May 5 2017

Earlier this month, Oscar-winning Rapper, actor and activist Common visited Building Healthy Communities Coachella.

Common was in town to talk about #SchoolsNotPrisons and learn how youth advocates are using restorative justice to end the school to prison pipeline in the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Restorative justice is a practice for positive school discipline where students are taught how to build strong relationships amongst their teachers, administration and peers as well as how to create their own solutions to obstacles in and out of the classroom.

“The movement to implement these practices at Bobby Duke Middle School has been led by active parents that want to see improvements in the schools their children attend” said Sahara Huazano, Building Healthy Communities Coachella Valley’s Schools Action Team Lead. “The Schools Action Team serves to support parents and youth in their advocacy efforts. We want them to know change can happen and we have the tools to be able to accomplish it.”

Common is one of music’s most high-profile names talking about America’s chronic incarceration problem and its impact on education and socioeconomic status. He’s been touring the country bringing awareness to the issue.

Common discussing School Discipline with Coachella youth.

 

For example, one issue is the way California allocates its resources. Since the 1980’s the state of California has built 22 prisons and only one UC campus. Silvia Paz, Director of BHC Coachella Valley says the data really tells the story, “It’s clear to me that the state, for too long, has invested in punitive discipline over education. We currently have a new jail being constructed in Indio. Millions of dollars have been invested in the construction of the East County Detention Center. Our county has the opportunity to invest in preventative means to public safety, such as access to healthcare and quality economic infrastructure and it is not happening. Our work here is really focused on developing the leadership of our students to support their creativity as they design solutions that will end this disastrous cycle.”

Spending on jails and prisons has grown three times faster than spending on schools in California according to a 2016 Department of Education report. It’s why the California Endowment launched a tour last year to educate Californians across the state about the dangers of over-disciplining young people. “It is critically important that we prioritize young people by investing in the resources they need to be successful, “ said Sahara Huazano. “When we listen to our students we see that they are able to tackle changes in our schools and in the criminal justice system.”

So where do we start tackling this complex topic? “One of the biggest ways to stop the mass incarceration epidemic is to start with the kids,” Common said at Bobby Duke Middle School in Coachella, California. Just as State and County work is important, local allocation of funds in school districts should direct funds to positive disciplinary methods such as Restorative Justice practices to improve and support academic achievement and college readiness.

Brian Salmeron, a Coachella BHC youth leader agrees, “He’s right. Real change always comes from youth and we’ve got ideas and answers to overcome our obstacles because we live them everyday.” Karina Zendejas was excited about Common’s visit and thinks more big names should step up to talk about California’s incarceration issue. “We need more leaders like Common and youth to step up and spread the word.

The BHC model is centered around youth and adult leadership development as a means of enhancing intergenerational connections, it’s one of our drivers of change. And to us it’s common sense – pair youth insights and energy with more seasoned guidance to drive real change and make connections across generations.

BHC knows like no other that we need our youth now more than ever, as Common said on his and John Legend’s track “Glory” for the movie Selma, “It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy.”

Teachers and administration at Bobby Duke were very excited to count on Common’s voice to elevate the efforts they have been working to accomplish. “Common being here made everybody understand how important [Restorative Justice] is, not just to the community here, but the community at large. Common is one of my favorite artists out there – Now he’s one of the best activists too,” said Vice Principal, Mikomi Salaam. Finally, Principal Encarnacion Becerra expressed, “Having Common here with us today is super amazing because he adds his voice to our voice. The more voices that join the conversation on how we need to stop the school-to-prison pipeline the more we ensure our young people are the drivers of their own success.”

Common told the Statesman Journal that youth say things in such a beautiful and simple way. And his impression of students at Bobby Duke Middle School in Coachella,  ” [it’s] Just how passionate they are about making their communities better, it wasn’t surprising, but I was happy to be amongst that energy.”