Resisting Systemic Oppression through Critical Peace Education
“I live inside the belly of the rough, Compton USA made me an Angel on Angel Dust”- Kendrick Lamar, m.A.A.D City (2012)
Across the US, socioeconomically disadvantaged young men of color are increasingly vulnerable to negative or violent experiences that range from witnessing or being a victim of homicide or crime to being followed by police officers for no apparent reason or receiving ‘fear’ or ‘suspicion’ stares as they walk down the street. In particular, children who are immigrants are increasingly susceptible to experiencing trauma as a result of living the immigrant experience which includes being under constant threat of deportation. Nationally, the Flint Michigan water crisis or the environmental injustice in Los Angeles due to oil drilling are recent examples of institutional oppression that continue to be the reality for people in marginalized communities. While these sources of violence stem from historical systemic inequalities, they have a real effect in the classroom as educators and health officials are increasingly documenting children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, a 2015 survey found that about half of sixth and ninth graders in Los Angeles showed signs of mild to severe PTSD.
Across California, young men of color are 2.5 and 4.1 more likely to have PTSD than their white peers. It is not surprising that these young men experience serious health and educational disparities such as increased suspension rates, low academic achievements, and increased obesity and asthma rates.
In partnership with Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT) and Valley High School, my graduate work has centered around developing a ten week summer program called I am Me: Strong, Capable, & Peaceful that seeks to break poverty’s psychological trap on a child’s sense of self-identity and –efficacy through critical discourse and interdisciplinary approaches.
The IYT program has noted that some of its students exhibit PTSD-like symptoms as a result of the violence they have encountered. In general, children with PTSD may exhibit hyperactivity, aggression, antisocial behavior, or abuse drugs as ways of coping with stress. Additionally, some may feel sad, anxious, fearful, or depressed which makes them reluctant to participate in activities or disrupt class time or be chronically truant/absent. More seriously, students who feel angry or frustrated fantasize about revenge to resolve their feelings of guilt by physically or verbally fighting or defying others. While California schools may have discretionary resources to address PTSD, the need is often unmet as is currently the case in Compton Unified School District.
Instead, I am Me proposes to use low-resource methods to help begin to heal the wounds. I am Me uses critical peace education to empower young men of color to use their voice and actions to peacefully address these negative experiences. The critical pedagogy analyzes the historical power structures that produce violence and oppression for a person depending on their identity (e.g. gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, immigration status) and seeks to mobilize groups to remedy or address the violence they experience through peaceful or nonviolent transformative actions. Moreover, the program uses elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness strategies, musicology and anthropology, and political education to compliment the critical discourse. For example, we have created a workshop that critically examines hip-hop culture and music to deconstruct its history and how it serves as a source of empowerment and therapy but also how capitalistic institutions have hijacked the art form to marginalize others, notably womyn, for a profit.
Most of all, I am Me is a celebration of the students’ cultural experiences and perspectives which are often ignored or devalued in traditional school curricula. Also, the program seeks to build positive relationships among students to mend ongoing conflicts. For example, students have asked for workshops on the “N word” and on “What it means to be White” to not only deconstruct their meaning but to heal wounds caused by the internalization and projection of oppression among and between students. Other workshops will critically discuss various forms of discrimination including homophobia, sexism, and ableism within their contexts as well as examine current campaigns for change such as Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, and #Not1More. The aim is for the participants to develop micro/individual campaigns over a 10 week period to address sources or effects of institutional oppression in their lives.
I am Me is rooted in the belief that critical discourse should not be reserved for intellectuals in the Ivory tower or university lecture halls but that it must be a key element across K-12 curricula. To deconstruct or abolish the oppressive institutions and process that continue to marginalize so many, we must heal from within: decolonize the mind and the soul of a child to empower them to recognize and pave their path towards their freedom.
The ultimate aim of the intervention is to restore humanity and critical consciousness to the learning process. The hypothesis is that via a culturally tailored curriculum students may strengthen ethnic and social self-esteem and self-efficacy to help buffer against the effects of negative experiences. I am Me adds critical discourse as a key element for empowerment but also borrows from various education programs, such as Becoming a Man (B.A.M), Urban Warriors, Manhood Development Program, and HLF Inc.
As historically marginalized communities continue to experience income and ethnic re-segregation, political marginalization, and increasing instances of overt racism, violence, and discrimination, I am Me seeks to empower those most affect to resist and eventually reform these sources of violence and marginalization.
About the blog contributor:
Felipe Hernandez is a first-generation Mexican-American from Los Angeles, California. He graduated with honors in political science and music performance from UC Irvine. During his Fulbright Fellowship in Colombia he taught English & political science and established an after-school leadership program for children affected by the ongoing civil war. Felipe is also a 2012 Truman CA scholar and is currently a Marshall scholar pursuing an MSc in Education, Policy and International Development at the University of Bristol.