One early morning, two weeks after completing my freshman year, I was on my way to a Los Angeles airport to catch a plane bound for New York. I had no idea what to expect. Along with my luggage, I carried a burdensome worry. I worried that I was not cut out to be a Legal Aid Society intern in New York, more specifically in the Bronx. But the next day, that feeling disappeared. Walking into the Bronx Family Court for the first time reminded me exactly why working at this legal nonprofit was so important to me.
I am a young black male. And I quickly learned that the Bronx Family Court lobby is full of other young black males, not much younger than I. During my freshman year, I had an opportunity to talk about many issues facing the black community with my professors and peers—access to a higher education, high unemployment rates, kids being stopped and frisked 60 times by the time they are 18, mass incarceration, and the “New Jim Crow.” But just discussing these issues always seemed to fall short on some level for me. Working as an education advocate at the Legal Aid Society this past summer gave me an opportunity to turn my passion into action.
I attended public schools in inner-city Los Angeles my entire pre-college life. I realize now that the main reason I did not fall through the same cracks that many of my peers fell through is because of the support system that my parents fostered at home since the day I was born. The reality of America is that many children get in trouble with the law and embark on the road to serious crimes because they do not have the basic support at home that so many of us take for granted.
During the summer, I worked with one particular 11-year-old who had already been locked up in juvenile detention. It is easy for some to come to the conclusion that he is just a bad apple that needs to be locked away. But that’s before they realize that his mother abandoned him, his father was deported to the Dominican Republic, and his grandmother continues to neglect him because she has five other kids to raise.
Society may not have the power to mend every broken family, but it does have the power to make sure every young person has access to a quality education. Every one of us can think back to that one teacher, or that one coach, or that one principal who made a difference. My heart broke every time I visited a client’s school this summer. I could see the school-to-prison pipeline at work. Children were being suspended day after day, and in order to avoid going through the entire process required for lengthy suspensions, principals turned certain classrooms into pseudo prisons. Students that acted up too much were just sent to a classroom for the entire year. Absolutely no learning happened in that room, just “detention” for seven hours a day.
That 11-year-old attended a school just like this. Instead of providing the special education services he was entitled to on his Individualized Education Program, the school continued to suspend him. In other words, the school adopted the same philosophy of punishment over rehabilitation that our current prison system embraces.
I helped this child find an alternative school; one that would address his special education needs and help him get back on track to graduate. The next best thing to having a supportive family is having a supportive school. There is no doubt in my mind that for many of the children in America, the difference between being in juvenile detention on the path to prison and graduating from high school on the path to college is the presence of a support system, at home or in school.
Unfortunately, not everyone involved in criminal justice understands that criminality is not born, but made through lifetime experiences. My childhood experiences allow me to see this truth. Many children in my neighborhood were smart and capable students, but they ended up on the wrong side of the law because they did not have anyone at home or at school that supported them. I did not want that to happen to the young people I was working with this summer. I made a promise to myself in June: For the next 2 months, I was going to take maximum advantage of my unlikely presence as a Legal Aid Society intern from Harvard College. When people look at me, they don’t expect me to be working alongside judges, lawyers, and social workers. They expect me to be on the other side, behind metal bars. I truly believe that my very presence in these kids’ lives made a difference. Most of them did not say it directly, but I could see it in their eyes.
I’ll never forget the day, towards the end of my summer in New York, when that 11-year-old expressed his appreciation for the work that his lawyers and I did, helping him get into another school.
“I want to be a lawyer when I grow up because I want to help people too,” he said.
This child understood that the prison system is not his destiny. I challenge the rest of America is realize this too.
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Winthrop House.
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