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Beyond protest: Rethinkers’ music conveys solutions

October 11, 2010

by Benny Amon

Rethinkers work on musicianship, discuss issues in their schools and write lyrics conveying their ideas. At right are Angelamia Bachemin and Ginger Tanner, directors of Jazz Hip Hop Orchestra – Photo: Colin Lenton ©2010
New Orleans – Singing during a different era, Gill Scott Heron claimed that “the revolution will not be televised,” but in the case of the Rethinkers, or Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, the revolution is being televised. The Rethinkers, a group of motivated middle school students from New Orleans, are creating their own revolution within the resurgent New Orleans schools and are attracting broad press attention as they do so, including recent coverage by ABC-TV News and The Huffington Post. Credible stakeholders in the future of their schools, the Rethinkers delivered their recommendations and visions for New Orleans’ schools at their press conference via the empowering vehicles of song, percussion and spoken word.

The library turned conference room at the newly rebuilt Langston Hughes Academy fell silent as Rethinkers Earl Poole Jr. and Terriana Julien took the stage. Drummer Tori Washington created a meditative texture with crescendoing cymbal rolls as Poole and Julien began to sing “Reee…storative Juuuu…stice.” Following the mood setting performance, and as the jam-packed audience of media, education activists, school administrators, principals and proud parents clapped, Lucy Tucker, Renee Smith and Kamau Johnson took the stage. Addressing a pensive audience, they discussed the culture of violence and discipline in their schools, and stated they wanted an alternative to suspension and expulsion – practices, they said, that add to school dropout rates and the “school to prison pipeline.” Their alternative: something called restorative justice.

We are specialists, the best

After months of forced relocation due to Hurricane Katrina, families began to return to New Orleans to a shrunken school district in turmoil and contention over competing visions for schools. The public schools, among the poorest in the country prior to the storm, were largely taken over by the state of Louisiana in the newly created Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD operated most of the schools at first, but a charter school movement quickly grew. Today New Orleans has more charter schools than any other city in the U.S.

Grassroots media consultant Jane Wholey and a group of community organizers began advocating after Katrina for a radically simple idea: Give students a role in rethinking and rebuilding the post-Katrina schools. Together, they decided to form Rethink, with Wholey at the helm. They believed that an organization of student education reformers could gain credibility because, as stated by Wholey, “No one in the world can claim that students are not experts on their own schools.”

Realizing and leveraging their own expertise for years now, the Rethinkers have identified fundamental areas for reform. During the early years they addressed “bathroom reform,” successfully convincing RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas to renovate 350 bathrooms. He also added their design for a “21st Century Green Bathroom” to the Public School Facilities Plan for the City of New Orleans. After bathrooms, the Rethinkers tackled school lunches, exploring ways that school lunch programs could provide local, fresh and enjoyable foods. Then in 2009 they set out to address “dignity in schools” and humane security measures that can really keep children safe – not the metal detectors that greet many elementary school children at New Orleans schools.

Healing schools one circle at a time

This past summer, the Rethinkers identified the punitive practices of suspension and expulsion in their schools as a barrier to healthy, truly safe school environments. The Rethinkers understand first hand the culture of violence and distrust that marks many of their schools. As Rethinker Lucy Tucker explains, schools treat offenses in a very simple way, by suspensions and expulsions, leading to a culture of distrust between students, teachers and administrators.

The Rethinkers realized that an alternative to this vicious cycle could be restorative justice, a whole new way of dealing with offenses, focusing on repairing the harm that has been done between members of a school community. In restorative justice programs, students talk out their problems in a safe space, examine the harm done, and come to an agreement about how the harm can be repaired and the relationships mended. The agreement is monitored by an adult.

Restorative justice programs have had impressive success in other parts of the country. Press conference guest speaker Dr. Beverly Title reviewed the success of restorative justice in Colorado and relayed how state law in Colorado now mandates restorative justice practices prior to formal discipline, further underscoring the appropriateness and timeliness of Rethink’s advocacy for the expansion of restorative justice programs throughout the RSD and charter schools. Their vision is that by the 10-year anniversary of Katrina in 2015, all New Orleans schools will have restorative justice programs.

Rethinking music education

Following on this theme, the students wrote and performed songs that added lasting weight and meaning to their ideas. The Rethink summer program partnered with the Jazz Hip-Hop Orchestra – JHO for short – led by Director Angelamia Bachemin and Vocal Director M. Gingerbread Tanner. Bachemin established JHO during her years as a professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The JHO became one of the most popular ensembles at Berklee, touring across the country and recording.

Upon returning to her birth home of New Orleans in 2003, Bachemin expanded the mission and reach of JHO as an educational and community-building ensemble. Partnering with Tanner, JHO has become a vital umbrella for youth music education projects throughout New Orleans. The two women began working with Rethink in the “Rethink Clubs,” teaching percussion at various public schools during the past academic year.

Building on the musical skills learned during the school year, the Rethink summer program enabled students to merge music with their visions for better schools. Sitting in a circle in the mornings, Rethinkers identified specific problems in their schools, envisioned solutions and developed recommendations for change. By the afternoons, the Rethinkers were ready for music and movement, reflecting on the work of the mornings, while exploring their artistic selves and creating music that could strengthen the power of their recommendations at the fast approaching press conference.

Tuning into Mother Nature

At their press conference, the Rethinkers presented their design for the outdoor Reconciliation Circle to be built at Langston Hughes Elementary and to serve the new Restorative Justice Program for the new school year. – Photo: Ricardo Amon ©2010
As the Rethinkers realized a vision for restorative justice programs in their schools, they partnered with a local landscape architect in the design of an outdoor restorative justice circle – a place where reconciliation work can take place at a school. The Rethinkers’ outdoor circle may well be the first outdoor design for a school in the United States and certainly the first to be designed by the students themselves.

George Carter explained to the rapt audience at the press conference, pointing to a rendering of the circle design, “Having a beautiful space outdoors in Mother Nature can get kids in the mood to solve their problems.” George’s older brother Vernard, a rising junior, went on to explain the Rethink design, “We drew one path in and a different one out. That symbolizes coming in one way and leaving out on a different path.”

Redefining possibilities, ensuring outcomes

The Rethinkers have earned respect in the New Orleans educational community for not only protesting against the poor state of their schools, but actively developing solutions and holding the powers-that-be accountable. Their recommendations have often been implemented, leading to tangible improvements in the quality of the education, the physical surroundings and the community climate of New Orleans schools.

With one pilot restorative justice program already underway in a high school and a new pilot program beginning at an elementary school in September – the Langston Hughes Academy – the landscape for creating more restorative justice programs in New Orleans is promising. An organization called the Center for Restorative Approaches runs both these programs. But in the case of the elementary school, the Rethinkers will take an active part in organizing and educating students.

The Rethink model remains the same since 2006: Empower young folks to think and act big and develop power among peers for change. Rethinkers have gone beyond protest for a long time now, and with the communicative power of music, their sense of personal empowerment is growing ever stronger. More people all over the country are listening both to their protests and their solutions.

Benny Amon, a student at UC Berkeley and a musician, recently finished working at the Rethink Summer Camp. You can reach him at bamon@berkeley.edu.

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