Interview with Tafari Melisizwe, Communications Coordinator
Natalie Mayanja, Da’Janae Jefferson, Lea Mejia
In this interview, Tafari Melisizwe discusses the work being done in the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), a national coalition working toward eliminating school pushout and the school-to-prison pipeline. Through advocacy work and action planning, the DSC strives to create a school environment in which students can excel and thrive.
What is the dignity in schools campaign and how did you become involved?
Dignity in Schools Campaign is a network and coalition of over 100 members across twenty eight states. Most of our work is geared around pushing back against school pushout. We work with parents, advocates and students to create substantive room for them to get release in both the academic environment and academic settings; while also trying to build out a new way of dealing with school discipline and challenges that don’t bring in outside forces who may not have the student’s best interest at heart, specifically black and brown students. Our work is about getting student’s out of the school to prison pipeline track by helping to create school environments from a policy and practice perspective that equips students with services that they need and that their parents need to survive and thrive.
I got into this work in a roundabout way. I was already working in education before working with Dignity in Schools Campaign as the Communications Coordinator. I am a product of public schools. In my high school career, I went to six different schools across four states. There wasn’t much of a difference between California, Georgia, Minnesota and Maryland. When I graduated high school in 2008, I got involved in various grassroots organizations whom worked around community organization and development in Baltimore, MD. I worked with an organization to expose Baltimore City Public School Students to Africa and I even had the opportunity to take some high school students to West Africa to give the students a different cultural experience. I taught in the Baltimore County Public School System (BCPSS) for a while and realized that I wanted to work on the policy side to stop the problem at its root so subsequent generations don’t have to face the same things.
In 2009, Dignity in Schools Campaign released a national resolution for ending school pushout. Share more about how this resolution came about and what is meant by school pushout?
School pushout is the systematic series of forces both from policing and school resource officers (SROs) to zero tolerance policies to institutional racism in academic environments and this culture of zero tolerance without a context for the cultural or historical trauma that many students come to school. Students come to school with these challenges and faced with a system that is fixed on penalizing and criminalizing young people. For example; a student gets a dress code violation and a police officer is writing them a ticket. So we are talking about broad brush stroke practices that don’t account for the unique experiences, culture, life, needs of students and parents in the academic settings. Children are forced to learn in these militarized environments under duress where they know they are not welcomed and folks are hoping that they fail. We help to shed light to those people who don’t know that there are other alternatives besides zero tolerance policies.
Under ESSA, states have the option to select school climate as an indicator of school quality, and all states must describe in their plans how they will support districts to reduce the overuse of practices that push students out of the classroom.
A lot of people who read our family and community engagement newsletter are educators work in schools and professionals who work in school districts. How can they become advocates?
- Those who want to become advocates should figure out creative ways to bring attention to the impact of school policing and over-policing on our students and to showcase the viable alternative solutions, such as in restorative justice circles.
- In addition, bringing together families and educators to get training in restorative justice practices will help to create a supportive system to help students rather than hurt them.
- Schools should focus on ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), review policies and see if they benefit the students and consider the extent to which students have a say about these policies.
- Advocates should be aware of the local and specific nuances in the environment of the students. The national coalition is only as strong as the local organizers on the ground.
Who is Dignity in Schools membership for? Who are DSC members?
DSC functions as an anchorship ally for members on the ground. Membership is participation in our national campaigns, like a mini civil society. Members join various committees like the communications committee, cultural resistance committee, or the coordinating committee. We help facilitate members traveling across the country to support other members. Membership looks like lots of phone calls and voting on various issues. Student leaders are also a part of our organization.
How do you make membership more strategic, so that youth can have a voice?
There are youth seats on the committees, even on the national level. Our goal is at the national level is to bring the knowledge, the stories, the expertise of those who are most affected and most directly impacted by the school to prison pipeline, by the criminalization of students in schools and the criminalization of the academic environment into the decision making vessels of our organization. We also have a youth committee. We make it open on the national level to any young person who wants to be involved. Young people should have an exceptional voice, not just a tokenized voice in this discourse.
I read that there were training opportunities on Restorative Justice Practices, and some of the requirements for ESSA that you provide. What additional resources would you recommend?
- Counselors Not Cops: Ending the Regular Presence of Law Enforcement
- A Resource Guide on Counselors Not Cops: Supplemental Materials for DSC Policy Recommendations on Ending the Regular Presence of Law Enforcement in Schools
Regardless of the resources that we have, arranging to try them on is very important. It is important to utilize these restorative justice practices as they apply to our own personal lives. The extent to which people can read, internalize, try on and practice some of these ideas and beliefs, I think the stronger the advocacy will become.
What is the National Week of Action? What can people do to get involved?
National Week of Action is the last full week of October. Members are doing events across the country during the entire week. Go to the interactive map online to show what is happening. Dignity in Schools Campaign has a lot of resources on our websites and ways for people to get involved.