Not My Inmates

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes. “Yes. It really is,” I replied.

     I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving at our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically, however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and mass incarceration systems require abolition. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay.

     In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name.

     I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

Women’s March in Cleveland,Ohio,1-20-18

I made the following remarks at the Women’s March in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 20th, 2018. I was honored to be part of an amazing series of speakers. 

A video link to the speech is available on youtube thanks to Toni Jones.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to honor the Erie Indians who lived on this land long before any of us arrived. They were an Iroquoian tribe of the northeastern woodlands, who spoke an Iroquoian language similar to Huron and Seneca. As we continue to confront those who oppress, may we never forget those who have been embroiled in a struggle to exist for centuries.

I am honored to have this time here with you today, and honored to be representing Ohio’s Badass Teachers Association (BATs), and thousands of educators who are fighting for the public schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and the public schools that over 90% of school-age children attend, you can believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

As a mother, as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that it is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those holding power in (what I like to refer to as) our system of “electile” dysfunction.

And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and the starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They defund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

Those governing Ohio are still out of compliance with a twenty-year-old state supreme court decision mandating that they fix the way we fund our public schools.

We must hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration or deportation.

As we gather here today, there are young people whose civil rights are being violated right now at our county jail, not too far from here. These young people have been identified as individuals with learning disabilities. And even though federal law demands that these young people be offered services for their specific educational needs, the county and city that detains them continues to violate federal law by not offering these already disadvantaged young people access to education.

Perhaps those in power restrict access to education because education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we must all continue to fight to dismantle oppressive practices like high stakes standardized testing in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

Ohio is one of only 14 states in the country that still requires students to pass tests not created by their classroom teachers in order to graduate or be promoted.

We must continue to fight for curriculums and classroom practices that are culturally relevant to every child.

We must support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for the board controlling the money used in those schools.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on a school-to-prison pipeline.

You can’t say you’re a pro-lifer and then refuse to fight for every living human being to have an equitable opportunity to enjoy safe quality schools, safe communities, safe water, safe housing, safe neighborhoods, and to have police forces who protect and serve.

When I became pregnant with my eldest son at the age of 17, it was education that helped remove me from a life otherwise destined for dependence on public assistance. There probably isn’t anyone who understands and relates to my passion for justice and equity in education more than my sons. Thus, it is with tremendous pride that I am able to share with all of you that my oldest son here today, Cassimir Svigelj, is running for the 16th district house seat in the Ohio legislature, which includes Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park, North Olmsted & Westlake, with my full support.

Not only do education activists take their power to the polls, but sometimes their kids are inspired to actually get their names on the ballot.

Before I go, I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. Liberty and justice for all depend upon it. Thank you.

 

Violence Against Women and the Oppression of Women is not a “Woman’s Problem”

The following are my remarks made at a rally and vigil for the 8th Anniversary of the women who were murdered on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. 

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. I am honored to have this time here with you today, and sickened by a society that allows for the repetitive horrific acts, like those of Anthony Sowell, to occur at all.

I am here today because as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that our need and desire to nurture each other is not a hindrance but a redemptive strength.

When we join together, our real power is rediscovered and bolstered. It is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those in power in our system of electoral dysfunction.

Let us be clear. Violence against women and children, the oppression of women and children, is NOT a woman’s problem. It is the problem of a patriarchal capitalist system, which benefits from the oppression and exploitation of women, children, and people of color.

It is a patriarchal, colonial, racist, and imperialist system that profits off of treating others like they are less than human. It is not a “woman’s problem.”  

I am here today because interdependency between women, and collaboration with our male allies, is the path to dismantling a system that promotes or allows subjugation, violence, poverty, and oppression to exist.

Within our alliances and our interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, we can demolish houses like the one that used to stand here on Imperial Avenue. And we can disassemble a system that still allows for unaccountable police chiefs, mayors, prosecutors, and other elected officials… a system that allows for men like Anthony Sowell to exist and perform unspeakable acts.

Audre Lorde said “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change…”

Well, women here today and the enlightened men who join us, know the strength and power among us. Education and the creation of community are the tools of liberation.

Systematic oppression is not an accident or illusion. It is a tangible design evident right here, right now. And now is always a time to do what is right.

So I stand here today calling out all of those not here. It is time for those enjoying the privileges of safe communities and safe water and safe housing and safe schools, and with police forces who protect and serve, to stand up and speak out.

We already know the instruments of justice. We’ve even named them: unity, empathy, equity, compassion, love, peace, and a dialectical ability to seek and discover the humanity in every person’s story. There is no excuse for apathy. Liberation and justice are too long overdue.

No justice. No peace. Know justice. Know peace.

*Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.