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Meet the Fellows: Ekundayo Igeleke

January 20, 2015
Zoe Schein

Recently, we spoke with Ekundayo Igeleke, Community Organizer for the New Abolitionist Association in Central Ohio. Ekundayo is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

What motivates you to work in juvenile justice reform?

I didn’t get into this work until college. I had an internship with Talbert House in Cincinnati that focused on the rehabilitation of young fathers that were recently incarcerated or who would be released within a month. We would visit the correctional facilities throughout Ohio, which gave me an opportunity to talk to the incarcerated men about their situations and share their stories. Many of their crimes were not worthy of prison time and that got me thinking and asking questions like, “How did you get to this place, and what issues did you face in your community?” Many of those encounters with the justice system could have been avoided, but it seemed like something systemic was standing in the way.

For example, there was a man I met who was in prison for a few years because he had a weapon without a license to carry. He was attending Cincinnati State to get his associate's degree. He said, “I come from a bad place and I was trying to get my life together, but that doesn’t mean that people I grew up with and had issues with will just go away. So I needed to defend myself. But then I got pulled over, and there goes college.”

My senior thesis was on the prison-industrial complex, and during the time I was writing it, I was also working with youth in Cincinnati. I was thinking a lot about juvenile justice, but at that time I also worked in very impoverished communities where people faced financial issues, homelessness, food deprivation, violence—the entire spectrum of oppression. Many of them were going in and out of detention centers. They were being funneled into the system just for living. The system doesn’t understand people’s situations. The system puts people in situations where they feel they have to do whatever is necessary to survive, and many times, it is illegal. That was my breaking point. That’s what got me motivated to do this kind of work, to cut off the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

I’m working with the Children’s Defense Fund on running a Freedom Schools program within Circleville’s Juvenile Correctional Facility. Freedom Schools is a summer program, 6-8 weeks, that focuses on reading, leadership and activism. In the correctional facility, we expanded it into a year-long curriculum. A year ago, we worked to get institutions in Ohio to implement Freedom School curricula. There are now three sites in Ohio that are doing that, and I’m a coordinator at the Circleville site.

Our goal is to evaluate the program—not just the reading scores, but also the youths' social and emotional learning. This evaluation system is to see how the program works on youths’ leadership and social skills. Fifty percent of youth at these institutions will recidivate, and when that happens, many of them will go to an adult prison. Our goal is to stop that.

Some of the goals of the program are to expose them to how the system functions, to get them tangible skills while they’re there, but also to do outreach in the communities they’re from. When they’re released, they go back to the same communities. People recidivate because they go back and don’t have opportunities, so we want to create those opportunities. We reach out to churches and community centers, businesses and community members, so they have some support when they go home. We know what happens in society, in their communities, that pushed them into the system, and the system— the political and economic machine that it is—wants to make money. It wants to push them back in as soon as possible. So there’s a lot riding on this program. The goal is really to use Freedom Schools to disrupt that prison pipeline, to make sure that this is their last stop and they won’t come back into the system. That’s the goal of our program.

Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important?

The Institute is important because it’s about people of color doing this work. The majority of people within the justice system are people of color, but the majority working on this issue are not. Historically in America, there’s always been the narrative that people of color need to be saved by white people. Look at the abolitionist movement: that’s mainly white men and women who were part of the church system attempting to abolish slavery. We give credit to Abe Lincoln and others who actually ended slavery for financial reasons, not moral reasons, but not to the black people who rebelled and who organized to stop slavery. Black people do not get enough credit for ending their own oppression. So it’s important that a diverse array of people is acknowledged as doing this work. It’s not to say white people aren’t doing good work, but it’s the voices of the people affected most who aren’t heard, and that’s an issue. We need to hear the stories of people actually involved, and it’s important culturally for people of color to know they can fight their own battles. That’s the thin line between feeling inferior and feeling equal.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

On the work-related side, I’m a community educator; I do programming using hip-hop to build community. It’s a great a framework to talk about capitalism, imperialism, different political systems and movements. I got into it mainly to reach people. People who don’t even listen to hip-hop, through the workshops, they discover that you can’t go through your daily life without interacting with hip-hop. It’s a huge global phenomenon. Because it’s not just music, but so many other forms. It’s impossible not to encounter it. And it’s fun!

Outside of work-related things, I love to read. I work out quite a bit. I like to spend time with my partner—even though she builds community with her own work, we always make time for leisure. I meditate and focus on my spiritual inner oracle to stay balanced, and I watch tons of anime.

The last thing I can say to sum up my work… me and a colleague of mine, we have a philosophy, which is, “Having fun doing serious things.” No matter how serious the work is, you have to have fun. No matter how dangerous, you have to enjoy the work. That’s our philosophy.

Photo Credit: Zoe Schein

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