“Since I was young, at an early age, no one seemed to care what I had to say. If they only knew what we’ve been through, they would say, oh my god, what can I do?”
The above excerpt is from “Freedom,” a song written and recorded by two young girls imprisoned in a children’s detention center, with the help of Larry Long.
The Southern Poverty Law Center works to ensure that our children’s rights advocacy is informed and shaped in collaboration with the youth for whom we work. Despite the fact that the children we work with are frequently neglected by their schools or abused by juvenile justice systems, these youths possess an incredible resiliency and have profound insights about the systems that impact their lives.
During the Spring of 2010, the SPLC worked in collaboration with youth from the Gulf Coast Region and professional musicians to use music to give a voice to these children’s realities, hopes and dreams. Through the SPLC Youth Voices Music Project, over a few short days, these children wrote, sang and recorded seven original songs. The children demonstrate remarkable gifts and talents, as well as profound depth and thoughtfulness about life as a child in the Deep South in their music and lyrics.
Several of the children participated from behind the walls of a youth detention center in Mississippi. We were only able to work with them by passing through secured, metal doors to enter their world of imprisonment. As in most places, in Mississippi over 70 percent of the youth behind bars are accused of non-violent offenses like shoplifting, disorderly conduct or school-related offenses. At times, children as young as ten years old are locked up for a school-yard fight or for misbehaving at home.
Despite the harsh circumstances in which they are forced to exist, several children in this Mississippi detention center turned pain into beauty and sorrow into art by translating their experiences of being incarcerated into powerful songs. The sensitivity, brilliance and youthfulness of these children, as demonstrated by their art, directly challenges the grotesque practice of locking children in cages. While listening to their music, we are forced to wonder why we allow children to live in these conditions. What act could a child commit that would make him or her worthy of growing up in a cage? Could a cage ever help a child thrive and develop into a responsible adult?
This paradox is made even more obvious when confronted with the children’s hopes, dreams and acute awareness about the trajectory of their lives and possibility of a lifetime spent in prison…. As one incarcerated child stated, “We know more than what we put on the outside. You got [kids in prison for the rest of their lives] that could have been presidents. That’s one thing I lay in my bed and worry ’bout, man. Am I going to be next….Cause I know I’m smarter than what I put on the outside….Sometimes there ain’t no hope”.
Then, they say something that breaks your heart and forces you to remember that they are children. Just children. Living in cages. One child described his cellmates: “Some of the boys in here, they just want to hear their family say they love ’em. My boy in here, he was telling me… all…all I want is to hear my mama say “I love you.”
What would help these children realize their tremendous potential? How do we prevent more children from ending up behind bars? One of the major challenges facing children in the Deep South is the education system. Too many schools have become hostile environments for children instead of a refuge in which to learn.
Public school students are pushed out of school for minor misbehaviors at dramatic rates. Already, many children live in distressed communities, in which poverty and violence are prevalent. Schools could provide a safe place for children to learn and receive guidance and support instead of punishing them. When a child is repeatedly discouraged or reprimanded by educators, or suspended or expelled from school, they are more likely to drop out of school and not earn a high-school diploma. This is a tragedy of epic proportions that our nation can no longer afford to ignore.
In New Orleans, the SPLC Youth Voices Music Project worked with approximately 20 public school children, ranging from grades 5-12. These youth came together to talk about their city, their schools, their community and their future.
We began with an inter-generational dialogue circle, in which several community leaders and life-long New Orleans residents spoke of growing up in New Orleans, in segregated schools, when times were different…or so we thought. As the students asked questions and shared their experiences, we began to notice parallels between current public school conditions and those of two generations ago. In fact, certain things have become worse, such as the rate at which children are pushed out of school through the use of school suspensions and expulsions.
People both young and old reflected on the deterioration of public schools, the disintegration of community, and the need for people to unite to support and care for each other. People spoke of the continued impact of Hurricane Katrina, how it continues to cripple entire communities, including individuals who are unable to return or who return to a drastically changed city. They spoke of the international promise of support to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, in contrast to the still broken and vacant houses and dilapidated school buildings that were flooded by the storm. They spoke of the violence plaguing children in the New Orleans schools and streets, how there are no safe havens anymore, and how children are too often brutalized by police officers, school security guards and other children.
Over two days we created three original songs, which included writing lyrics, developing melodies and recording live performances. One of the songs collaboratively written by the children, “Change These Ways,” declares that it is “time to build up unity, time to rebuild our community.” One 15-year-old boy arrived on the second evening to share a beautiful, searing melody that he had written that morning, titled “Dreams.” The chorus of another song, “This is Life,” cries out: “This is life, let me tell you how it is, grown folks problems in the thoughts of little kids.”
These new songs written by children through the SPLC’s Youth Voices Music Project have yet to stand the measure of time. Most assuredly, however, they are anchored in the same proud tradition of earlier songs of Justice and Freedom. The melodies, rhymes, and words all move from the same heartbeat. Now it’s time for these songs to be sung – so the voices of the children can be heard. For, as we do unto the least, we do unto ourselves.
Youth Voices Project participants: Children imprisoned in a Mississippi youth detention center, New Orleans Youth Artists Alexis Burnside, Teal Mitchell, Kendrick Crain, Alfred Banks, Denise Pittman, Re’Jeanne Badreaux, Ranjae Cornin, Gerelyn Mitchell, John Baumbach, Cory Burd, Chrishawn DeBose, Knowledge is Born, Isaac Bourgeois, Cassandra Tran, Daylin “Tizz” Bolding, Ladonna Bryer, Jerron Fournett, Jeremy Mitchell, Venecia Mitchell.
New Orleans Community Leaders: DJ Markey, Ted Quant, Yvette Thierry
To hear these songs, please visit: www.splcenter.org/voices