Leaping Beyond the Prison Walls

The Leap--MYI board, where the author posts announcements. (Photo: Rachel Boccio)

Leaping Beyond the Prison Walls

In the first week of February, thirteen students--all incarcerated adolescents serving time in an adult correctional facility--gather to think through a provocative question posed to them by Naomi Klein, one of the authors of the Leap Manifesto: "Is there anything in this broad vision of a justice-based transition off of fossil fuels that you would see as a solution to keeping more people out of jail?"

In the first week of February, thirteen students--all incarcerated adolescents serving time in an adult correctional facility--gather to think through a provocative question posed to them by Naomi Klein, one of the authors of the Leap Manifesto: "Is there anything in this broad vision of a justice-based transition off of fossil fuels that you would see as a solution to keeping more people out of jail?"

The room is raucous. "Leapers," as the students are called, compete to share ideas they've previously scrawled on index cards: "Leap needs smart people, people educated about climate change, public policy, law, international economic systems, energy, histories of injustice," one astute student declares, "but it needs other people too."

"Yes," chimes an agreeing voice, "the Leap Manifesto says that the most marginalized people should be 'first' in a new economy, but severely marginalized people need to be drawn into that conversation and that ideal." "And these people," a third student adds, "are not easily reached by the internet or through documents such as the manifesto." "We believe," two students speak over one another, "that if our cities and their workers lead the transition from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and water energy, then we will have a new identity and real employment opportunities." "But, who will invest in us," asks one more, "in the preparation of our neighborhoods and in the training of residents?"

I first became aware of the Leap Manifesto last June, when Klein spoke about the document on Democracy Now!. This Canadian call to action, no more than 1400 words, proceeds from the premise that bold, transformative action is the only legitimate response to catastrophic global warming. Its proposals rest upon a provocative and thrilling idea: that the global energy transition we need provides an exceptional opportunity to reconstitute our world--to reject militarism, to eliminate gross economic, racial, and gender disparities, to make justice the organizing framework for society.

Because it brings together disparate terminologies, policies, social movements, and human histories that are complex, cross-disciplinary, and timely, the Leap Manifesto is a powerful pedagogical tool. I set out to use it in the prison where I work as a teacher, to explore both the urgency of the climate crisis and the fundamentals of 21st century social justice activism.

Since 1998, I have taught English and American literature at John R. Manson Youth Institution (MYI) in Cheshire, Connecticut, a maximum-security prison for adolescent males tried and sentenced as adults by the state's criminal justice system. Teachers in our school have a degree of curricular leeway during the mandatory summer session--a flexibility worth capitalizing on. Last summer, I spent nearly every instructional hour unpacking the concepts and language of the Leap Manifesto. In the seven sections I teach, many of my students (generally low-performing and poorly educated) were scarcely aware of the existence of climate change, or of the capitalist system responsible for our threatened ecosystems and their decimated communities, failing schools, and incarcerated lives.

Involving prisoners in evaluating and creating the future articulated by the Leap is in lockstep with the political thinking and ethical imperatives driving the movements behind the manifesto. Over the course of seven weeks, my students learned about the impacts of burning fossil fuels as well as technological advances in clean energy--including innovative solar and wind initiatives taking shape in their cities. Our classes explored what is meant by Indigenous culture, the centuries-long struggle for Native sovereignty in the United States, and the vital role that First Nations play in the contemporary struggle for climate justice. Students grappled with capitalism and its legacy of exploiting and monetizing natural resources, labor, time, and the human imagination. We considered, all together, the conditions linking private ownership, corporate-state power, and rampant militarism to poverty, racial injustice, and the failure of democracy to harness the will and power of the people. We scrutinized the kind of "innovative ownership structures" advocated by the manifesto, thinking through all that is contained--economically, politically, and socially--within its call for the "lowest income communities and neighbourhoods" to "benefit first" from the clean energy economy.

The end of summer session brought our classroom interrogations to a close, a fact not entirely lamented by students weary of sustained and arduous critical thinking. Still, for a particular set of students, twenty-four in total, the return of conventional disciplinary content--the vocabulary paperback, the basal reader, the writing mechanics workbook--was an affront to their pedagogical activism, to their engagement with the Leap. This stance inspired the formation of "Leap--MYI," a year-long, extra-curricular school club that, in time, became a formally-registered Leap "teach-in" event.

MYI "Leapers" came to the project with differing intellectual curiosities and political positions. Our first objective was to determine the direction, means, and purpose of our learning: we agreed that inquiry should be student-led, that I--as facilitator--would supply materials, respond to comments and questions, provide occasions for Leapers to meet, and develop a sustained and probing dialogue with each student. The broad diversity of the Leap projects I've directed since September makes it difficult to elaborate on any particular one. Among other subjects, Leapers are currently exploring the cross-section of Indigenous sovereignty and black liberation, mass incarceration, pedagogical and juridical frameworks of restorative justice, the politics of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15, the Puerto Rican debt crisis and other manufactured regimes of austerity, and the juncture of capitalism and environmentalism.

What unites Leapers is a shared commitment to learning as a form of social activism. They understand that the specific concerns, denials, and oppressions that frame each learning journey are connected, born of unjust political and economic systems. For example, Leapers reading about the contemporary crisis of mass incarceration have recognized the links between today's hyper-imprisonment of poor urban youth of color and campaigns of state repression unleashed against the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Other Leapers identified a provocative intersection between food justice and criminal justice when in the wake of Freddie Gray's death whole Baltimore neighborhoods (essentially food deserts) went hungry because corner stores and fast food chains were damaged or looted.

This awareness was not immediate; rather it evolves, continually, in dialogue with one another and through involvement with activist communities. In January, for example, Leapers welcomed Dr. Johnny Williams, community organizer and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trinity College, Hartford. The professor's talk, which considered the insidious effects of capitalism and the potential of socialism as an alternative means of organizing society, offered one conceptual framework for their projects. His visit was a kind of intellectual initiation in that he challenged many cherished and naive notions Leapers held, notably their near-unanimous and uncritical devotion to Barack Obama.

The sincere embrace of our learning community by the Leap team, including Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, Katie McKenna, Bianca Mugyenyi, and Jody Chan, has been heartwarming. All the way from Toronto, we've received notes of encouragement, copies of the This Changes Everything book and documentary, and a digital message showcasing the team's engagement with our questions. Klein's invitation to contemplate how a justice-based transition away from fossil fuels might offer a solution for keeping more people out of jail, mentioned at the beginning of this piece, prompted a useful return to the concrete demands of the manifesto; still, in my view, her inquiry goes beyond the text and is provocative in ways not specifically addressed by the document. Prison, more than any other carceral system, warehouses--in dramatic and draconian terms--the outcomes of pervasive social inequities (homelessness, stateless-ness, illiteracy, poverty, addiction, marginalization, joblessness, criminality) that the state has caused and refuses to address. By posing her question of social transformation to young people whose very lives embody the foreclosure of restorative, justice-based frameworks and solutions, Klein practices the kind of revolution in thinking--the broad consciousness, deep empathy, the reaching across divides--that is essential in any effort to build a more righteous world.

I opened this piece with the Leap--MYI mission statement, an avowal (written by students) of our commitment to pedagogical activism and to the shared aims and growing solidarity of social movements around the world. Currently, our group is planning events for the remainder of the academic year, which will unite our learning with justice work beyond Manson's prison walls--including documentary film screenings, a letter-writing campaign, and efforts to collaborate with the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership. In response to writer and activist Shaun King's appeal, Leapers will join the Injustice Boycott in pressuring the New York state legislature to "Raise the Age" of mandatory adult criminal prosecution from sixteen to eighteen. We do this in solidarity with the family of Kalief Browder, the African-American teenager who spent three disastrous years at Rikers Island awaiting trial--in solitary confinement for much of that time--for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was sixteen. Kalief was released in 2013, after his charges were finally dropped. Two years later, he committed suicide.

We will continue until May--both individually and collectively--to interrogate the challenges and demands of the Leap Manifesto, to recognize this ecological moment for its moral possibilities. These are bold measures taken by students newly conscious of resistance politics, and they are transgressive measures running counter to the severe and quotidian conditions that confine our lives and limit our visions.

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