Organizing a Criminal Justice Conference and a Book Drive for Youth at Riker’s Island
by Hannah S, Class of 2019
In Early April, my friend Molly and I heard about a book drive being organized by Brooklyn Friends School 7th graders as an extension of their Criminal Justice Conference that happened in the Middle School on March 14th. Molly and I both went to BFS for middle school but we hadn’t experienced the conference because this was the first year it took place. Eager to learn more, we talked to the 7th grade organizers of the book drive – Tessa S., Chelsea H., and Margot D. – to see where their inspiration began.
The Criminal Justice Conference was a day learning and action related to the justice system in New York. Context for the conference was shared in this letter that went out to the 7th grade parents from Laurice and the team of advisors:
Dear Seventh Grade Parents,
We wanted to let you know about some exciting changes to seventh grade service learning this year. An ongoing goal for our service learning program at Brooklyn Friends School is to integrate meaningful service experiences for students into the curriculum in a cohesive way. After reviewing the curriculum last year, the seventh grade team in partnership with Natania Kremer in our Office of Service Learning & Civic Engagement realized that a theme that comes up a lot in the curriculum is the criminal justice system, so we decided to make that the focus of service learning this year.
In the Fall, students read To Kill a Mockingbird in English, and we did some foundational work in Advisory with the students about race and racism. We talked about understanding interpersonal racism as well as institutional racism. The 7th graders had a brief introduction to the criminal justice system and looked at some graphs of prison statistics related to disproportionality.
In English, students are now reading Twelve Angry Men. In History, they will continue discussing the development of slavery in the United States and the structure of the U.S. judiciary system as they learn about the development of U.S. government and prepare for Constitution Works in the Spring. In Science, they are learning about genetics and how DNA can be used in forensics. In Advisory, students will be asking questions about the criminal justice system, and will learn from a panel of speakers involved with the system. We also plan to learn about and partner with organizations so students can see how they can support efforts to make positive changes to prison conditions and to help transform the system. When we visit Philadelphia in May, we are planning to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, where students will learn more about the development of prisons in the United States.
We hope that this will be an eye-opening and rewarding experience for everyone involved. We also realize that this topic can be challenging, and we want you to feel equipped to talk to your child if s/he wants to have conversations with you at home. One movie that we highly recommend is 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Building on what the 7th graders were learning, Natania shared this Conference Preview with the 7th grade and students had an opportunity to select their preferred sessions. This is also when Tessa, Chelsea, and Margot emerged as student leaders. They then designed the conference poster and met weekly with Natania to engage in planning and preparation.
When March 14th arrived, many 7th graders had participated in the Walkout for Gun Control on the steps of Borough Hall, and they returned to Brooklyn Friends to kick off their conference with a Know Your Rights Training led by Anthonine Pierre from Brooklyn Movement Center. The Brooklyn Movement Center is a Black led organization of primarily low-to-moderate income members focused in Bedford-Stuyvesant & Crown Heights. They work with residents to improve people’s lives and encourage self-determination.
After their training with the Brooklyn Movement Center, 7th graders then broke into 2 groups where they heard first hand experiences of the Justice System from people who were formerly incarcerated. Tyrell was in solitary confinement throughout his time in prison and now works with Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which is an organization hoping to reform abusive confinement practices in New York prisons. Mark was wrongfully incarcerated for 30 years before the Innocence Project helped exonerate him last year. The Innocence Project is an organization that exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and works to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
With this additional powerful context from Tyrrell and Mark, students then learned more about ways to take action with one of four community partner organizations. Representatives from Brooklyn Defender Services shared this presentation and supported students to write letters to legislators. Presenters from the Center for Court Innovation/Red Hook Community Justice Center shared this presentation about ways to become involved in the Youth Court. And students shared their experiences with policing in their neighborhoods during their engagement with the NYCLU Listening Room. In addition, some students met with a Creative Arts therapist, Rachel Hutt, who works in the Youth Offender Division of the NYC Department of Corrections. The book drive was actually a request from Rachel who works with youth at Rikers.
Students were inspired by the community partners that they met through the conference and shared some interesting reflections about what they learned:
“That I have the right to speak my truth”
“I learned the value of respect and advocating for myself with a police. I also learned the importance of knowing my rights and how to use them is a powerful and successful way.”
“I learned how important it is to give back to our community and be aware of the different actions in jails, one example being Rikers. I learned that I can support movements is spreading the word and giving needed supplies to them.”
“I realized that in NYC there are much more opportunities than I thought to have your voice be heard, and many more opportunities than I thought to get involved and take action. “
Many student participants described the conference as “eye opening,” “informative,” and “inspirational.” The 7th graders are truly an example of how discussion and education can lead to action, as is evidenced by the book drive.
Tessa, Chelsea, and Margot sent out this email to the entire 7th grade with more information:
As a follow up to the 7th grade Criminal Justice Conference that was held on March 14th, we will be having a book drive for incarcerated youth at Rikers Island.
After communicating with staff there, we know that they want how-to books about paper crafts, drawing and origami (that don’t require scissors), optical illusion books, as well as sci-fi and fantasy books, books about Latino and African-American history, and books with inspirational short stories and quotes. Please remember when choosing which book to donate to steer clear of books promoting violence, drug-use, and misogyny and to only donate soft-cover books. Books can be new or used. If you have books at home that fit in these categories, feel free to donate… Boxes are in each Advisory classroom and books will be collected from April 9th through May 9th. For more information about the book drive, feel free to us or our Librarian Katie Ryan.
Molly and I were excited to support this important project and we felt that it needed to be expanded to the Upper School to get as many people involved as possible and to start a conversation in the Upper School about the problems in the Criminal Justice System. We were particularly struck by the issues raised related to solitary confinement and unfair treatment of inmates as well as wrongful incarceration.
For anyone who would like to participate in the book drive, the list below includes recommended books that were compiled by our Middle School Librarian Katie Ryan based on the genres that were requested by youth at Riker’s. If you don’t want to order a book and/or you don’t have books at home to donate, you may purchase a book at the Used Book Sale this week on behalf of a young person incarcerated at Riker’s. Donations will be accepted through May 11th!
In the Upper School in order to graduate every student must complete a C.A.S. Project; standing for Creativity, Activity, and Service. The project must include two of those three components and is supposed to make a positive difference in the world around us. When we learned more about the Middle School conference and book drive we knew we wanted to support and highlight their efforts as part of our C.A.S. Project. You can also learn more about Tessa’s, Chelsea’s, and Margot’s inspiration in this video interview that Molly produced.