Black History Education: Tools for Effective Rehabilitation

Black History Education: Tools for Effective Rehabilitation

July 16, 2014 | Jeremy Martin, Co-Founder, Breaking B.A.R.S.

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Little debate surrounds the notion that access to education is a critical component in rehabilitating former justice-involved youth. Today, in many long-term residential facilities for children, commonly referred to as youth development centers, an array of programs exist to help students continue their primary and secondary educational pursuits, including the GED test for those who are eligible. However, one component that is largely absent in educational programming and rehabilitation for youth of color is the significance of ethnic history instruction.

Little debate surrounds the notion that access to education is a critical component in rehabilitating former justice-involved youth. Today, in many long-term residential facilities for children, commonly referred to as youth development centers, an array of programs exist to help students continue their primary and secondary educational pursuits, including the GED test for those who are eligible. However, one component that is largely absent in educational programming and rehabilitation for youth of color is the significance of ethnic history instruction.

Recognizing the critical role that ethnic history can play in shaping life outcomes, Building Bonds, Breaking B.A.R.S. (Barriers Against Reaching Success), a program with chapters in both Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Washington, DC, emphasizes ethnic history instruction.

In the Washington, DC, chapter, we focus on bringing the seemingly distant experiences of twentieth-century civil rights activists closer to the present. This is done so that their struggles are not merely a “footnote on the pages of history,” but rather are alive with valuable meaning that can impact the outcomes of committed youth upon release. To help make these narratives tangible, we often focus on the contributions young people made to the Civil Rights Movement, sharing stories of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Little Rock Nine, and Emmett Till, among others. These stories offer a context for many of the present issues our country faces and the ways in which students can use their energies to combat them. Therefore, we do not leave these stories in the 1950s and ‘60s; instead we highlight the parallels of current organizers like the, modern realities of racially segregated neighborhoods schools, Moral Monday protests, and the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases.

These lessons are desperately important and, when taught effectively and girded in safe spaces and honest dialogue, help students build a sense of resilience. They inspire students to overcome and organize against concentrated poverty, racially homogenous neighborhoods and schools, and the political disenfranchisement that plague many of the students of color with whom we interact. The end result is that we foster a journey along racial identity scales that are unique to students of color and yield positive individual and collective world views that support successful reentry into their home communities and spur academic achievement.

When asked about his thoughts regarding our program, one of the students in our DC chapter replied that he “likes the program” and that “other Black boys” in the facility need to learn about “history and discrimination.” On the surface, this student’s response may appear to be void of substantive analysis about his experience. However, an in-depth assessment suggests something very different: He knows more about this world, indeed, his place in this world, than he knew before participating and realizes that other students should know this as well. Undoubtedly, all children, regardless of racial or ethnic affiliation, benefit from this exposure. Nevertheless, this immersion is fundamental for students of color; knowledge about our history can inspire change and shape life outcomes. Thus, if we are serious about eradicating minority involvement in the juvenile justice system, special attention to ethnic history for students of color must be a part of the treatment plan.

Jeremy Martin is a co-founder of Building Bonds, Breaking B.A.R.S., an organization serving confined youth in North Carolina and the District of Columbia through educational programming, mentoring, and post-release support. Mr. Martin received his BA degree in political science and African-American history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.