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Monday, January 9, 2017

My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program, Innovative Model of Transformation

by Efren Paredes Jr.  

My Brother's Keeper Program (MBK) is a Michigan State University mentoring program for at-risk African-American boys, Grades 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools. The program uses undergraduate and graduate students as mentors and models. It was designed to also assist students imagine what they want to become as they transition into adulthood.

MBK promotes an Africentric approach to education which centers African-American children within the context of familiar cultural and social references from their own historical settings. When children are centered in cultural ways it helps make learning interesting and personal. Many children of color view schools as foreign places because they do foreign things. As such, they have been trapped in foreign conceptions of reality. This can lead to a destructive pattern of deifying other people and dehumanizing themselves.

The MBK program began in 1990 by founding director Dr. Geneva Smitherman, MSU Distinguished Professor Emerita. The program is now under the directorship of Dr. Austin Jackson, Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Transcultural Studies in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.

In the Summer of 2016 Dr. Jackson launched the first prison component of MBK in the nation at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility. The concept was originally proposed to Dr. Jackson by a prisoner named Ricardo Ferrell. This project has come to be known as the MBK Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP).

MBK-POP will have at least two primary objectives. According to Dr. Jackson, MBK-POP will, "(1) create a dynamic, sustainable inmate-centered peer mentoring program (Fall 2016); and (2) engage and assist the MSU MBK Program with educational, mentoring, and cultural programming useful for intervention and deterrence instruction."

There are currently 20 prisoners participating in MBK-POP. Each week Dr. Jackson travels to the Handlon Correctional Facility to teach the prisoners important skills and provide them with didactic materials helpful to develop into effective mentors. He provides workshops, makes PowerPoint presentations, shows educational DVDs, and holds debates and group discussions. Dr. Jackson is currently providing lessons about critical race theory (CRT), rhetoric, and preparing prisoners to begin facilitating classes and teaching portions of the curriculum.

Several of these mentors-in-training are from urban areas and share many of the same childhood experiences as those they will be mentoring. It is this firsthand knowledge, experience of incarceration, and personal transformation that makes them uniquely qualified to connect with the young people they will be working with and help them make better choices for their future.

I was fortunate to be one of the candidates selected to participate in MBK-POP. I am using the skills I have developed during nearly three decades of incarceration and my wealth of experiences mentoring college students, high school students, and prisoners to further the objectives of MBK-POP. My knowledge of Latino Studies, Black Studies, Hip-Hop culture, and communications will also be very useful as we advance through the MBK-POP syllabus.

According to Dr. Wade Nobles, "When the essence of a people is disrupted or disturbed there is similar disruption observed in their consciousness. When the essence of a people is distorted a change in their perceptions of reality occurs. This means how they come to understand or know is distorted."

Developing mentors allows us to create healers in the community who can inspire others to become whole again and illuminate their spirit. This self-discovery helps restore their essence and end the debilitating disconnect that prevents them from realizing their potential. It also helps end the dizzying distortions that skew the way people interpret life through a fractured lens.

One of the most potent kinds of power people can have is the power to label their experience. According to CRT scholar Angela P. Harris, "The struggle over what to call things, and hence how to understand and ultimately experience them, is a struggle over social power." Harris adds, "Just as history is written by the winners, language is shaped by the socially dominant."

People must become disenchanted with the notion that others will equip them with the tools to restore their agency. This will help them end their dependency on others and perceived racial subordination. When people deconstruct the false narratives manufactured about them they are able to define their own experiences and re-imagine brighter possibilities and outcomes for their lives.

The refusal to be measured by the tape of foreign branding will lead them to discover the need to reconnect with their culture. Nothing occurs outside of culture. It is culture that shapes and gives meaning to our reality.

This awareness will empower people to defy the murder of their selfhood and break the shackles of nihilism, a term Cornel West refers to as "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and lovelessness."

Through our work MBK-POP endeavors to build enduring intellectual structures of excellence. The program aspires to become an innovative model of success to be emulated in prisons across the nation. It is a blueprint born from centuries of struggle and fierce self-determination.

MBK-POP recognizes the inherent value and dignity of children and categorically rejects the notion that they are dispensable. We are committed to creating new learning pathways that keep them at the center of their educational experience -- not on the periphery -- and awaken their genius.

Please support the My Brother's Keeper PrisonOutreach Program (MBK-POP), "Like" its official Facebook page, and invite others to do the same.