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Student Research Papers
Summer Research Seminar 2002
UCLA/IDEA
Educate Don't Incarcerate!
by Cynthia Santiago
My brother was never afforded the "luxury" of an adequate defense, retrial or appeals. As a low-income youth of color I have seen this injustice have disastrous effects on several families in my community.
In June of 1996 my brother was wrongfully declared guilty of armed robbery. As an eighteen-year-old Latino male with no prior convictions he was sentenced to three years in state prison and given two strikes. My brother was innocent of this crime yet he never received a fair trial because of my family’s inability to retain a defense attorney. My brother was never afforded the "luxury" of an adequate defense, retrial or appeals. As a low-income youth of color I have seen this injustice have disastrous effects on several families in my community. I have chosen to refuse to conform or engage in actions that hurt my well being. I have developed methods that empower me to organize against these injustices. By being exposed to critical life experiences, mentors and cultural capital, I have become a leader and advocate who is able to react to these injustices in the form of transformational resistance. Which is the consciousness of knowing what is wrong in society, critiquing social oppression, being motivated by social justice and becoming an agent for change. This is my form of critical research.

My parents instilled in me a pride in my culture and they always emphasized the need to continue traditional customs. However, in school I have been taught to be ashamed of who I am. The curriculum does not reflect my cultural history, and needs to be decolonized to provide all students a strong cultural identity.

At the young age of twelve I began to understand that money and social prestige control everything in the judicial system and society. Wealth defines justice to the degree that the lives and futures of low-income youth of color are increasingly shattered because of false imprisonment. In the Pico Neighborhood youth imprisonment was far too common so I never saw the inequalities until my family’s experience. I saw the injustice of this event because of my firsthand experience and this became the point in my life where I was able to examine its negative impacts on my community. Other’s in my community shared the same experiences and through dialogue I was able to see the inequity’s that occurred to families that were poor versus families that had access to resources. My strongest argument came from my lived experience and no one could dispute that. Professor Solorzano and Professor Delgado Bernal, argue that "students of color uses of experiential knowledge are legitimate, appropriate and critical to understanding, analyzing and teaching about racial subordination in the field of education." (Delgado Bernal, Solorzano: P.314). The knowledge from an experience is powerful to students because they have lived through an event that can never be taken away. This experiential knowledge has had the most impact on my character and assured my passion for social justice.

My passion for justice came from a personal experience that I shared only at home, because schools did not provide me the environment to feel comfortable. When a low income youth of color experiences an injustice, the fact that they are not afforded the space to critique their social conditions often means the event impacts their ability to view change as possible. This conclusion comes largely from my personal experiences because textbooks, curriculum and teachers often are not reflective of the culture of students. My community was far different than what I read about other areas, I was never given the opportunity to share my experiences and reflect on them.

The prison industrial complex dis-empowers poor communities by locking up the youth, removing them from civic and educational spheres, eliminating their opportunities to attend universities and ultimately relegating them to a life behind bars, minimizing windows of opportunity to break from this cycle.

My experiences accounted for my desire for social justice. Freire writes that, "It is important that we take critical ownership of the formation of ourselves, which socially and gradually, overtime, become active and conscious, speaking, reading and writing and which are both inherently and socially constrained" (Freire, First Letter: P. 24). Freire refers to the ownership that we must take to be critical of our lives and day to day activities. For me, this has meant being more aware of my surroundings in my own city, Santa Monica. Santa Monica has a rich history of political activism, yet, in regards to social justice, there still exist a disenfranchised community of color. This city lacks youth centers, work opportunities and resources for youth. Very often, they fall through the cracks because they are exposed to anything but the lifestyle that would make them become critical owners of themselves. When a student can be critical of their situations they can be critical of social conditions because they can see the roles that different institutions play in the development of these social conditions. I became conscious of these powers because I had mentors that enabled me to see things critically and productively.

My mother has been my strongest influence throughout my life because she has shown me how to be compassionate to others and taught me faith, perseverance and commitment. My mother has always helped others and in my younger years I always saw her service as a symbol of love to God. My mother taught me to view an obstacle as a test of faith and to never give up on things but rather to fight my hardest to show others about loving one another. Solorzano and Bernal write about the influences of those who organized in the 1968 Blowouts and state that a mentor is "someone who participates in one's socialization and development" (Delgado Bernal, Solorazano: P.322). Mentors in my life have meant the opportunity to grow and see new things. Mentors have taught me to think of others beside myself. I felt hurt after everything that occurred to my brother but through a mentor I saw possibility.

Such a powerful intervention occurred in 1998, when I was invited into a program where UCLA Mujeres came into my school to provide mentoring and tutoring. My mentor was Claudia Hata, she was a third year student that aspired to be a lawyer. Through Claudia I was exposed to higher education and the various opportunities that exists there. Claudia motivated me to pursue my education and to become more involved in school activities. In the eighth grade, through student government, I was able to develop leadership skills. From that experience I continued my involvement where now I am the new ASB President at Santa Monica High School. Claudia always instilled in me the need to focus on education in a critical way and never allow teachers to put me down, but rather engage and challenge their views. Claudia encouraged me to read about my history and build a stronger cultural identity.

Obtaining knowledge of my roots has empowered me to appreciate my people and their struggles. By understanding my culture and ancestors, I gained a positive self-identity. This self-identity provided me with strong self-esteem, and thus I have higher ambitions for myself. My parents instilled in me a pride in my culture and they always emphasized the need to continue traditional customs. However, in school I have been taught to be ashamed of who I am. The curriculum does not reflect my cultural history, and needs to be decolonized to provide all students a strong cultural identity. This will allow students to become critical of social oppression faced in both historical and contemporary contexts.

Cultural capital can work the other way in which students of low income can gain knowledge that will assist them in the intellectual struggle against oppression. My reading has also led me to seek more information on social oppression and by using others’ work I have been empowered to defend my rights and challenge the educational and social system in place. Freire (1970) writes in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed that the only way to liberate yourself is to be able to name your oppressors. Education is your liberation, because with an education you have a voice amongst those that are powerful. By pursuing higher education, I can defeat odds placed against youth of color and pursue a career to transform communities of color and empower youth of color. Oakes and Lipton (1999) write about critical education saying, "Mann believed that social improvement would follow from advances in knowledge and that schooling would extend individual rights and liberties to all" (Oakes, Lipton: P.5). This reveals the need to be educated outside of class as well as the importance of using higher education to gain rights. Through an education you are able to have a voice.

"Educate Don't Incarcerate!" Students throughout the state of California chanted these words in March of 2000. It was a week of critical rage, as students walked out of various campuses in northern and southern California revealing how strongly they opposed Proposition 21, an anti-youth initiative. I was involved in these actions because of the defining experiences mentioned here, including mentoring and the development of a critical awareness of my social conditions. As students we demanded equity and quality education. By raising critical opposition to schools and society, youth were encouraged to follow paths leading to higher education instead of into the draconian prison industrial complex. I became critically conscious of these issues of inequality in education and became articulate of the way our state prefers to send students to jail at a young age rather than to invest in their education. California ranks number one in prison spending yet drops to number forty-one in educational spending. By making these investment choices, California sends strong messages to the larger society and by no coincidence do these numbers correspond in such form. Prisons are instead a morbid corporate cartel plan designed to demise a population that is increasingly non-white. The prison industrial complex dis-empowers poor communities by locking up the youth, removing them from civic and educational spheres, eliminating their opportunities to attend universities and ultimately relegating them to a life behind bars, minimizing windows of opportunity to break from this cycle. When examining the educational system in California one can never dismiss the fact that alarming numbers of students of color are pushed into prisons.

These events occur in society everyday. As a youth of color the best way to combat these injustices is through the use of transformational resistance. Transformational resistance was something that I was exposed to through experiences, mentors and academic cultural capital. By opening access and exposing low income students of color to opportunities, traditionally under represented groups can see things beyond their community. Using this access they can tap into resources, find mentoring programs and enact action plans for their communities. Only then can they be fully conscious of how their neighborhood is different than others.

SOURCES:

Freire,P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed New York: Continuum
Freire,P. 1997. "First Letter: Reading the word/reading the world", in Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Boulder,CO: Westview Press,17-26
Oakes,J. and Lipton,M. 1999. Teaching to Change the World chapter 1,pp. 3-33
Solorzano,D. 2001. "Examining Transformational Resistance through Critical Race and LatCrit Theory
Framework; Chicana and Chicano Students in an Urban Context," Urban Education 36(3) pp.308-42

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