As a word, leadership is usually defined singularly. One person taking leadership over a group. It is rarely associated with a group taking leadership together, but with numbers comes strength.
In African American history many of the iconic leaders have been portrayed as singular. However, the community has suffered a noticeable loss of leadership within itself. This problem is not new and continues. This loss is no coincidence, nor lack of ability but a silent battle that has been overlooked.
The studies of the term, school-to-prison pipeline, is one of the strongest examples of what might have happened to this leadership. The pipeline is a phrase referring to – in most cases– a ‘No Tolerance’ policy that pushes students from early punishment to juvenile and eventually adult criminal justice systems. Unfortunately, this pipeline affects minority children the most.
“When our youngest children are suspended and expelled, there is racial disproportionality, so black and brown children are suspended and expelled more,” said Rosemarie Allen, assistant professor of early childhood education. “Studies are showing that in preschool, by the time they are three, they can be kicked out of school a couple of times.”
On Feb. 15 and 16 MSU Denver hosted the 34th annual Black World Conference, during which, the school-to-prison pipeline became a largely discussed issue. This is mostly because it seems to be the root of many of the issues in the black community.
“For me, having been suspended myself, it impacts who you are and who you feel like you can become,” Allen said.
In early education, minority children have struggled with cultural expectations in the classroom. Out of 935 new teachers who joined Denver Public Schools last year, 70 percent of teachers were white, compared to 4 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic. In contrast only 22.7 percent of DPS students are white. The cultural norms and expectations of white teachers are much more likely to align with those of white students. However, the majority of students are minorities, causing a break in communication and understanding between a large portion of the student population and their teachers.
“I believe that there is a disconnect between the culture that a child lives in at home and the culture and expectations at school. Especially because most children of color don’t have teachers that look like them,” Allen said.
Allen explained this disconnect in her own experience. When she was called on by her family members, she was expected to respond quickly with respect. One time, when she was teaching in a predominantly white school and she called on a student, he replied with, “what?” Although this would be considered very normal in some households, she found it disrespectful.
“It was a difference in culture. At his home, that was perfectly ok. In my home, it was seen as rude and inappropriate. So when we have those disconnects then children are getting in trouble more for things they do at home and many times, they don’t even know why they are in trouble,” Allen said.
As children grow, they become accustomed to the label they are assigned. This can follow them and create problems in new relationships. This induces a cycle of negative behavior. These children are then living up to expectations, even when negative.
“Children who are suspended, they don’t see school as a safe place for them so they are more likely to drop out. More likely to have low achievement and pretty much disengage,” Allen said. “It shapes their perception of themselves and teachers perceive them differently.”
Calvin Pope, one of the presidents of African American Male Empowerment at Hinkley High School has personally felt this pressure growing up.
“We are put in an environment or community to where it is natural to go to jail or to be incarcerated,” said Pope.
Leadership becomes a hard concept to grasp when society is only able to perceive people in a negative light. Even young students are told they will never make it, and are encouraged to just give up. When society keeps pushing an image on a person, it becomes hard to fight it.
The young leaders at Hinkley High School have felt his burden and chosen to become their own leaders, not as singular representatives but united. Rajae Drew, a senior at Hinkley High School and president of Student African Female Empowerment, is just one of those leaders.
“It just surprises me so much that within SAFE, some of our girls, they don’t feel confident in themselves because they are black. That’s why we have SAFE to empower them and make them feel like they are powerful and they mean something,” Drew said. “I have gotten to this point because I know I can do just as much as a man can and people have always told me that I’m not going to make it and I just want to prove people wrong, period.”
Other leaders of Hinkley High School have found inspiration from role models and leaders in their own lives, and feel a great need to pay the respect to younger generations to build leaders with them. These students see themselves and younger generations as the future.
“It’s like a chain reaction. I had positive role models in my life and we see that they don’t have those and it makes me feel like I have to put myself in a position to be one of those role models
for kids that don’t have it,” said Peter Michael Ferdinand, one of the presidents of AAME at Hinkley High School.
Community leader Jeff S. Fard is happy to encourage leadership and help the younger generation use their resources to make a difference. He is also known as Brother Jeff, and founded Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center.
“With students, I wanted them to think critically about systems analysis and policy. The importance of being in a position to impact, policy and of course the lynch pin came to all of that is education. If you are not pursuing education at the highest levels then you are usually excluded from the methods or how change occurs at a systems level,” Fard said.