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The Avodah Blog

Responding to Ferguson Through Literature and Art

By Abigail Harris-Ridker and Liz London

“Excuse me, but this happened months ago, why are we only talking about this now?”
– Alina, Sinclair High School book group participant

Alina asked this question during the first day of our Response to Violence curriculum, which addressed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO as well as police brutality and violence in Chicago and nationally. Alina was angry because she and her peers, most of whom have personal stories of police brutality, had never been given the opportunity to discuss these issues, either in school or in our program. However, it was clear that our book group created a different kind of safe space where she expected we would process these topics together – and she felt ownership over that.

We (Liz, a 2010-2011 AVODAH Chicago alum, and Abby, a current Chicago corps member) work at Literature for All of Us. We facilitate weekly book groups and poetry writing workshops in alternative high schools in the Chicago area. Many of the students who attend alternative high schools, like Alina’s, have been kicked out or dropped out of their traditional high schools, or otherwise desire a different learning environment. All are low-income youth of color. We bring in culturally relevant literature about topics that resonate with and reflect our participants’ lives and it felt like nothing was quite as relevant as discussing Ferguson and police brutality.

“think: once, a white girl/was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war./later, up the block, Troy got shot/& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy”
– Danez Smith, from not an elegy for Mike Brown

Response to Violence is a four-week unit developed by the book group leaders at Literature for All of Us. The first two weeks focus on essays, art, cartoons, music, videos, and poetry, like not an elegy for Mike Brown. Interacting with these texts and media opened up personal, raw conversation about what it means to be a young person of color in this country, and particularly in Chicago.

As white facilitators, we realized that we would have to build a safe space when leading discussions like this with black and brown students. Part of the work in these groups is to build trust, to own who we are and the privileges we carry, but not to let them be obstacles in leading honest conversation amongst participants. This felt particularly hard with such a sensitive and intimate topic and there were times where students hesitated before sharing a story that condemned a white person. We had to be explicit in saying we would not be offended, that we wanted to hear the story, and we had to vocalize our own recognition of our privilege.

For Abby, being the only white person in the room in the group was a sobering experience: “At the end of my group, I thanked the participants for speaking with me so candidly. It brought me face to face with my privilege and left me with provocative questions to continue grappling with and processing.”

“They should have laws that say police can’t disrespect you.”
– Sinclair Book Group Student

It was not a surprise to us that the vast majority of our participants had some personal experience with police brutality or other forms of violence. We heard stories of pregnant teens being verbally abused by police officers, black women walking around their neighborhoods and being pulled over by police who thought they were selling drugs, and of young men who have no trust in the people promised to protect them. In Liz’s group, a participant talked about feeling heartbroken when a friend told her that she wanted so badly to be white: “It broke my heart too, and it was hard to find the words to tell her that, knowing all too well why her friend wanted this and all that my skin color afforded me.”

Though the struggle felt hopeless for many of the participants, they also spoke fiercely and passionately about the world they envision and their goals for fighting racism and pursuing justice.

“It will happen/ an honest mistake/ in a hot August classroom […] Someone will ask,/ ‘Michael Brown? Is Michael Brown here?’/ and we will all have to answer.”
– Jason McCall, from Roll Call for Michael Brown

The latter two weeks of the curriculum called on the participants to produce their own artistic, unique answers to the violence. Participants were split into four groups and each used a different form to create their product. One group used newspaper clippings, cartoons, images, and other art supplies to design a collective piece that was hung in the hallway of the school. Another filmed participant interviews for a short documentary about how their lives have been affected by police brutality. Another went through a “Know Your Rights” training and created posters dispensing this information. Lastly, one group wrote and performed spoken word pieces. Participants were able to find their own medium, their way of tapping in, and fueling their energy into a project. The results were moving and beautiful.

Alina, who was in the poetry performance group, finally got her chance to give her response. She is Mexican-American and is very light-skinned; she used this complexity to explore how she stands in solidarity with those who experience racial profiling. It’s her words that best capture this curriculum, knowing “that you have a story to tell.”

“and let me dream of you
and dream of a better tomorrow
where skin is nothing more
than a feature in your voice
that is all that needs to matter
in a world so dark with hate

I am only the voice that speaks for your wanted freedoms
I am the hand that makes them reap what they sow
I am the bystander of a straight marathon
of entitlement and categorization
I am a witness of this tragedy of living
I am the girl in the back of the classroom
that hears you and your beating heart
and knows that you have a story to tell”

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