Finding Voice, Taking Action

PEA co-learning trip tackles social justice issues in Alabama.

February 1, 2016
Exeter Physical Education Instructor Olutoyin Augustus-Ikwuakor with students at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery Alabama

Trip leader and Physical Education Instructor Olutoyin Augustus (left) and Peace Kabari ’16 with other students at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL.

By Sarah Zobel

At last January’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told an audience of Exonians that the U.S. justice system helps those who are rich and guilty more than people who are poor and innocent. It’s the ”new Jim Crow,” he explained, an evolution from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration.

The student body was rapt as Stevenson, whose TED Talk on injustice has been viewed more than 2.5 million times, spoke about the work he and his colleagues are doing to address racial and class disparities, such as litigating on behalf of imprisoned youth and adults who’ve been wrongly convicted and are serving death sentences. His words resonated long after the talk was over.

”Every student who was at that assembly came out of it talking about … how it was one of the best things they’d ever seen,” says Cesar Zamudio ’16. ”He is there using his privilege and his voice to give to those who are more vulnerable in our society.”

”It’s hard to believe this is our world and it’s happening, because it can be easy to turn your head and pretend such injustice does not exist,” says Szu-Hui Lee, a psychologist in PEA’s Lamont Health and Wellness Center. ”And then when you are invited to take a closer and deeper look, you realize this is part of our world and it does matter to us, all of us.” Olutoyin Augustus, PEA instructor in physical education, or ”Coach Toyin” as most know her, was also in the audience.

Exonians on a bus like the one Rosa Parks rode

”I was deeply moved by the work [Stevenson] is doing toward equal justice, and felt that this was something that we needed as a community to devote a little more time to,” says Augustus, who is also an adviser to Transitions, an affinity group for female students of color. ”There are a lot of different social justice issues that are happening around the world, but this one in particular affects students I work with closely, as well as other faculty members. Part of his message was about proximity, and that hit home with me. It’s easy to hear a story and be moved, and then go about your business. But when you have an opportunity to be really up close and personal with people and their circumstances, those lessons are not easily forgotten.”

So Augustus, who spent much of her childhood in Huntsville, Alabama, planned a Thanksgiving break visit to Montgomery, Alabama, where the Equal Justice Initiative offices are located. Sixteen self-selected students, along with Lee and History Instructor Erik Wade, signed on for the four-day trip.

Today, the students are working on a proposal for an interdisciplinary course on the subjects they learned about in their short time in Alabama. While it would originate in the History Department, it would include the English Department and possibly the arts. Ideally, Augustus says, the course would be open to all students and would not be designed to promote a particular stance or viewpoint.

”A lot of it is you don’t know what you don’t know, and when you figure it out, you think, ’I really should have known this before, or at least be exposed to it so I can form my own opinions,’” she says.

The trip began with a full day at the Equal Justice Initiative, where staff attorneys spoke about their cases and broke down the history of African-Americans and other minorities in the United States. They discussed slavery and the dehumanizing mentality behind it, along with how it evolved into mass incarceration and an overreliance on the death penalty, often resulting in the execution of innocent people. They also talked about the sentencing of children to life in prison, an issue they took to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has since banned death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes and mandatory death-in-prison sentences for all children. And they spoke of the corruption within the prison system and the abuse and rape suffered by portions of the inmate population. The students listened, surrounded by walls lined with photographs of people who’ve been wrongly convicted and of children who’ve received life sentences.

”One guy under the three strikes program was sentenced to life without parole — his third strike was something like he stole a bicycle,” Charlotte Polk ’18 reflects. Another photograph showed a 14-year-old hugging her father after she’d been sentenced. ”It was very moving to see their faces; a lot of [the accompanying descriptions] didn’t mention the crime they’d committed, so you’re forced to think about [the issue] more broadly, as opposed to the specific.”

The Exonians spent so much time with EJI staff that they reported feeling guilty keeping the lawyers from their work, but Augustus says everyone understood such face time was important, too.

”You can’t just fight these legal battles without trying to change the construct,” she says. ”I think it’s really when society and expectations, assumptions and stereotypes, all of those things, change that you’re able to make lasting change.”

The students came from a mix of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the multiple perspectives resulted in what Wade termed ”complicated conversations about what do we do now that we’re informed.”

”Doing little things in your community can make a difference, just to make people aware,” says Adedolapo Adedokun ’18. ”Even just spreading information around to your family, your classmates, your friends.” Inspired to join the trip after overhearing race-based comments that he says came from a place of ignorance, but not feeling fully equipped to correct them, Adedokun says he now feels empowered to engage in informed discussions with individuals who make such comments. Natalia Madison ’19 — one of a handful of preps — knew before heading to Montgomery that she was in the group’s minority with her support of the death penalty. Listening to the EJI attorneys speak about wrongful imprisonment and children in prison didn’t change her opinion, but it did help her see that changes need to be made to the death penalty if it is to remain viable.

”Ninety-five percent of the kids were on the same page in terms of opinions, but we weren’t all like-minded, which I appreciated,” says Augustus. ”It was tough because it was a clear minority on the other side, but for us to all take a minute and listen and digest another opinion and be open to other ideas — I would have liked to have a little more of that so we can think a little bit deeper about what we’re saying.” It’s easy to have conversations with those who share our beliefs, she says, adding, ”But what if someone says, ’I disagree for this reason.’ Then what do you do? We talked a lot about that, too.”

Lee calls it a co-learning trip, since she and her colleagues took in as much new information as their charges; students and faculty agreed that one of the most memorable moments came after they’d watched a video on wrongful imprisonment that focused on Anthony Ray Hinton, who had been exonerated just a few months earlier — thanks to the work of the EJI — after 30 years on death row. At the video’s end, Hinton himself appeared in the room and spoke at length about his return to freedom. He told the students the day he was released was the first time in 30 years he’d felt rain, and that he still showers every other day and wakes at 3 a.m. for breakfast because that was his schedule in prison. Yet, says Lee, who called it ”humbling” to meet Hinton, it was clear he had maintained his sense of humor and mastered the art of keeping his mind outside the cell where he had spent 23 hours a day.

That meeting was pivotal for Sarah Shepley ’18, but so too was the group’s visit to Alabama State University, a historically black institution. There, Shepley, who acknowledges that she comes from a fairly sheltered background where incarceration and racism are not standard topics of conversation, felt briefly what it means to be in a racial minority.

”I’m not used to being in a minority, but it definitely changed my perspective. I’m going to be more aware and more sympathetic in terms of helping people feel more comfortable,” she says.

Although that was one purpose of the visit, Augustus also wanted to put the idea of historically black institutions on students’ radars — including, for some, seeing themselves as prospective students. Wade points out that such schools are a positive outcome of institutional racism — the flip side to slavery and the prison pipeline — and says it was important for the Exonians to take in a majority-black population focused on higher education.

There was time for discussion each day, fueled by the students’ pre-existing interests and extracurricular pursuits. Each student had read Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a memoir of his life and work within the justice system, and most are active participants in on-campus groups including the Afro-Latino Exonian Society (ALES), the Young Brothers’ Society (for boys of color), the Diversity Council, the Council for Equity and Social Justice, and the Exonian Encounter Committee. Many of the students had also dealt personally with racism or classism, and in light of current events, the trip was timely.

”We’re dealing with a lot of very heavy topics in America right now that make this very salient to them,” Augustus says of the visitors. ”I think some of it felt like a bit of an overload, and for all of us it was like, ’So what do we do?’ You see this huge problem and you feel sort of helpless — and in some instances hopeless — but it was framed in a way that we could see that things were being done and changes were being made.”

The trip included tours of the Civil Rights Memorial, which is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Alabama Department of Archives. The group also learned about a special EJI project: Staff members are visiting locations around the state where people were lynched, gathering a little soil from each spot, and putting it in a jar labeled with the victim’s name. Augustus was moved by one jar containing soil from the site where a man named Wes Brown was lynched, in her hometown;

Wade, whose research centers on race and lynching, says he’s planning to return during winter or spring break to help with the project.

Students and staff posted pictures of the trip on Facebook and Instagram so interested Exonians could join in the conversation. But the meatiest discussions took place over meals featuring Southern cooking and Korean barbecue. Lee says some debriefings that were expected to last 30 minutes continued for a couple of hours, often late into the night (”Sleep was apparently optional,” says Augustus, laughing).

”These kids are so well versed in Harkness that they brought the Harkness table with them,” Lee says. ”Different kids are at different places in terms of where they see race as an issue in our country, and I think context matters. Students that may be further along were helping students that may be grappling with race and class issues.”

They’re big topics for high schoolers to digest, and Wade says it was interesting to watch the students’ faces as they were peppered with information. Yet the students say that in many ways, they’re already thinking about those issues.

”What we learned from visiting Montgomery is realizing that it’s not specific as to what can you do, but what are we doing in our own community addressing those issues of injustice,” says Zamudio, a native of Colombia. ”Even at Exeter, where we’re sort of trapped in a bubble, there are still those big issues of justice that we have to address — making sure we’re having good dialogue on that, and caring for each other and respecting each other so that we’re all living in a community where we can feel safe and appreciated and respected, where we can thrive as students and go on to make great changes. All of us at Exeter have this privilege of an elite education that we’ve been given, and it’s in our power and it’s our responsibility to use that to advocate for those who don’t have that privilege and that power.”

For some, like Polk, the trip takeaway applies to all of humanity.

”The broader moral message is to believe in people. I was talking to a freshman on the trip, and she said people think it’s a flaw to believe in people, but it’s a very good thing,” she says.

Augustus is already planning next year’s trip. She’d like to tack on a visit to Selma, as well as allow students more time to connect with people who live in Alabama. She also hopes to include more time for debate and discussion, in recognition of the diversity of experiences and viewpoints.

Lee agrees that continuing the dialogue is essential.

”I think we can all be alone in our silos — and believe we know how Asian-Americans struggle, and how African-Americans struggle, and how do Latinos struggle, or how any silenced group struggles? — but it is important to come out of our silos and share our stories as well as listen to stories of others. It is through these important dialogues that we grow and come together as a community. If these 16 kids are realizing the importance of such dialogues and that there’s power in coming together, then think about the thousand kids we have on campus coming together. That would be something!”