Jaritza Geigel | Picture via Make the Road NY
Youth organizer Jaritza Geigel gave a powerful speech at a Philanthropy New York session last week called "Creating and Seizing the Movement: School Discipline and School Safety Reform in New York City." Geigel is an organizer with Make the Road New York and Urban Youth Collaborative. At the session, she spoke passionately about her own personal experiences with harsh school discipline, its devastating and disproportionate impact on students of color, and the work done thus far to combat it. Below is the transcript:
Good Afternoon, my name is Jaritza Geigel. I am a Youth Organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC). We are also a part of the Dignity in Schools NY Chapter (DSC-NY). I have been with the organizations mentioned for the last eight years, since I was 16. As the orgs have grown, I have grown up within them!
In my time under the Bloomberg administration I watched my classmates, due to no fault of their own, be treated with the stigma that comes with being a black/brown boy or girl. Call it a matter of opinion, but I have watched some of the brightest be taken by the system; whether it was how we are viewed in the media, through our test scores, or how we are disciplined in schools and in the streets.
As young Black and Latino and Latina students, we were fighting for people to recognize that we were being pushed out of school through suspensions, summonses, and arrests. In 2010, the City Council passed the Student Safety Act and in 2011, it was signed into law. It was important for us to get the data that proved we were being over policed in our schools through the use of metal detectors and arrests and summonses for issues that should never involve school safety agents and police. Getting the data was a stepping stone in the right direction with the hope to later expand on it and one day create a system of accountability.
Even then I knew my community wasn't limited to NYC. It was with this understanding that when the opportunity came to fight oppression on every level that I became invested in fighting to make changes on the federal level as well. I listened and witnessed the stories of hundreds of young people who shared the same experience all across the country. It was those stories from youth and parents who were directly impacted that finally got the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan to use the term and finally recognize that there is a School to Prison Pipeline. My peers and I from UYC who were a part of the Alliance for Educational Justice got Arney Duncan to wear our Save Our Schools Sticker from our Campaign and it was us that got him to agree to a meeting with youth. This is what acting on urgency looks like. To act without fear.
Then it was our turn. Out with the old and in with the new. Our new administration came with a promise to move in a new direction that would help the lives of ALL New Yorkers in many areas. One of the mechanisms that would be tool to move things in a new direction was The Mayoral Leadership Team, where every stakeholder is at the table. The Team that would begin to work on addressing the issues that we are seeing in our schools around disciplinary practices, policies, and more.
It has been amazing to work side by side with the young people and watch them challenge us, and to push us to act with more urgency. The recommendations that have come out are a step in the right direction, and come from the work that parents, youth and advocates have been fighting for over a decade, but our young people need more. They have always needed more from those in the position to do so.
The reality of what I have had to live and what young people continue to live with every day has not changed. I have had to live through watching my classmate get punched in the face after being handcuffed while another agent held her in place. Then after graduating to go back into my community, to organize the young people from my old High School, and witness a young black man handcuffed with his pants at his ankles, tears rolling down his face after making him walk through the halls for other students to see as the cuffs left abrasions on his arms. I can only imagine the humiliation that he felt and the resentment at every adult who failed to see him. It was even more upsetting to look into the eyes of one of my youth leaders, who is a Afro Latino young man with and an IEP status, and have him tell me the fear, the anger he felt at being surrounded by agents and cops, handcuffed and forced into an ambulance to be sent to the hospital for a psych evaluation after a verbal incident with a student. Earlier this year I spent every day of those 60 days telling one of my young women, who was kicked out of her home and into foster care, do not let the system beat you down. Every day she was suspended her moral kept dropping and her faith in change seemed more and more like a dream than a reality she would ever get to feel. It broke my heart to hear the sister say, “I love school, I want to graduate, but some days I just want to act like the animal they think I am.”
As you can see the stories haven’t changed and the students who have been failed by the structural racism of policies and practices left in place haven’t changed either. The system is failing our black and brown young men and women. It is failing our LGTBQ students and our students with special needs. We can’t continue to criminalize black and brown youth behavior.
We are, most would say we have been, at a critical moment. The attack: physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially on black and brown bodies has got to stop. We have been abused enough. We are seeing pockets of rebellion all over the country. Our people, especially our young people, are saying enough. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want to be treated with the respect and dignity that any human being should be treated with and we cannot wait any longer.
It is, because of this reality that we need to make sure that we are coming up with recommendations that should be mandated and have real substantial investment behind them so that way schools who have been struggling to do this work on the ground are able to do it in a holistic way. Our young people need and want to start feeling the impact of what bold policy changes and resources behind them can do for them that looks at who they are as people.
Yes, we are making strides and are doing well, but the reality is that real change must be felt. So yes, we may be doing well, but we must be better so that is it actually felt on the ground.
Imagine my surprise when I joined these groups when I was 16 and all I thought I was getting was a get way a out of the house scott free card and got more than I could have asked for. Even as I have transitioned in my role in the fight I continue to receive more than I could have ever asked for when it comes to working alongside the young people who remind us to be bold and act without fear and lead with a revolutionaries heart with love.