Friday afternoons in June are a time when many schools around the country either ramp up for finals or wind down as the school year comes to a close. However, students in Brianna Baker’s classroom, use the end of the week to reflect on ways they can be agents of change in the criminal justice system.
On this particular Friday, Baker’s students discussed Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and its parallels to Chikesia Clemons’ police brutality run in at Waffle House in April of last year.
“I never want my students to feel like their personal lives are excluded from their learning experience,” said Baker. “I teach in a community where I can ask my show, by a show of hands, how many of them have been impacted by the criminal justice system either directly or in their family and 98% of the hands go up.”
Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Baker, a first-year social studies teacher in Brooklyn, NY watched her father spend 21 years mastering how to integrate black studies and stories into his lessons as a history teacher. She was empowered by the work he did to capture the black history in her hometown and connect it to the condition of Black Richmond today. She believes that connecting her curriculum to the personal lives of her students gives them the necessary context and to tell their stories.
“After I graduated from Teacher’s college, I began refining my own humanities curriculum to teach my students to be critics of the criminal justice system,” said Baker. “It’s definitely taking a risk, but I draw key themes from our readings and connect them to contemporary challenges in our system.”
Baker also brought her experiences teaching young women incarcerated on Riker’s Island into her work. As a volunteer with Columbia University’s Center for Justice – Justice in Education Initiative, Baker collaborated with the center to hold sessions on women’s empowerment and liberation at the New York prison. That work led to Baker developing her own programming at the school where she teaches.
“My high school Freedom Fighters Social Justice Program partnered with Columbia Law School, here they had the opportunity to take a Racial Justice Advocacy Workshop weekly with law students led by Professor Katherine Franke,” said Baker. “In addition to ‘Social justice’ Fridays [where students discuss the issues in-depth in the classroom], I started the Freedom Fighters Social Justice Program (which authored the School Pushout Project) to give students the opportunity to apply critical thinking to these issues in a group setting.”
This April, a group of seven girls in Baker’s middle school program where given the opportunity to present at the Teacher’s College Research Conference on race, gender and criminality.
“I introduced the girls in my class to ‘Push Out’ by Monique Morris, and many of them couldn’t believe the stories in the book,” said Baker. “It took them back to their own experiences in the school system where they felt powerless in a system. I explained to them that the actions and systems in place to punish them were just driven by personal feelings, but by intentional policies. They decided that they wanted to be a voice for all of the girls who didn’t have one in this system.”
The conference, hosted by the Teacher’s College Black Students Association with a keynote speech from Melissa Harris-Perry, comprises of students and researchers at Columbia Teacher’s college. The presentation from Baker’s students gave the attendees an opportunity to hear from the young people they advocate for every day.
“The girls came up with solutions on ways policy makers and educators could address push out. The girl’s presentation defined confinement, the school to prison pipeline and pushout in their own words while presenting solutions to educators and policy makers on how to address these issues,” said Baker.