Our Voices

Finding Hope As A Lifer

Bridging The Gap is a biweekly column in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

Seeing life in a better light from the vantage point from which I now stand [as an inmate in the Rush City Correctional Facility] hasn’t always been easy, especially when darkness and struggle are found all around to the point that  life feels like its pains are consuming and its challenges are capable of drowning you.

How and when does hope kick in?

For me personally, the process took years for that focus to come to fruition. What I was really looking for to happen couldn’t be given to me out of the hands of somebody else — it could only come from myself.

I had no more time to be a part of the “blind leading the blind” (metaphorically speaking) when I was sentenced to life in prison in March of 2003. Now, unfortunately for me, my whole life, mentality and reality had changed. Nothing that might happen in prison seemed “far-fetched” when my life’s perspective left me looking for or expecting the worst out of every situation.

It took re-educating myself to again become alive with the very notion that despite my prison circumstance, that if I was ever going to experience that hope that seemed to have faded, it was going to be incumbent upon me to turn the soil of the soul and begin to cultivate the culture of the seeds planted in order to make a difference. Then and only then would hope come alive, because it was never about me but changing the culture in which I lived. There lay faith, hope and love!

In the midst of this re-educating and turning of the soul, it became crystal clear that the thought of me one day being all alone on my own, with all of my loved ones who were here for me no longer living because my “sentence” had surpassed their existence, was a vision of reality that vexed my spirit man and troubled my mind.

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Staff Blog: Community School to Prison Pipeline and Education Equity School Board Candidate Forum

forumFrom Julia Freeman:

On October 13, 2016 VRJ along with, BRIDGE incarcerated leaders, their families, MIGIZI Communication, HOPE Community Inc., Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, Hispanic Advocacy Community Empowerment through Research, League of Women Voters, and Solutions Not Suspension Coalition. Hosted a youth lead Prison to School Pipeline and Education Equity Community School to Prison Pipeline and Education Equity School Board Candidates Forum.

One of the goals of the Forum was to create a more personal environment for communities of color and American Indian community to engage with candidates.  The School Board Candidates were seated at tables with students, parents, organizers and education stakeholders. They had seven minutes to answer questions and had one minute to rotate to another table. This was a youth-led forum, the youth moderator Amir gave instructions for the evening and told the tables when to rotate. He also asked the final two questions of the night to Candidates who spoke from the front of the room. The youth at the tables the asked different questions “How will you support culturally relevant curriculum? Mario” The youth all had on name badges that said I’m eligible to vote in 20__ that to them felt powerful.

Another goal was to have the BRIDGE incarcerated leaders hear from those who have personally impacted by the School to Prison Pipeline. The incarcerated leaders recorded questions for the candidates to answer like “How will you work to remove those policies and practices that contribute to the school to prison pipeline?” We asked for all who attended to take notes to share with their constituents, parents, friends and neighbors.

When the Forum was over people said things like “this was telling because some of the candidates couldn’t answer some of the questions.” People called the event powerful, real and engaging. and were happy that it was community centered.

“I’ve never been this close to a candidate before and to able to speak directly to them was amazing.” Jhe’Nell Martin BRIDGE a family leader.

This was the ultimate outcome to have given the people the opportunity to elevate their power and voice so that they feel more civically engage. Remember to VOTE November 8th !r 8th !


With a Focus on Equity, What A Difference A Year Can Make

Julia Freeman

Julia Freeman

A little over a year ago, I met with Principal Halee Vang of Hmong International Academy (HIA) to tell her that her school had been selected by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to partner with Voices for Racial Justice and pilot the Education Equity Project that includes the Pathway to Education Equity Tool. She thought this was just what the school needed.

Hmong International is a K-8 located in North Minneapolis. The school has 588 students the largest demographic is Hmong, and African American students are the second largest demographic. HIA is a community school.

Principal Vang had just transitioned from Assistant Principal to Principal and inherited all the tensions of the school. The Hmong parents and African American parents were at cultural odds with one another. The parents had marched to the District and spoke at many School Board meetings about their problems at HIA. Principal Vang, however, was committed to working for equity.

Key to that process was an intentional outreach to organize parents and youth of color and American Indian parents and youth. The process also included teachers and education specialists. Through surveys, listening sessions and 20 Equity Team meetings we were able to reach nearly 300 people, with 187 were of these 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. The majority of the people were parents or youth of color. The equity team, which included parents, youth, and teachers, sorted through the responses and identified three main priorities for action.

    1. Diversity inside our school (Cultural events and celebrations, physical space represents student population, curriculum, and language)
    2. Communication (clear and increase culturally sensitive communication and frequency, and multiple means)
    3. Teachers reflecting the diversity of the students at HIA

The implementation of most of these priorities starts in the 2016/2017 school year.

So here we are at the end of the first year of our HIA Equity Team journey some may ask what the impact has been. I would like to highlight a few changes — things we can really see. First the school climate has changed. People feel listened to. A racially and culturally inclusive school climate – in which everyone feels included and respected, where cultures are honored, and where people feel the school is fair – is important. There is now more unity at the school between staff, parents, students and the community.

Second, some changes important to parents or students have already been implemented. For example, African Americans and Native Americans in the school had felt their cultures were not included at the school, and even the Hmong families felt that more depth and language teaching was needed. Principal Vang responded by hiring an African American multi-cultural teacher, and building a class focused on the different cultures of the students at HIA into the core required curriculum. This teacher uses leaders from different cultures at the school and community cultural leaders as guest teachers. She realizes no one teacher can authentically hold everyone’s culture.

Third, The HIA youth voice is more amplified in a powerful way. Many youth joined the equity team, and began to take powerful leadership roles. This was evident when they spoke at the Minneapolis School Board meeting and shared the reports. I was very proud of them.

Fourth, paying attention to equity seems to have become a central part of the culture of the school, and may even be affecting test scores. At the last HIA Equity Team meeting Principal Halee Vang shared with us that out of the 8 Priority Schools, HIA was number one in growth for closing the gap for students of color based on MCA scores. When asked at a principals meeting of her peers she was asked how she was able to accomplish this. Principal Vang said it was all the equity work she’s been doing with parents, staff, students and the community.

What a difference a year makes working together for education equity.

Julia Freeman is Senior Organizer for Racial Justice.