Community Justice Film Series launches this weekend!

I’ll be working with a team of 10 amazing facilitators to hear from the Richmond community what we want for our schools. One of the short films we’ll be watching is Chicago Public Schools: Closed. 

Join us at the inaugural meeting of Richmond’s Community Justice Film Series! We’ll have food, films, and facilitated discussion.

Oct. 29th, 2pm-5pm
Virginia Union University, Ellison Hall
1500 North Lombardy Street

Learn more at the CJFS website or facebook page.

Community Justice Film Series flier

Breakbeat Poetry

Cover of The Breakbeat Poets, featuring an illustration of african american kids in superhero costumes.This week my Culture | Counterculture class is set to start reading The Breakbeat Poets, which offers me something I haven’t had in a while: poetry. I spent a lot of my younger life on poetry, but the past few years have left me uncertain where we stand. Poetry first took me to the city jail, and in many ways the incredible artists and writers there shifted my daily life. I’d always been committed to incarceration reduction and to reentry services, but seeing students I’d be lucky to have in a class at VCU live out time in a jail pod changed my priorities, significantly. I stopped thinking I was teaching people how to write: my students at the jail knew that already. They already had poetry. What they needed were better policies. As a global leader in incarceration, the US also leads the world in all of incarceration’s byproducts, one of which is a wealth of books, articles, news coverage, etc. etc. on one of my least favorite permutations of the white savior trope: prison arts programming. This is not to say prisons don’t need arts; they do. But so often our coverage of prison education or prison arts programs slips into a terrible kind of civilizing discourse: inmates receive Shakespeare and become human, etc.. In my experience, prisons are full of men and women who have read Shakespeare, and public policy was not any easier on them for it.

I still go to the jail to read poetry, but we also talk about public policy, about self-advocacy, about avenues for organization and meaningful change. I am not teaching, I’m listening and learning, and this means poetry often runs second to other goals, as I think it should. I still consume it, on campus I still teach it, but I’m often left wondering what it *does.* In some ways I’ve cheated, using my English class to test the boundaries of these questions. We’ve spent weeks exploring how counterculture movements work, and more importantly, how they work best. What is the relationship between arts and social change? The Breakbeat Poets is a beautiful anthology, and it takes this question seriously. Today’s reading comes from Roger Bonair-Agard, a writer with the enviable ability to stop your breath in both poetry and prose. His essay “Journeying to the break: The cost of the pilgrimage” offers an answer that is at once humorous, endearing, heart breaking, and hopeful. Art, he tells us, holds communities together. It gives voice. It tracks wrongs and speaks against them.

The Breakbeat Poets happened in our syllabus when I most needed it. I spent last weekend reflecting on the upcoming 30th anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel Prize. Brodsky was a survivor of the Soviet prison system. Remembering him, I wonder if we will see Nobels for those for survive the US prison system.  I’ve been rethinking our methods incarceration by looking more closely at Russia’s. I’m reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag. I’m understanding a bit better, every day, that human rights violations of that scale (of this scale) happen, in part, because of language, because of how we talk about each other and how we talk about those with less access to a microphone. In my other classes we’ve been studying the myth of the juvenile “superpredator” and all the havoc that story wrought on public policy, on low-income communities, on people of color, and on public schools. The juvenile super predator was a myth, just a story, but it had power.

I don’t think I can stand with the camp that firmly commits itself to an art without politics. I don’t believe that exists. Poetry, like any method of storytelling, has power. That said, I am understanding a little bit better why Brodsky spoke so adamantly about keeping our faith in poetry. We could do better if we worked more on our storytelling. The cover of The Breakbeat Poets features a painting by the incredible Hebru Brantley from his “Myths” series. Brantley’s painting is transformative. In its world, kids are heroes. In that painting, they save us. His work resonates with the work being done today by Performing Statistics and Art 180. They’re seeing kids as heroes. They’re telling better stories.

Bonair-Agard doesn’t just speak to the power of community building; he also tells us how much value art can have for a kid beset by a dominant culture determined to deny his place in the world. To that kid, the poetry of Chic had the power to transform kids into superheroes:

I picked up the album Risque by the group Chic, encouraged by the heady beat and strident vocals on their hit single “Good Times.” I was take in too, by the group’s album cover swatter…That winter I stood in front of our record player and played that song over and over again, dancing until I tired myself out. I knew the song by heart, every instrumental entrance and exit, the bridge. I’d keep the cover out so I could look at them while I danced, so they could inhabit me, or I them, I guess (319).

I’ll leave this post, then, with “Good Times.” Look upon Chic that they might inhabit you, or you them.

Bonair-Agard, Roger. “Journeying to the break: The cost of the pilgrimage.” from The Breakbeat Poets.

More Just Mercy resources for Fall semester 2016:

The semester is in full swing, and if you’re teaching Just Mercy there’s still more you need to know!

First, Ava DuVerney’s 13th has hit Netflix and it’s an excellent companion for teaching Just Mercy. Stevenson has lectured in the past about the direct line between human enslavement in the US and our current carceral state. DuVerney’s film is a much more in-depth exploration of this. Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom has created a list of discussion questions for the film if you’re interested in having a look.

Second, criminal justice reform continues to be central to Virginia’s electoral landscape at both the local and state levels. I’ve included tracks of two notable events below. A statement by Governor McAuliffe on rights restoration and the first of two mayoral forums on criminal justice reform.

I hope these are helpful!

Third, Art 180 and Performing Statistics have launched their I Am Powerful exhibit and it’s quite incredible. They opened just two weeks ago and followed quickly with a sign making workshop in anticipation of the youth justice parade that will occur at 5pm on November 4th. Please attend and lend your voice in support of incarcerated youth. You can see I Am Powerful through Nov. 7th at Atlas (and if we work together I’ll be booking us a tour!).

painted stencil pictures of incarcerated youth advocate for detention reduction.

In which I need to stop rage tweeting and cannot

I’m in Ohio for the long weekend (yay!) meeting my new niece (YAY!), and I’ve happened across Steven’s Pearlstein’s “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study the humanities.” It’s the sort of piece that almost has me at moments, but largely leaves me rage tweeting to the swirling indifferent winds of the internet and two of my friends. So, before you proceed, a caveat: I’m typing fast, during a likely very brief baby nap, in a house of chaos and sleeplessness.

Why am I so angry? What can be done? To the latter question, I think, there are simple solutions. Mute me. Restructure the institution of higher education. Build an entirely new social order.

The former is hard to parse. Part of my rage stems from the pervasive tide of millennial news coverage that vacillates along a spectrum from the position I’ve seen best summarized here and in Pearlstein’s article. “Millennials!” journalism is a new take on an old stance. You can hate the kids or hate the parents, but you must always presume that the ills of the 21st century are rooted in family structures (here you must invariably assume a mythic norm) and never broader economic systems. Blaming family structures is cheap, easy, and multipurpose. It works if young people overachieve to compete in increasingly strained college admission markets and it works when they commit violence in schools. Millennials are all trophies or violence-in-video-games, depending on the week and the news cycle. They’re rarely humans with complicated lives who, like all of us, strive imperfectly to please impossible masters.

My rage, though, goes a little deeper. It’s tied to my own trajectory as a relentless humanities grad turned first-year student teacher and advocate. I dedicated much of my life to the humanities, and I don’t doubt their value. I’ve also dedicated years to teaching college freshman, and that means I see the kids who don’t progress beyond the first year. I see their brief encounter with higher ed, and it terrifies me.

Since 2009 I’ve worked at VCU’s Department of Focused Inquiry. We’re a big faculty that carries a lot of identities, but most centrally we’re focused on equity in outcomes for students at VCU. It’s our mission to reduce retention disparities across VCU’s many diverse student populations. That is a difficult mission, and fraught. Our students enter the university with a huge range of advantages and disadvantages, ranging from their academic preparation, to their full time jobs, family care commitments, and their full comprehension of what university culture will entail. Our students are beset on all sides with social, psychological, and economic forces that push them in directions that they may or may not want to head. Our job in FI is to be one force (among all of these) that pushes students in the direction of academic success.

The hardest part of our job is often that we are just one force among many. We are constantly confronted with challenges for which there is no institutional or academic solution. How many times can you negotiate the deadline of a paper for a student who works 40 hours a week? For a student with children? For a student readying for deployment? For a student struggling with untreated mental health issues? What about a student who is simply lonely and stressed and scared?

The reality is our students are profoundly vulnerable. Few have meaningful financial stability. As enrollment continues to grow nationally, many are first generation college students without external guidance on how to navigate a FAFSA much less choosing a major. I myself am already a second generation college student, and my schools (both where I studied and where I now work) offer majors in disciplines my parents have never heard of. Students often enter school without a clear sense of where they’re heading, and while that can be an exciting experience for some, it’s terrifying for others.

I think it’s time we accepted that some of this terror is reasonable. Students are proceeding forward with only one certainty: financial commitment. They will, a vast majority of them, borrow their way forward. They will do so knowing that their degree does not guarantee a job. They do so knowing they will spend years, decades even, paying it back. They do so knowing we distribute housing, food, legal security, and healthcare inequitably. All of this students know, and often their parents know it more, having lived it longer.

Those students who don’t make it beyond the first year know all of this and more. They know the pain that comes with finding a dream to be unsustainable. They know the dread of stereotype threat. They know disappointment. They anticipate shame. They lose access to what resources the school provided. They lose what community they’ve built in the first year. They leave without what economic benefit a degree might offer, and they leave with the debt of that first year. 

This should be a lengthy rant on why we need to defer more students to community colleges for the first year. That is a rant I will write at some point, because I believe in it deeply. I believe it it despite the fact that such a rant is an argument against my own employment. However, I’m on a time crunch. This house sleeps, and I only I possess the wherewithal to restock on diapers.

In the meantime: it’s 2016 for a while yet, and full range of costs associated with school is perilously high. It would behoove all of us to allow students and families to treat college as something other than 4 years of self exploration or the impassioned pursuit of one’s loves.* When we shame parents for blocking the path to a humanities major, we shame the symptom and not the problem. When we’ve built a culture that supports students and families with housing and health care, when we look to our community colleges as leaders in equitable education, when we’ve actually achieved equitable outcomes for our 4-year college students, when we’ve made those 4-year colleges affordable, and when we actually fund the humanities (thus creating jobs for humanities graduates), then we can champion the humanities degree as an equally viable choice for all.

In the meantime, we should not be coy about our true message (here, I suspect, lies my true rage). When I see humanities scholars lamenting parental interference in major recruitment, I wonder if those same faculty are willing to invest hours in the professional mentorship of all their undergraduate majors. I wonder if those departments make job placement data available to parents, of if they simply post a list of famous people with English degrees on their website (amazingly, this is not hyperbole). I wonder if those faculty advocate for students each year tuition is raised. I am not employed in a humanities discipline, but the bulk of my extended social and professional circles is so employed. While I rarely hear humanities faculty talking about pathways to professional development, I do often hear them hoping to up the enrollment of classes predominantly taught by adjuncts. This, sadly, is how we are taught to survive in a strapped job market.

What can we do? Sara Goldrick-Rab has a short run down on ways we can support financially struggling students. She is much much smarter than I, and holds the twin powers of Research and Data in her grasp. She herself recognizes her proposal is only a start. Was it jest at the beginning of this post to imply we need a whole cloth restructuring of the university? Probably not. I’m unwieldy that way.

*It might also behoove us to remember that some people do in fact love accounting, which is both a fascinating field and a reliable source of income. This may seem shocking, but drama-pitying the accounting majors among us does not actually make the humanities seem inviting or appealing.


This is what we need to make it through the week


As we face fear in these times, and fear is all around us, we also have anti-fear. It’s hard to imagine or measure. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis.

But also because

The important thing to remember is that this simulation is a good one. It’s believable, it’s tactile. You can reach out — things are solid. You can move objects from one area to another. You can feel your body. You can say, “I’d like to go over to this location,” and you can move this mass of molecules through the air over to another location, at will. That’s something you live inside of every day.

I love you guys! See you in class!

Resources for teaching Just Mercy

Hello beloved colleagues! Here is a starter kit on teaching Just Mercy, mass incarceration, and racial reconciliation in the classroom. There’s more. There’s so much more. Just ask.

Mass incarceration – the data: 

Mass incarceration and youth detention in Virginia:

Mass Incarceration Writ Large

Narratives of Crime in the US

Sentencing: a quick guide via twitter, spied between conference sessions.

CRE is, as usual, full of amazing people doing difficult work, about which I’d love to write. I am, however, sacked. In the meantime, please enjoy this great summary of sentencing issues by Greg Doucette:

I’m a fan of Doucette for a few reasons, among which are his sharp eye for judicial failures and his practical assessments of what would need to happen to see more equity in outcomes. This (above) is an abbreviated section of his check in on the Stanford Rape case, about which he wrote quite a lot on June 7th. I read through his responses between training sessions, and made a note to collect a few here as a sort of summary guide to discretionary, structured, and mandatory sentencing practices. The differences are important, and not always super clear.
Enjoy, and enjoy the weekend! Now that I’m done with the conference pre-trainings I’m hoping to check in a bit more.

Checking in and Catching up

I’ve barely written at all this year, on my VCU site or on any of the other spaces I frequent online. I think the only online space that’s seen much of me lately is Twitter, in part because it’s so merciful for people who are low on resources. Over the next couple of months I’ll be reorienting where I write and how. Thats…tough. Writing is (for me at least) profoundly contextual. I find my own writing dictates my thought process, and my thinking is a precarious thing. I would love to be the kind of bold thinker whose voice takes one message and one character regardless of context, but I’m not so lucky, nor so well formed.

This is where I’ll be writing for the summer, and for the foreseeable future. I may revert to Tumblr when I need to be less formal or to connect with colleagues there, and I’ll remain a source of endless mindless chatter on Twitter, but I’ll do most of my long-  and short- form writing here. It’ll be an easy transition, as no one’s reading me here these days. High-Investment Low-Impact is a good writing situation for me.


My work with VCU’s ASPiRE program went well enough that they’re not yet getting rid of me. Our 2015-2016 schedule was incredibly fun, but this coming year we’ll be doing things a little differently. We’ll be moving away from the reading groups and toward more engaged actions: I’m hoping to partner with VCU Art Ed faculty Courtnie Wolfgang for some of it! Many events will be collaborations between ASPiRE and VCU’s common book initiative, with whom I’m also partnering this year. Expect a schedule by late summer.

This year I’ll also be launching an oral history project in collaboration with my colleague at IU Fidelia Igwe. This represents a number of labor of loves for Fidelia and I: most notably charting and archiving the impact of mass incarceration on both individuals and communities. We’ve had a tremendous amount of support already from incredible people who work in radio, archives, and oral history, most especially Tim Hensley at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. More thanks will come to them soon.

I’m headed back to CRE this summer, but I’m not facilitating a workshop this year. Instead I’ll be receiving training from the Sustained Dialogue Institute on incorporating sustained dialogue into programming at VCU. There’s a lot of potential for this work in Richmond and in our student body. Through VCU’s Institute for Inclusive Teaching I was able to meet with Dr. Adrienne Dessel this year to talk through the program she works with at the University of Michigan, and as it happens their work is housed in UM’s University College, which I hope is a good sign for future work that might be done in my unit at VCU. We’ve already had luck launching VCU’s first Safe Spaces course, which might be paving the way for similar programming. While I’m not running any training at CRE I am happy to note that my co-facilitator from last year and I will be revising a paper this summer for publication in the fall.

Finally, my work in FI will be shifting a bit in the upcoming year. It’s my last year working as coordinator of curriculum and textbooks for our 111/112 course sequence. I’ll be teaching an odd set of courses this year: in addition to my FI class I’ll be running a section of ENG215 (with the topic “Culture | Counterculture”) and an independent study “Biopolitics and the Arts” for a particularly ambitious student from the spring.

That’s it for updates, especially since this new site is low in readership. I’m hoping to check in over the course of the next week during CRE, where I’ll be getting a great deal of guidance both for my work at VCU and for the pending launch of our oral history program.

UndocuAlly Training this Sunday:

This initiative was spearheaded by VCU ASPiRE students! I’m incredibly lucky to get to work with these guys:

We are holding an event called UndocuAlly Training in Harris Hall room 2107 on Sunday, March 20th, from 10am to 2pmThe UndocuAlly Training is simply a workshop designed to inform participants–both students and faculty–about the struggles of Undocumented students and about how we can be better allies. Breakfast and lunch will be served. Participants of the workshop will receive a certificate of completion and a magnet that shows you are an ally to undocumented students that may be displayed in your office. RSVP here.
For questions contact Camille Brenke at