Beyond protest: Rethinkers’ music conveys solutions
Oct 19, 2010
From the article by Benny Amon in the San Francisco Bay View:
The library turned conference room at the newly rebuilt Langston Hughes Academy fell silent as Rethinkers Earl Poole Jr. and Terriana Julien took the stage. Drummer Tori Washington created a meditative texture with crescendoing cymbal rolls as Poole and Julien began to sing “Reee…storative Juuuu…stice.” Following the mood setting performance, and as the jam-packed audience of media, education activists, school administrators, principals and proud parents clapped, Lucy Tucker, Renee Smith and Kamau Johnson took the stage. Addressing a pensive audience, they discussed the culture of violence and discipline in their schools, and stated they wanted an alternative to suspension and expulsion – practices, they said, that add to school dropout rates and the “school to prison pipeline.” Their alternative: something called restorative justice.
...Grassroots media consultant Jane Wholey and a group of community organizers began advocating after Katrina for a radically simple idea: Give students a role in rethinking and rebuilding the post-Katrina schools. Together, they decided to form Rethink, with Wholey at the helm. They believed that an organization of student education reformers could gain credibility because, as stated by Wholey, “No one in the world can claim that students are not experts on their own schools.”
...Realizing and leveraging their own expertise for years now, the Rethinkers have identified fundamental areas for reform. During the early years they addressed “bathroom reform,” successfully convincing RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas to renovate 350 bathrooms. He also added their design for a “21st Century Green Bathroom” to the Public School Facilities Plan for the City of New Orleans. After bathrooms, the Rethinkers tackled school lunches, exploring ways that school lunch programs could provide local, fresh and enjoyable foods. Then in 2009 they set out to address “dignity in schools” and humane security measures that can really keep children safe – not the metal detectors that greet many elementary school children at New Orleans schools.
...This past summer, the Rethinkers identified the punitive practices of suspension and expulsion in their schools as a barrier to healthy, truly safe school environments. The Rethinkers understand first hand the culture of violence and distrust that marks many of their schools. As Rethinker Lucy Tucker explains, schools treat offenses in a very simple way, by suspensions and expulsions, leading to a culture of distrust between students, teachers and administrators.
The Rethinkers realized that an alternative to this vicious cycle could be restorative justice, a whole new way of dealing with offenses, focusing on repairing the harm that has been done between members of a school community. In restorative justice programs, students talk out their problems in a safe space, examine the harm done, and come to an agreement about how the harm can be repaired and the relationships mended. The agreement is monitored by an adult.
...With one pilot restorative justice program already underway in a high school and a new pilot program beginning at an elementary school in September – the Langston Hughes Academy – the landscape for creating more restorative justice programs in New Orleans is promising. An organization called the Center for Restorative Approaches runs both these programs. But in the case of the elementary school, the Rethinkers will take an active part in organizing and educating students.
Read the full article.