From Chapter 26… pages 290-292
… When transitioning from the public area of the juvenile (in)justice center to
the secure detention area the visual contrast is stark and harsh. All hues of color are assaulted and consumed by a complete whitewashing of the floors, furnishings, walls, and ceilings. No natural lighting filters through the thick, solid block walls, which leaves only the intimidating and accusatory glare of fluorescent lights. The nine-story, cream-colored juvenile (in)justice center is on a reclaimed industrial site east of the city’s downtown. As it looms imposingly and noticeably over the neighborhoods nearby, it is not coincidental that its location blatantly invades some of the most impoverished areas of the city where multiple public housing complexes reside, penetrating this “cultural-historical situation and impos[ing] [a] system of values” (Freire, 2013, p. 100) ripe with conquest and manipulation.
The majority of youth who arrived at our classroom lived in the nearby neighborhoods (when they weren’t enduring forced removal by the state) that are plagued with the effects of social and state-sponsored discrimination and segregation. When I first arrived at the school, the need to escape the sterile and pallid drabness everywhere overwhelmed me. Soon, students’ artwork began creeping to walls beyond our classroom like vines on a trestle covering foot after foot until the whiteness was nearly consumed. Before the end of my first year there, other educators had embraced the idea of decorating with student creations beyond our self-contained classrooms or office walls. Although the students are organized into pods and kept mostly isolated from each other, their schoolwork and artwork seemingly yearned to meet as it was increasingly taped on the walls of the school by teachers. Even if it was only the students’ papers gathering together, the displays of student work served as a reminder that “true education incarnates the permanent search of people together with others for their becoming more fully human in the world in which they exist” (Freire,
2013, p. 86).
The school at the detention center became an oasis of color and celebration in an otherwise barren, bleached desert of imposed despair. Mounted cameras are encased in hemispheres attached to ceilings in every classroom and throughout the JDC facility. These cameras are linked to viewing screens in distant rooms where mysterious watchers in this digital panopticon are hired by the county to monitor every sight and sound. Anyone repeatedly encountering the routines, sounds, sights, and the numbing absence of scent or touch begins to conform most often unwittingly and unwillingly to the oppressive absurdities of the institution. It is an unhealthy and vacuous normalization in which to become immersed and it is designed to effectively infuse in those under the objectifying digital gaze an “internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold… that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything” (Freire, 1999, p. 45).
The distrust expressed through this ceaseless surveillance frequently produces domesticated contempt and inflames self-doubt for those subjected to uninterrupted observation. Countless students expressed how they felt prior to joining our classroom community. They shared in notes or assignments statements such as “I did not care about school,” “I never thought I would graduate from high school,” and “[I] had thoughts about giving up on school and life” (Personal artifacts, 2014-2018). It is certainly not an atmosphere or existence that which children should be enclosed within if they are actually expected to robustly develop and grow.
Indeed, as the name of the institution suggests, children are not being held captive in a juvenile detention center under the auspices of rehabilitation or reparations on their behalf regardless of a mission statement that falsely claims court detention services exist to “Provide for the care, welfare, safety and security of all juveniles under the supervision of the Detention Services continuum with the support of community partnerships.”
Political apathy and social indifference are pervasive in the attitudes of local city and county officials that inequitably allow for certain childhoods to be spent in uncertainty and captivity does not go unnoticed by students. Applying an alternative meaning to the abbreviation “CCJDC” printed in block letters on the dark blue jumpsuits they wore each day, students declared the initials to mean “City/County Children Just Don’t Care.” I perceived their word substitutions as partly inculcated by the blatant inequities they collectively experienced, yet also indicative of the permanent struggle for hope that “becomes intensified when one realizes it is not a solitary struggle” (Freire, 2016, p. 59). Continuing a transformative praxis in our classroom to communally create space for hope and increase students’ pride and confidence are not practices I question. The most pressing question became whether or not that was enough to challenge massively overwhelming and entrenched inequities.
I had been teaching for sixteen years in high schools in the same school district where the juvenile detention center is located and I, perhaps conceitedly, considered myself to possess advanced forms of dialogical and transformative praxes when I began there. However, serving as the guidance counselor and educator in a self-contained classroom of constantly revolving and traumatized students at the detention center dislodged my previous personal perceptions of professional competence. This transition in my self-understanding required a revved-up radicalization which Freire describes as involving an “increased commitment to the position one has chosen [that] is predominantly critical, loving, humble, and communicative, and therefore a positive stance” (1974/2013, p. 9).
A classroom pedagogy that includes “taking into consideration the unfavorable material conditions that many students of schools in marginalized areas of the city experience” (Freire, 2005, p. 140) was already a familiar practice for me when I began as an educator at the JDC. Similarly, I was well aware of the hauntings associated with multiple acts of violence inflicted upon the youth in divested city neighborhoods. Thus, there was no shortage of personal persistence to implement a critical pedagogy nor a lack of problems to “re-present” to students for their critical analysis, which is “the task of the dialogical teacher” (Freire,1999, p. 90).