Chicago-based organizer and educator Mariame Kaba said Thursday one of the driving forces behind the disproportionate incarceration of black people in the U.S. is an unfair education system. Kaba was the first speaker of a quarter-long series hosted by Unshackle NU, a private prison divestment campaign launched Tuesday.
Kaba is the founder of Project Nia, an organization she said implements a restorative, community-based justice model that operates through conversation and mediation, rather than punishment, for students. She involved the audience of about 80 in a conversation focusing on the “school-to-prison pipeline” and its relationship to private prisons.
Unshackle NU was founded to pressure the University to divest from international security company G4S, Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, Inc., in addition to a longer list of companies the campaign says the University invests in that relate to the prison industrial complex.
William McLean, NU’s chief investment officer, told The Daily in an email Thursday that NU has less than $1 million invested in G4S and no investments in the other companies named. He declined to comment on Unshackle NU’s proposals because he has not yet been in communication with the group. However, he said he would be interested in meeting with them.
“The Investment Office has been very transparent with all three divestment movements and will continue to do so to the extent possible,” he said.
SESP sophomore Michelle Sanders, a member of the campaign, said Unshackle NU’s goal goes beyond simply focusing on investments in private prisons and extends to making NU’s investments more transparent. She said the group’s hope is that if they can get a divestment resolution passed, they can join NU Divest and Fossil Free NU in pushing the University to install a socially responsible investment committee, which she said begins with the current education series.
“The primary focus of this campaign is education,” Sanders said. “All of our speakers are well-versed in the different pillars of the prison industrial complex, so hopefully the people who were as engaged as they were at this event will want to come back.”
Kaba, who has taught courses at Northwestern and Northeastern Illinois University, founded Project Nia in order to combat the large numbers of students that were removed from the education system, she said, putting them at greater risk for outcomes such as incarceration.
Kaba shifted her focus to youth activism after seeing a school near her Rogers Park home send a large number of young people to prisons and handing out suspensions almost exclusively to black students, she said.
“I wanted to create a space within the school called the peace room that would allow for students to stay in the school to get with volunteers who had been trained to practice and work with them as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions,” Kaba said.
School plays a major role in shaping an individual into educated, college-ready students, Kaba said, but for people of color, schools play a very different role.
“Schools themselves are incarceral in their nature, and have always pushed out black kids — and that has existed for a very long time,” Kaba said. “They are sources of social reproduction that reinforces the norms of racist, classist, sexist, transphobic society and sort people into various slots.”
Weinberg junior Edward Duron, who attended the event, said Kaba’s story reminded him of his own high school experience, which he said included zero-tolerance policies for fighting and other offenses, drug-sniffing dogs and a school police officer.
“If it happens at my school, I can imagine it happens so much more in other places,” Duron said.
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