Working to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline: An Interview with Mokah Jasmine Johnson, President and Cofounder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement

A4E member Steve Piazza is a writer and poet living in Athens, Georgia with his wife and cat. He is a retired educator who advocates for education, workers’ rights and global welfare. Interested in writing for our blog? Get in touch!

Consider these statistics from the United States Department of Justice, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and The Justice Policy Institute, amongst others:

  • More than 43,000 youths are incarcerated on any given day.
  • 3/4 of incarcerated youth are locked up for offenses posing no threat to the public.
  • 3/4 of youth in confinement have not committed a serious violent offense.
  • 2/3 of young people do not return to school after completing their sentences.
  • 75% of youths released end upon being arrested, with a conviction rate ranging from 42% to 72%

And if that’s not disheartening enough:

  • Incarceration rates are higher for nonwhite youths: 5.3 times more are African American, 1.8 times more are Latinx, and 3.2 times more are Native American.
  • LGBTQ youths make up almost 7% of the total youth population, yet are 15% of all youth incarcerated.
  • Girls represent 15% of incarcerated youth.

Truly, anybody who is a parent should believe that these numbers are unacceptable,  that so many of our youths are subject to lives that are being seriously dictated by the court system. And, they should be even more outraged when they take into consideration the disproportionate amount of nonwhites committed to detention. 

The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM) shares in the outrage and has pledged to do something about it.

AADM President and Cofounder Mokah Jasmine Johnson, started the organization in the Athens community about three years ago to protest, alongside Athens for Everyone, discrimination in the Athens local bars. Seeing the need for additional work in the advocacy for local policy change, Johnson and her husband Knowa later established AADM, which, according to their website, “advocates for racial and social justice and strives to combat discrimination through education and activism.” 

Johnson studied media and technology at Full Sail University in Winter Park, FL, and practiced instructional design in the state, providing her with a background needed to serve in an advisory role to help guide instructional processes and analyze outcomes for effectiveness. Since coming to Georgia, she has worked in various educational settings, including teaching GED classes at Athens Technical College.

AADM provides support to all individuals who experience discrimination of any kind, but a major vision is to be proactive and work with young people. One of the main areas of concern for AADM is the school to prison pipeline, and as a result, they have developed the End School to Prison Pipeline Program.

What follows are highlights from a phone interview on the program.

Working to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline:

Basically, the component that we’ve added is an apprenticeship program. We have our after school program called Teen Social Justice Club (TSJC), and for the first semester we focus on the spoken word and the performing arts. We try to use that as a way to help kids use their voices in a fun way to learn about civic engagement, and in the end, they will do a spoken word presentation and/or use other talents. Going into 2020, we want to compile a list of businesses that would allow kids to shadow business owners or workers after school. The reason we’re trying to do that is that we’re trying to empower youth. 

We understand that in the two local high schools [Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals; as of this writing, Classic City High School has not been part of the TSJC program] there are a lot of issues there. There are positive things, but there are conflicts and these kids don’t necessarily know their rights. And because of the policies implemented in the schools, kids are being arrested for cutting school or for disorderly conduct like fighting. Kids today are being arrested for what adults today might have done when they were in high school, and I don’t understand how we are trying to help our children if that is an option. I understand that under certain circumstances, yes, they might have to issue an arrest. But a recent report reveals that there were over 600 referrals from the Clarke County School District that ended up into court cases. That’s a high rate, and the majority of it is black boys and girls. 

We’re trying to implement a social justice program, and we also want to implement the apprenticeship program so that these kids can see a way to empower themselves and learn other skills, like life skills and how to communicate better, and also to know their rights. 

It’s going to take a collaborative effort that’s going to involve parents, the community, educators, and resource officers.

Is there a job placement that goes with the apprenticeship?

One of our board members is Chef Peter Dale, whose story is told through the film Athens Rising 2. We looked at his story as a model, how he got started as an apprentice at Five &Ten [the popular Athens restaurant], how they took him under their wing and taught him about cooking and the business side of things. So we figured that that was one of the first programs that we could start, one related to culinary. Not just the side of being a chef, but also how to run a restaurant or a business.

And so we created a model where kids can go and do a six- to eight-week program under a business person who is local, and maybe it can spark something in them, perhaps eventually leading to a job down the line and hopefully even at the same place where they’re doing the apprenticeship. If not, we can still get them placed but to let them know they can still use their skills and things that they’re interested in, and they can use their energy in this direction into something that’s more productive. Also when kids are making money or they have a skill that they’re interested in, they tend to stay out of trouble. When kids become 15, 16, 17, they want to have money. And if they have a job after school, they’re being productive. Not everybody plays sports, not everybody is into cheerleading.

If the focus here is on skills development, how might AADM address discrimination complaints by youth in the workplace?

The only way we can help somebody, if they are being discriminated against in the workplace, is under our advocacy piece. That would be a totally different thing. There is not a program like TSJC involved. AADM advocacy is about looking at their complaint, creating a summary, and trying to place them with referral to an attorney, or elsewhere if it’s a public-accommodation thing. It depends on what it is. We try to get them the resources that they need in order to advocate for their rights. 

That is what we first started with. When people were first putting in discrimination complaints, they were just talking about downtown bars. Then they were talking about the workplace, and it was like, “Wow, all this is happening in Athens?”. So we wondered how we can help to address the issues. Some people needed resources, like attorneys. Some people wanted workshops, or we were writing letters to jobs trying to get answers for people. But if somebody was a part of any of our programs, or worked within our organization, who thought they were discriminated against, we would try to help them. 

AADM runs after school programs in its attempt to counter the school to prison pipeline. Are there any related programs that you run in the prisons themselves?

We’re hoping that in the future we will be able to. It’s kind of tough reaching the youth in the juvenile system because most of the juvenile centers are not in Clarke County.  What we try to do is something like our Books and Bailout program, where we’re trying to get books for youth and deliver them in the prisons. We’ve had some success in delivering the books, and we were thinking maybe we could do a book club. But because the kids are in different places outside of Clarke County, it makes it more difficult for us to serve them. That’s something that we hope we can do consistently in the future.

We recently got approved to do the Community Service piece [or, as described on their site, “To help reduce recidivism rates and address the ongoing issue of mass incarceration, often referred to as modern-day slavery, the AADM now offers community service in an effort to help combat the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”] The focus is going to be ages 17 to 25, which includes highschoolers that need Community Service. We’re excited because that’s how we can serve the ones that are located here locally if they do get in trouble. It’s through the Community Service program that they will also have access to the apprenticeship opportunities and workshops, and different things like that.

About how many businesses do you have that are interested in the apprenticeship program?

It’s still in the working stage, so I can’t really say that we have that many because were still working on it. But the whole goal is to get at least 10 to 15 businesses. The system we use now for Community Service is Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning or afternoon, or on Saturdays if they need makeup, so we want to use the same kind of model for the apprenticeship program to see if we can fuse it at certain times. This way they can get their Community Service support by going to a restaurant and doing their apprenticeship piece somehow so they can get their hours. 

How would go about measuring the effectiveness of the program?

We have an initial intake form and in the end, we’d do a close out. I don’t want to say a test, but somehow we can see how it impacted them from the beginning to the end during six weeks increments. Even if they start over again, we can see how people are making progress. It’s a similar approach to what I’ve seen used in GED classes, where we consider how long it takes for students to get through a lesson and then measure to see what we need to do to complete the other parts. It’s an educational approach based on the instructional design model ADDIE. It consists of five phases: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. Once you do the process over and over you will get the best product by the third cycle. The first one is trial and error and you fix it. Then you make it better for the second attempt, and by the third one and you should have all the kinks out. 

It’s the same approach I used in my master’s media and technology program that gets used for creating different curricular and training programs. It’s what I’ve used when implementing a program for a business. You collaborate with different people who are experts who have the strength, like the business owners. They’re the ones who are the experts; it’s their business and we want to let them help create the curriculum for the ideas for the six-week program based on the needs of the students, and then match it up when students do the intake form. It’s a process.

Is there anything else that you would like to highlight about AADM?

We have to be willing to give our youth a second chance. Incarceration shouldn’t be an option; it should be the last, last resort. The main thing is, give our kids a second chance despite what you may believe. You have to give these kids more than second chances. We give up on them too quickly because we don’t understand them anymore. We helped create that. 

I will also say that we need volunteers to help with the afterschool program in the schools and then we have a couple of other places that want us to provide a program there but we can’t because we need more volunteers. This includes the Boys and Girls Club who wanted to do something there right now. We’re at Clarke Middle School and we’re at Clarke Central High School but we still need more volunteers to go into other places where people are requesting.

For more information on the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement please visit their website here.

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