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Meet the Fellows: Marion Andrew Humphrey

April 25, 2016

Recently, we spoke with Marion Andrew Humphrey, Organizational Specialist at the National Education Association in Little Rock, Arkansas. Marion is a fellow in NJJN's 
Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), 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 youth justice reform?

I’m motivated by the clear disparities that prevent so many folks from being able to live a life rooted in their own choices. I’ve seen it in my own experience as well as in my work. It’s really important that education be something that is relevant for everyone and serves the full child— regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, location, ability, and so forth.

Connecting that to juvenile justice, my work right now primarily looks at education and the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m in this work because I really think that we need to start as young as possible to make educational opportunities available for young people, to help them succeed and not to find themselves systematically placed in the justice system.

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

My project has really changed since the beginning of the Institute. I very recently moved from Washington, D.C. to Little Rock, Arkansas. Overall, my new job is to create community in the Little Rock school district, as well as the central Arkansas area. One of the biggest things we try to do in creating strong communities is to adapt the model of community schools – so each school individually develops a plan to move towards restorative justice instead of zero-tolerance or other harsh policies that result in suspensions, expulsions and so forth. The schools I’m working in deserve a restorative justice plan that includes alternative disciplinary action for students who have behavioral issues in the classroom.

Another thing we want to do in schools is to reevaluate the curricula so they're culturally sensitive and relevant to the students in the classroom. Community schools also have a commitment to partners within the community, to bring in community members and parents and to make sure there’s a fluid interaction between the community and the schools. This school model also makes sure there are wrap-around services within the school, which helps to push back against the school-to-prison pipeline. By wrap-around services, I mean there’s an avenue to healthcare, physical and mental, that’s closely connected and easily accessible to the school. Finally, those schools move away from high-stakes testing and instead they prioritize the needs, achievement and educational outcomes of the students – independent of test scores. All these factors work well to ensure that schools serve individual students better than the processes we have currently.

How did you become interested in doing this kind of work particularly?

I found myself in DC for four years, and I did not feel connection to the soil and the land as much as I do in Little Rock, Arkansas, where I’m born and raised. I’d gone to traditional public schools from kindergarten to 12th grade in Little Rock, and that was formative for me. Recently, like in many urban areas across the country, the state board of education took over the school district and removed the elected leadership, that is, the school board that the community voted for. Since then, we’ve seen a push for charter schools and have pulled away from setting up solutions that would support building stronger public schools. At the same time, the YJLI fellowship was helping me to think about my current situation – of feeling disconnected from my work and the community I was living in. I was thinking a lot about where I would be the greatest asset. After having further conversations with Diana [Onley-Campbell, Coordinator of YJLI] and other fellows in my cohort, I realized that my work in D.C. didn’t generate the same desire or passion that I had when thinking about finding my way back to Little Rock, to connect with those issues at home. So coming back, I made sure to be active in the community immediately, because it’s my home. The institute has been really helpful in preparing me to ask questions like:, “Is this where I want to be? Is this what I’m truly passionate about? Am I still the best person for my current job role and the community around me?” It was very helpful for me to have those conversations, to develop my leadership plan, and to take the risk in making the move home, which I’m really glad I did. I’m already feeling more connected.

I think that this was a risk to move more to the front lines of community organizing, which is what I’m doing now. To get more people involved in the public school system—there are so many issues that it relates to, outside of just education and young people. Many states have seen a decrease in the number of incarcerated folks in recent years, but Arkansas is one of three states where it’s actually expanded. We’re sending people out of state because we don’t even have enough beds. These issues are deeply connected. There needs to be a reevaluation of the classroom starting early. There are so many issues in this state, and it’s the state where my family still lives and where I’ve spent so much of my life, so it’s been helpful to come back and be more deeply involved in that.

Why do you think YJLI is important on a personal level?

We just had our second in-person meeting, which was an opportunity I’ll never forget. In some ways it was life-altering. It really helped me see more of where I can go in the work, what I can do in the future. I think that’s really important, because even in this work, where there’s a much greater likelihood that a young person of color will be incarcerated, people of color who work in youth justice often work in environments where the leadership does not reflect the communities we come from, nor the communities their organizations impact the most. It’s particularly meaningful for me, as one of the youngest fellows in this year's cohort, to see strong leaders of color who interact in juvenile justice settings every day—learning lessons regarding how they navigate those work environments and institutions, how they’re able to do the work in places where sometimes their voices are underappreciated or underrepresented.

We get very deep into conversation, considering questions like, “Referring to our lived experiences, how do we build a true youth justice movement together?” We all care so much about youth justice, and it’s something many of us have had a direct connection to—not just as professionals, but as family members, friends, partners, and colleagues. 

The people in the 2015 cohort are so amazing; I’ve learned so much from them. It helps me to have more confidence in building my capacity for leadership in the juvenile justice movement.

How do you think YJLI fits into a larger movement for youth justice reform?

There’s a real need in this country for more of an organizing strategy in the work we’re a part of. My job is a new kind of position for the organization, but we’re starting to see the real importance of organizing people around these issues. There are folks who are working against us, who want to privatize prisons and education. They want to profit from these institutions. There needs to be a radical response—a more progressive approach in how we see ourselves and our work. For me, YJLI is a part of that response, a place where we start to build that power. In an ideal world, the people who have the deepest interactions with the youth justice system would also be leading the movement. They have the experience of what it is to be incarcerated unfairly, to be written up in class for trifling reasons like insubordination and to find themselves in a system set up against them. They know what it’s like to go before a judge and to then be placed in a center that’s hours away from their families, not seeing them or connecting with them on a regular basis, and to come back broken. Leadership development and organizing are key strategies that have to be part of our work, connect to policy, and spread throughout our movement spaces. They should spread out so that the people who have those experiences—who have been incarcerated or who are connected to folks who have been—are given the tools to become the leaders of youth justice movement spaces and organizations, and provide the necessary expertise to make youth justice work a full community effort.

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

In D.C., I enjoyed community organizing with a group of 18-35-year-old Black folks seeking liberation, working through a queer/feminist lens, one that centers the voices of Black people at the margins and theoretically achieves the most revolutionary change for communities. We held campaigns; at the time, we focused on having community members emphasize the women and transgender folks who’ve experienced police violence and gender violence and are often left ignored. In addition, we cultivated a supportive community for young Black folks throughout the district impacted by a range of issues. Check out BYP100! My experience with them, albeit a bit too short for my liking due to my transition back to the South, helped me think much more critically about how the intersections of our various identity traits affect how we perceive, experience, and play out the systems of inequity plaguing the world.

Now, at home, everything bugs me. I know I’m so much more deeply connected to this land, because with each drive I reminiscence on past experiences at shops that used to exist, spaces no longer accessible, neighborhoods revitalized. So I find myself in reading groups to talk and catch up about these issues. I never quite enjoyed the food in DC, and returning home has been a welcome renewal of taste buds I thought I’d lost. I’ve also been active once again in my church, which overall helps calm me by helping me see light in dark places. In addition, I play tennis (still looking for partners here), read (most articles/thought pieces), and watch Jeopardy with my mom and dad.

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here

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