Neither Apply to Me by Justine Johnson

I sit at a table on the second day of Orientation with a big smile on my face, ready to welcome students and their guests to the University. I am equipped with my initial question, ‘did your high school have a Multicultural Center or Women’s Center?’ I’ve practiced my elevator speech about programs, initiatives, and clubs. I am ready to capture the incoming student’s attention, even if I have it for just a short bit of time. I could talk about the great work the Centers do in my sleep. I am ready. My table is set up to proudly display our Cross Cultural Centers, two trifolds packed full of pictures of happy students attending our events, t-shirts from previous events, and a sign-up sheet asking for anyone who is interested to get involved. I am ready.

One of the first parents who stop near my table scans the table, reads the names of the offices, and as he waves his hand at the table, says “neither apply.” I am not ready. I am taken aback for a second. I am confident that, in that moment, I lacked the ability to put on my poker face. I quickly snap back to reality and smile and say everyone is welcome in the space. I engage briefly, he leaves with his mind unchanged, and I go on about my day. I tell a couple of my colleagues and we laugh it off. I say, after the fact, ‘congratulations, you have a white son.’ An unnecessary comment, I know.

Now that I have the time to dissect the brief interaction, I think, this is why we need centers for students who identify as marginalized. The need and value of the centers is a passing thought to some who holds privileged identities. Even in the smallest of actions, it is evident that some privileged people do not feel a responsibility nor want to engage in anti-oppressive work. Those centers do not apply to them so therefore they are not needed. Now, am I probably reading in to a small interaction that meant no harm, probably. But, maybe I am not making it in to more than it is, maybe it is a harmful interaction. I was told that the work I do, where I pour my heart in to everyday, did not matter to him. Diversity, multiculturalism, and equity, did not apply to him.

If the idea that a center working on anti-oppression does not apply to certain people, they will not be working towards social justice. So the question I have to ask as the Director of the centers is how do I invite people in who are marginalized and need that space and, in addition to that, work with those who do not think the center is even warranted on their campus? We know that anyone can be involved in social justice work because we are situated to hold multiple identities, some privileged, and some marginalized. So why are some people turned off by the work of the centers, just by the names. I once had a student tell me I should rename the Women’s Center because men do not want to go in there. I thought, interesting point, and one that Women’s Centers have been faced with since their creation. My question back to him was, why do men not engage in good work because it seemed like it was for women? The male student did not have a response, but started volunteering a couple months later.  I wonder if that was that father’s understanding. He believed his son would not fit in or benefit from time spent in the Multicultural Center or Women’s Center. An assumption here, but I would bet they haven’t had family dinners where sexual assault, microaggressions, or homophobia is discussed as the potatoes are passed.

So the next question I have to ask, is why not? Why is social justice and anti-oppression not an everyday conversation? It is in the Centers, but sometimes I’m preaching to the choir. How can the professional staff and students go out to the residence halls, classrooms, and streets to normalize this conversation? It’s something we urgently need to do. Most students I talk with think the only way to create change is to stand on a corner and rally people together, shouting so loudly that politicians cannot ignore it, and that is how peace will come. I believe it is quite the opposite, sitting with someone, finding out what makes them nervous or vulnerable about the work, and then doing it together.

This is not groundbreaking news, but it is a good reminder as I write that intentional face-to-face conversations impact people on a greater level. It takes much more time and energy. I also have to manage my own emotions more when I sit down across from someone who does not agree with me, but so do they. People cannot hid in the crowd and avoid responsibility when it is only two people. If time allows, take on those difficult conversations, which means also not hiding behind hashtags on social media, prepared rhetoric, and ending the conversation when you think you have had too much. At the end of the day, you may even learn something about yourself.

Justine Johnson, M.A., has been the Director of the Cross Cultural Centers at The University of Scranton since 2015. Previously, she served as the Director of the Jane Kopas Women’s Center since 2012. She loves working in social justice with students on gender equity topics. Over the last couple of years, she has loved working on anti-oppression, diversity, and advocacy with the community. Justine received her Master’s in Gender and Women’s Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato writing her thesis on masculinity and food.

Removing the Bars: Funding Formerly Incarcerated Students by Michael Brick

Though it was announced almost a year ago, we are finally beginning to see the positive effects of President Obama’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. For those who do not know, in August 2015, President Obama announced a new initiative to counteract the Higher Education Act (HEA). This two-decade-old act basically deemed that any student who had previously been incarcerated in a Federal or State penal institution could not participate in the Federal Pell Grant program, essentially barring these fairly large population (primarily made up of already marginalized individuals via race, socioeconomic status, etc.) from receiving Pell grants, an often necessary funding resource to attend college.

The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program invited two and four-year institutions to apply to participate as an experimental site the list of those chosen colleges and universities was released last month. 67 institutions from all over the country were selected and will begin giving Pell grants to admissible students this coming fall. The full list of institutions can be found HERE.

Hopefully, you will see your institution or a nearby one on this list. If not, the Department of Education does expect to add even more colleges and universities to the list over the next year. If you do not work or study at an institution on this list, you may be asking yourself, “Why is does this matter? Why should I care?”

Why this is important:

In its most basic form, providing the financial support to give these individuals the opportunity to attend college is important because:

  1. While education is not a constitutional right, it should be.
  2. This equalizes the playing field just a little bit.
  3. Removes one of many barriers formerly incarcerated individuals face in everyday life post-release.
  4. Education works and we should be spending more on it!

Ultimately, the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is important because education, especially higher education, has a major impact on recidivism or the chance that a previously incarcerated individual will return to the criminal justice system. While the percentage varies based on the research, policy agencies have found that education can lower the recidivism rate all the way down to 3% meaning a peaceful and just world in general.

This is also important because we are already spending way too much on the prison industrial complex and that money could go much further if it was spent on education. This month, the Department of Education released a startling report entitled the “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.” In the report, the DOE finds that from 1979 to 2013, public education expenditures increased by 107% while state and local corrections expenditures increased by 324%. While we definitely still spend more money on education in total, the proportional increase is definitely cause for concern. This is in conjunction with a dramatic increase in incarceration rates, while also interacting with a fairly stagnant enrollment rate. For the record, 16 states had a 150 or more percentage point difference in percent change between state and local corrections current expenditures per capita and educational current expenditures per pupil. Wyoming currently leads with the largest difference.

As many of us know, funding is hard to come by, yet the United States is dramatically increasing not only the incarceration of the population, but the economy to support to it. Perhaps this new Second Chance program can change that. Perhaps if we can provide new avenues for education and the economy to support more students attending institutions of higher learning, we can switch the country to favor education over incarceration.

How you can help:

As we all know, language is powerful. As a prison reform advocate, I am extremely sensitive to stigmatizing language and I encourage you to avoid using certain terms. Words such as convict, inmate, felon, probationer, or parolee carry institutionalized stigma that can make students uncomfortable. Try to use terms that humanize your students: formerly incarcerated individual, individuals on parole, etc.

Reserve judgments. If a student makes it to your office, chances are they have already battled numerous obstacles just to be there. Formerly incarcerated individuals often have significant barriers to employment, transportation, housing, and admission to college in general. If they make it onto campus, it is not our place to judge them or their past. Remember, there are often societal reasons for incarceration…it is not always about a specific incident or crime, but instead a systemic persecution of individuals and areas that leads to incarceration.

Be open and welcoming. Out of all the students I have worked with in my higher education career, the students in prisons have been the most dedicated and driven in regards to their education. They value it. They need it. They want it. They are hungry for knowledge. If you open yourself and your office to these students, you might be surprised at how involved they become. Due to the hardships these individuals have had to overcome, they are looking for something welcoming. We can be the doors!

Michael Brick is currently the Director of Student Services for the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also a PhD student in the Student Affairs program there with an emphasis on the intersection of prison reform and higher education. Michael is a passionate advocate for formerly incarcerated students and improving the quality of life for those serving prison sentences. He can be reached at www.michaelscottbrick.com.