Laurent Alfred knows that experience is the best teacher, so he aims to give the Columbia students who take his seminar "Youth Voices on Lockdown" a lesson that will last a lifetime.
For the past two years, the Yale University Law School graduate has coordinated an innovative program that buses 12 undergraduate and graduate students from Columbia to Rikers Island every Friday during the semester to work with incarcerated teenagers. The seminars are part of the University's Africana Criminal Justice Project, which was founded three years ago by Professor Manning Marable to explore issues related to race and social justice in modern America.
"You can read about the prison industrial complex all you want," says Alfred, explaining why the project decided to create a seminar that included visits to Rikers. "Until you've walked through a prison hallway, observed how correctional officers treat the inmates and gotten a feel for what it's like inside, you don't really know what prison is. Those who take this class come out of the semester having learned a lot more than they expected to, but it doesn't come from me."
Students who take Alfred's class usually are already pursuing a degree related in some way to social justice. Reggie Gossett, a rising senior from Boston, is one of the first students at Columbia to select Comparative Ethnic Studies, a new major that he describes as a "very interdisciplinary study of ethnicity, race and power and how it plays out in society." For Gossett, the Youth Voices on Lockdown seminar was a natural fit.
"I'd heard from a student who took it last year that it was a very profound experience," he recounts. "I've been studying a lot of jazz, history [and] the role of the arts in the social justice movement, plus I'd had a class with Professor Laurent before and knew he was a great teacher -- so I felt I had to take this seminar."
Gossett and 11 other students spent the first few weeks of the spring semester acquainting themselves with authors who had turned their prison experiences into powerful texts and drawing up lesson plans for the small groups of students from Island Academy on Rikers that they would be working with.
"We take a lot of time to prepare [seminar students] for what they'll encounter," says Alfred. "The class of 16- to 18-year-olds that they taught in Rikers was about 60 strong this semester, so each student-teacher was responsible for about five students. They had to be ready."
Gossett described his first day at Rikers as extremely intense. He talked about feeling physically restricted from the moment he walked through the gates. Later, traversing the hallways to get to a back courtyard, he fixed on the proximity of LaGuardia Airport, clearly visible across the bay.
"You never think about how an airport is such a symbol of wealth, privilege and freedom, until you are in a prison practically right next door, watching planes fly overhead," he notes.
Encouraged by Alfred to incorporate spoken word, poetry and visual arts into their lesson plans, Gossett didn't show up empty handed on his first day. After introducing himself to his group of students, he gave them copies of Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Then he played Tupac Shakur's "White Man's World," a song that's actually a letter written from prison.
"We talked about the difference between the two works, and how King and Shakur had used their voices to process some difficult experiences," Gossett says. "I wanted to start with something they would relate to, but also not get too personal -- I hoped to gradually build some trust with students, so I wrote lesson plans that slowly progressed toward having students write their own letters to family and friends."
A highlight of the semester, for Gossett, was when one student came forward to talk to him about a burgeoning interest in the works of James Baldwin, also one of Gossett's favorites.
For the class finale, Alfred arranged for local spoken-word artists to come to Rikers for a performance that led to an open mic session. Gossett called it a transformative experience that utterly changed the energy of the room.
"It didn't feel like a prison that day," he says. "The students felt empowered to express themselves and for just a few moments, they had some control over their lives. It gave me a much deeper understanding of how incarceration affects an individual and, in a larger sense, the communities that suffer the highest rates of incarceration. I'll never forget it."