no teacher aides in the building, overcrowded classrooms, but then, in the same cities, their white counterparts having a completely different experience. Now, we don’t have any acrimony towards those babies that happen to be white or wealthy having the things they need, but the fight should be to make sure that all children have what they need, not punish those schools for being starved. So, along with the suspension policies, the policy of closing—starving and then closing schools has had a disastrous impact in our communities across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go now to Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, who is now in Washington, D.C. But talk about what happened to your child when he was 4 years old in Dayton, Ohio, Zakiya.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: Hi, Amy. Thank you for having me on. Yes, I began organizing very organically as a parent pushing back, when my son was actually 3, what is now known as the preschool-to-prison pipeline, as you mentioned. And one of the things that I did as a parent, you know, not thinking initially that it was a race issue or a class issue, is that I just questioned their policies and practices, or questioned what was actual normal behavior for a 3-year-old to be exhibiting in a classroom. Some of the things that they would complain about was, you know, “Oh, he has problems transitioning,” or, you know, “He’s having temper tantrums.” And so, what I saw was happening and began to realize was that there was a pathologizing of normal childhood behavior of my son.

I then began to take a deeper look and, you know, noticed that he was the only black boy out of only two black students in a class of 19—and then just the overall teacher representation, as well, at the school, was overwhelmingly white; the administration was all-white—and beginning to put those factors together as I began to ask other black women, black parents at the school, if they were having similar experiences.

And so, once I did that, I went to my co-founder of Racial Justice NOW!, professor Vernellia Randall, and talked to her about what I was experiencing. And that was basically how Racial Justice NOW! was founded in her living room, saying that we needed to really have a response to this, to organize and begin to shift and change policies and practices of how young people, particularly black students, and our families were being treated in the school at that time.

And so, that has led to a deeper analysis. And until just recently, because of the work of working-class poor and working-class black parents in the city of Dayton, Ohio just recently passed a law, House Bill 318, to ban most out-of-school pre-K-through-third-grade suspensions across the entire state. And so, that’s a huge victory for a small organization, a community-based organization like Racial Justice NOW!, in a very conservative state like Ohio. But it took years of organizing and being supported by national organizations like Dignity in Schools campaign, and even Journey for Justice Alliance, being supported on the ground to be able to get that work done and be able to get something so big accomplished in a very conservative state.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Warren, you have written this book, Lift Us Up. You’ve edited a book of essays that include our guests today. Talk about the studies that have been done that show what happens in this preschool—I mean, it is hard to believe—preschool-to-prison pipeline, how—the more kids are suspended, what happens to them as they move through the system?

MARK WARREN: Sure. Thank you, Amy, for having us. Yes, it’s becoming increasingly known now that the school-to-prison pipeline starts in pre-K, which is really shocking. So these are children as young as 3- and 4-year-olds who are often exhibiting, as Zakiya said, normal behavior—jumping around in the class or acting out in different kinds of ways. And, you know, unfortunately, many of these children, particularly if they are black and brown children, particularly if they’re boys or special needs, but also girls, are labeled very early on. And the solution is seen as pushing them out of the classroom, getting rid of the so-called troublemakers. And, you know, this starts a train of labeling and harsh discipline that carries on through elementary school and into middle school.

And many studies have found that students who are repeatedly suspended in elementary and particularly middle school are very likely to fail to graduate from high school. Either they’re expelled, or they become so alienated and so far behind that they choose to leave school on their own. And then, once that happens, they’re out on the street, where they are also subject to oftentimes discriminatory policing and police abuse, and then they end up in the juvenile criminal justice system. We actually have now more law enforcement officers in our schools than we have social workers. So it’s not just that they’re facing police in the streets. Many young children and high school children are facing police right in their schools. In Chicago, people may not know that the Chicago Police Department actually has substations located in high schools. These are not school police; these are Chicago police. And they are arresting and booking children in schools.

And so, in this book, what we tried to do is to bring together the voices of people who are actually working to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. Our starting point is the systemic racism that children are facing. But what we’re trying to show people is that there our alternatives. And when grassroots people, whether they are organizers and parents like Jitu and Zakiya, or whether they are teacher organizers and activists, like E.M. that we’ll be hearing from, start to organize in their communities, they can change these kinds of discipline policies, and they can organize and build alternatives like restorative justice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to our last guest, E.M.—we’re going to do that after break—to talk about what restorative justice means in this context. She’s a teacher in the New York City schools and organizer with Teachers Unite. We’re talking to Jitu Brown, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, Mark Warren, editor of Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” performed by Billie Holiday. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Our roundtable of teachers and activists around the schools and what’s happening to the black and brown children, the children of color throughout the United States in schools, includes E.M. Eisen-Markowitz, a restorative justice coordinator and high school teacher, Teachers Unite board member. We’re also joined by the author of Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!, Mark Warren, Voices from the Front Lines of Educational Justice Movement, the book just out. Zakiya Sankara-Jabar with Racial Justice NOW! and Dignity in Schools Campaign, as well as Jitu Brown with Journey for Justice Alliance in Chicago.

E.M., if you can talk about what restorative justice means—this preschool-to-prison pipeline, it’s just astounding—and the disproportionate number of children of color who are going through this pipeline, and what suspensions mean?

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: Hi. Thanks for having me and for being here. It’s good to be here with Jitu and with Zakiya and Mark. So, restorative justice, in this context, in the way that we’re advocating for it to be grown at school sites around the country, is a relational approach to discipline. We talk about it in sort of three tiers. And the base of the tiers is intentional community and relationship building, which is a shame that we have to even put that in there as that schools are not doing and not prioritizing, not allocating resources to. But as you heard from Jitu, who explained very clearly what’s happening to starving schools across the country, especially in black and brown neighborhoods, there is an intentional community building and relationship building. Once those relationships are there, restorative justice practices are there to help people reflect on behavior and change from those behaviors. A lot of that looks like mediation. It looks like guidance interventions. It looks like community circles related to conflict that’s happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Who gets suspended, and what are they suspended for?

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: So, I mean, you heard from other contributors that disproportionately, like in New York City, there are 27 percent of New York City students are black, and 54 of our suspension—54 percent of our suspensions are black students.

AMY GOODMAN: And suspended for what?

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: Well, they’re suspended for all sorts of things, but the biggest—like the disproportionate suspensions that are happening are around subjective offenses like insubordination or defying authority, which you heard a little bit about from Zakiya and from Jitu. So, what that means is that teachers—teacher bias is influencing a large number of students that are being suspended, even for five days or more, for relatively minor offenses. We’re not talking about even fighting or bringing a weapon to school. We’re talking about insubordination or defying authority.

AMY GOODMAN: So, these children, many of them being suspended for defiance. I wanted to go back to Jitu. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced in August she would allow states to use federal funds to purchase firearms for teachers and school employees, the plan using federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to pay for guns and training teachers in their use, reversing long-standing federal policy prohibiting federal funds for arming educators. Talk about the significance of this, moving the money from education to guns.

JITU BROWN: Absolutely. I would like to make a connection to Betsy DeVos, if I could. So, Betsy DeVos, who has been a major contributor to ruining education in the state of Michigan, who helped destroy the elected school board in Detroit and took Detroit’s—or, Michigan’s schools from near the middle of the pack to almost at the bottom of educational achievement in the United States, was rewarded with the promotion to be the U.S. education secretary. And so, of course, she’s going to have policies that are outlandish, that make no sense in regards to educational achievement and are hyper-political in regards to their views.

But there’s a problem that I don’t think that we connect to. Arne Duncan was also unqualified to be superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, and they made him CEO. Educational achievement flatlined on his watch, massive resistance to school closings, students doing actions on him around the school-to-prison pipeline. And he was rewarded with becoming the education secretary of the United States. And what’s the real difference between him and Betsy DeVos? Vouchers? So, I think, if there was no Arne Duncan, there would be no Betsy DeVos.

We have to realize that education is too important for talking points. Education is the—education, for black people, has been a way to combat a suffocating oppression and a way to build a future for our families and communities across the United States. For immigrant families, it has been a way to make sure their children don’t have to live in fear and that they can build a future in the United States. So, we should be making policy that is rooted in sound educational principle—like where Arne Duncan sends his children, a University of Chicago Lab School. They don’t have metal detectors in Lab School.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

JITU BROWN: They don’t have—OK. They don’t have overcrowded classrooms. So I think Betsy DeVos is doing what she’s supposed to do as an ultra-right-wing, unqualified person in a position she has no reason to be in, other than to advance an agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion, Part 2, in web-ex in Jitu Brown of Journey for Justice Alliance in Chicago, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, speaking to us from Washington, Racial Justice NOW!, Mark Warren, the book is Lift Us Up, and E.M., thanks so much. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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