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Cradle to Prison to Grave: Justice in Baltimore

March was Justice month. 

On the 13th, we had the pleasure of a visit from the loquacious, diligent and powerful native Baltimorean Dr. Helena Hicks, famous for her initiation of the first lunch counter sit-in in America. She hasn’t stopped fighting for civil rights, and is a forceful advocate for neighborhoods and individuals even today, sitting in at drug stores, expelling antagonizing police from her neighborhood, and admonishing former students of hers that happen to be presiding judges. 

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Click through to a City Paper interview.

 

Dr. Hicks primed us for next week’s book discussion, a talk about prison systems in America, the people who make money off of them, and the people who are left permanently destitute and dehumanized from having been through them. First, a liturgical analysis of the very notion of our prison society tells from a Catholic perspective why it is necessary to abhor prisons in America and the society which condones them. Next, Prison Profiteers exposed the underlying reasons for why we imprison more people in America than in any nation on Earth, 1 in about every 106 people. Hint: it’s green. Private prisons charge America per prisoner, inherently benefiting off of the imprisonment of human beings, which means they have stakes invested in criminalization, in more laws that are easy for people to break, in harsher sentences, in the preying of law enforcement on the poor–people who don’t have the cash to fight back. Though private prisons are a relatively small gig in the scheme of things (housing 3.7% of American prisoners), they are not the only ones profiting from a massive prison population. Phone companies, healthcare corporations, the makers of tasers and uniforms–any company that sells their wares to a prison has invested in the school-to-prison pipeline, which affects Baltimore’s families, its neighborhoods, its employment rates, and even its famed epidemic of abandoned houses–over half of Baltimore’s black male population is in prison, numbers that hurt Baltimore far worse than suburban white flight. 

Half of our group has a family member or close friend in prison and that number is set to grow with the expanse of the prison population. One of us has experience working for an agency that benefits inmates at immigration prisons, another deplorable subject entirely. Eventually, a lot of Baltimorean prisons will be released and they’ll be largely poor, uneducated, underexperienced, and without a lot of hope. In the meanwhile, we hope to reduce that number who are put away by helping out in schools, churches, and other agencies which in the words of Dr. Helena Hicks are an important anchor which ties us to our communities, promoting a positive self-concept and a productive lifestyle. I’ve always valued community and find ESC to be an important personal anchor; maybe if you’re reading this it could be one of yours too. We’ll be here in Baltimore, working for the vitality of our communities. Thanks, Dr. Hicks. 

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They Schools

The last Thursday in February we were lucky enough to welcome Jimmy Stewart, an organizer with Child First here in Baltimore and co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition. Click here to read an interview of his with Greater Homewood Community Corporation, another important organizational force with offices within walking distance of Gilead House.

Jimmy school’d us on the state of Baltimore City School’s buildings and infrastructure, outlining needed improvements and the fight to secure them for Baltimore’s citizenry. Mostly, what we learned was that billion-dollar improvements were necessary to the vitality of Baltimore’s public schools, most of which are saddled with florescent, windowless interiors and lead pipes that render the water undrinkable. The story ends on an optimistic note in that organizers like Jimmy and his coworkers are fighting consistently on behalf of the underrepresented of Baltimore City, where a quarter of the population lives in poverty despite being the largest city in the richest state in America.

Continuing on the theme of education, next week’s bookclub focused on two voices that speak to the state of urban education.

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Diane Ravitch, historian of education and author of new non-fiction piece Reign of Error.

Reign of Error is part scathing analysis of the privatization of public schools, part impassioned plea to politicians and people to implement educational solutions that actually work. Our group discussed privatization–an issue so mired in moral duplicity as to be near invisible to much of us. Are charter schools good? Do they produce results? What do you mean, the teachers don’t have to be certified? How does one make money from public education? Is Waiting for Superman an anxious call for help on behalf of disenfranchised youth or a manipulative propaganda piece designed to accrue support for privatization schemes that profit from our most vulnerable students? Apparently, the answers are simple enough for Diane Ravitch to lay at our feet in this thick analysis rich with sources, graphs, and history. If you’re unsure about charter schools, Teach for America, Race to the Top, standardized testing and the necessity of teacher certification, Reign of Error is a good support for the side of strong, well-subsidized, well-staffed public school system that is not  timid in its condemnations or its advocacy.

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MK Asante, author and local professor.

Buck spoke to us from the other side of the economic spectrum. MK Asante, local author and Morgan State University professor, documents his young life in spurts of lyrical prose and regional dialogue, incorporating both his mother’s diary entries and famed hip-hop lyrics which serve to impart a reverential zeitgeist to the reader. A few from our group saw Asante read from Buck at a local bookstore and knew immediately that it was unique, and important. Though the book is a general memoir of Asante’s young life, his experiences with Philadelphia schools is a constant theme. He reflects on the several expulsions he faced and near the end, his ecstatic embrace of reading and writing after an Alternative School teacher introduces him to the authenticity that can be achieved through written expression. “I realize that school and education don’t go hand in hand, that school and education can be as distant or as close as sex and love,” Asante writes, alerting us to what any student can tell you: regardless of privatization, of standardized testing, of charter schooling, the reality of a student’s life is often so different from the vision of the politician, the educator, the analyst.

Our group got pretty heated about this sort of thing; one of us volunteers at an elementary school; two of us work on site at a school farm; one of us works directly with youth populations and I’m going to be a teacher next year. Anyone who’s ever been a student has an opinion about education. From a personal perspective, I hated high school and when I think about it I get tirelessly angry. From the perspective of a prospective teacher, I hate that there exist populations of underserved students that could have the academic power of Ravitch or the artistic clout of Asante but are restrained by the merciless abuse of poverty. The plight of city schools in Baltimore is a heavy one, but I know at least a couple of us don’t intend to leave, and we’ll never abandon this issue.

Bio #2: Katherine Mary Elizabeth Riley

That's me with my fur baby, Leo.

That’s me with my fur baby, Leo.

What’s your name? I have one seriously long full name, so most folk go with Kate!

Where are you from? I hail from the Texas originally. Western Maryland has been home since I was about twelve.

Summer trip to the Lone Star State to line dance with my best friend!

Summer trip to the Lone Star State to line dance with my best friend!

What did you do before ESC? Frostburg State University housed me for my bachelors in Social Sciences, history and political science. I also worked at the most amazing coffee shop / bakery called Café Mark and Jennifer’s Desserts, and to top it off I kept up with our church’s youth group and all the diocesan events that were part of that.

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One shot of the weekly Taco Tuesdays after work, tacos!

What drew you to Episcopal Service Corps? I started talking with our Bishop about the discernment process. He felt that I was unsure about whether or not I was ready to jump into the process. At his recommendation I applied to a few of the ESCs across the nation, but Baltimore was perfect because I would be close to family, work with my mentor, and live in a great city.

That’s Jessica and I being the Queens of Halloween & Christmas!

That’s Jessica and I being the Queens of Halloween & Christmas!

Where are you working? In the BEST place ever! I am the assistant to the Canon for Youth Ministry at the Diocesan center. I work on retreats, funding, missions, and helping the youth of the diocese have a great time while they grow in their relationships with God and others.

Tell us a little bit about your hobbies and interests. I am a fangirl of oh so many things in this beautiful world. My obsessions include Batman, Penguins hockey, baking, movie collecting (I think I am in the range of 200), shopping, and cooking dinner with my homies. I really enjoy learning new things like sewing and painting.

I also enjoy good music! That is my boyfriend and I at a Coheed & Cambria concert.

I also enjoy good music! That is my boyfriend and I at a Coheed & Cambria concert.

What’s next? At the end of the year I am hoping to find a job while I pursue my discernment process. I would love to be the Youth Ministry person at either a parish or for the Diocese one day. I am slowly getting pumped to go back to school, but you never know what the good Lord has in store. As long as you do what you love, it can’t feel like work.

Where can we stalk you?  instagram, pinterest, and imgur!