Ending Violence Against Black Children: an interview with Dr. Damita Brown
Freedom Inc and the Transformative Action Network is collaborating on a letter writing campaign to demand the end of violence against black children in Madison. This coordinated abolitionist effort will bring together members of the community to make sure injustices against children do not go unseen, unchallenged, or met with silence. Community members will write letters directed to media outlets, school administrators, city officials and community based organizations to urge them to address the the structural and physical violence Black youth face and to take anti-racist action.
To further explain the goals of the letter writing campaign, here is an interview between Ryan Eykholt, member of the Transformative Action Network Coordinating Committee, and Dr. Damita Brown, Restorative Justice Director at the Dane County TimeBank. Damita is a community based educator with experience in restorative justice circles and anti-racism workshop facilitation using creative process and contemplative self awareness practices.
RE: How did the letter writing campaign emerge, and what inspired it?
DB: I think there are a couple of sources of inspiration for it. One was the ongoing work that Freedom, Inc. is doing around getting police-free schools. They have been looking at the dangers that our kids face with respect to that in the schools for a lot of years now. So I knew that that resource was there, and it’s always in the back of my mind, like how to work with them. And the other direct impetus was that I was mentoring a kid that got arrested at gunpoint in December. He was a kid with special needs, he had an IEP. He was already kind of limited in his social environment because he didn’t go to school all day. I think he was in school for like three hours a day. And so, he was already experiencing some isolation. But after he got arrested, I reached out to his mom about showing up for the hearings and supporting her in whatever way we could. She was afraid that the judge might look at our presence in the courtroom unfavorably. And we couldn’t publish any information about the arrest. I felt like my hands were tied, and I also heard a lot of other stories, that young black kids are facing a lot of violence. Structural, physical, and cultural violence in Madison. So, we wanted to do something around ending that violence, and the letter campaign came out of that.
RE: In your piece ‘Choosing Liberation’, you talk about ‘unpacking white dominated identity structures’ and rewriting ourselves within a racial/black liberation narrative. How do you see the letter writing campaign as an individual and collective action that helps to make the liberation narrative thrive?
DB: That’s a great question. Because I think, at any given moment, we all have an opportunity to start fresh. Whatever we haven’t done in the past or we’ve done poorly, or maybe we haven’t responded at all, all those things go out the window the minute we take the new act. Every moment is an opportunity to do something differently, or do the same thing you did before but do it again. So, we need to keep giving ourselves opportunities to act. The question isn’t whether we ever did it right in the past or if we don’t know how to do it now, but to create so many opportunities to practice ending this violence. The actual practice of ending this violence, and speaking about it is an incredibly powerful way to transform this narrative. If we are worried about what to say, or afraid that we’ll be considered too radical or maybe a race traitor – I’m not sure what internal dialogue people are dealing with, but whatever that is, let’s air it out.
RE: What are the strengths of restorative justice for responding to crisis? How does the mission of restorative justice overlap with the letter writing campaign?
DB: One of the interesting things about restorative justice, especially as it’s being implemented in the Madison community, is that it already is experiencing a lot of co-optation. We’re looking at how it’s being implemented into the school district. It’s been going on at different capacities for many years. Recently, because of the alternatives to ticketing initiatives that have changed the dynamic somewhat, we’re getting a much more defined picture of how the disparities have been getting created in terms of incarceration and police contact with our communities and our youth. People like to talk about how the numbers are going down in terms of citations, because of restorative justice. And that’s good. But we need to be asking ourselves if the outcomes are also changing in terms of what black communities look like. Are incarceration rates changing? Are our children getting the kind of skills and academic resources that allow them to show up in their communities as leaders, to be able to understand and experience their own sense of power and to thrive? Are they getting that sense of being valued members of their community? Are they still experiencing the level of white rage and hostility in their schools that they did before these numbers started to change? With police contact that they’re having in schools, they’re being pretty much surveilled. Every moment they’re in school, there’s a cop there. Are we changing their level of contact with police? Or, are we creating school environments in which kids are being policed all day? The school-to-prison pipeline, is that changing?
If we can look at the numbers in Dane County and see how they compare to the rest of the country, we’re one of the worst. We’re one of the worst, and other Midwestern states are also horrible, disproportionate compared to the rest of the country. I like the fact that people are thinking about alternatives to ticketing, but officer discretion has not been removed, and it is still very much a matter of normalizing this kind of structural violence in the lives of our kids.
We can’t forget the kid who had a bag put over his head when he was being arrested. We can’t forget the 8- and 9-year-olds who have had the law enforcement called on them by their principals. What principal in this school district does not know how to handle an 8-year-old? If you do not have enough trust and respect with your 8-year-olds that you can’t resolve a conflict without calling the police, should you be in that job? I don’t think so. I think if there’s enough white rage in our schools to where 8- and 9-year-olds are having the police called on them, that’s a crisis right there. This is not an isolated incident. We started this interview talking about the 14-year-old who was arrested in December. It goes on all the time. Let’s look at the crisis of that. I don’t want us to always be feeling like we’re in crisis mode. But if there’s one that needs to be handled, let’s not pretend like it’s not there.
RE: What are the best ways for people to get involved with this letter writing campaign?
DB: Upcoming this week, we have a session people are welcome to join – Friday, April 10 from 7-8pm – where people can come and learn what the campaign is about, and figure out how to set up a letter writing Zoom session with their peers. There will be a template of the letter. The campaign launches for the broader community, April 24th. We’ll talk about different forms of the template because some letters will go to editors, some letters will go to the school board, some letters will go to the city council, so how to target the community you want to address the letter to. This week we’re just starting with the people who signed up during our Open House to get them to know how to host a letter writing meeting on Zoom. Then, the idea is to expand out from there and the people who come to those initial instructional meetings can learn how to set up their own letter writing gathering online. Exponentially, we’ll have more and more of these meetings. Over time, we’ll generate hopefully hundreds of millions of letters.