By Rosie Rios, Administrative Director, UCLA Prison Education Program
“We, the people.
We are not criminals.
I am not a criminal.
I am Arlena.
I am beautiful.
I am stardust.”
— Arlena (Sankofa Student)
This summer I had the privilege of co-facilitating the Sankofa Summer School for Girls at Barry J. Nidorf (BJN) Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, California. Every day for two weeks Professor Lauri Mattenson and I went to BJN to discuss and analyze the book, When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, with girls between the ages of 14 and 18. We began each class with a movement icebreaker. The dancing one was their favorite. We then sat in a circle, read our community agreement, which was created and signed collectively on the first day of class as a promise to our commitment to respect one another, and then opened up the space with the question, “What stood out to you the most from the reading?” This was by far my favorite part of the class because I had never seen so many students raising their hands up all at once, eager to share what they had learned!
Our daily conversations touched on the topics of identity, trauma, conditions in underserved communities like the ones that helped raise us, police brutality, drug addiction, womanhood, and the theme of our class: looking back in order to move forward. We laughed and we cried; most importantly, we created a sacred space.
As we neared the end of the course, the girls decided that just like Patrisse, they too could use their writing to share their stories, be heard and feel understood. Each word in the letter was carefully chosen to not only convey their message, but also to express that they are frustrated and tired of living such a precarious life.
On August 29th, 2018, they wrote the following letter:
People here before us,
We need you to listen and understand that we are not criminals. We ask that you don’t judge us and that you get to know us. Not all of us come from houses with white picket fences and rich neighborhoods. We come from the ghetto—where we grew up exposed to gangs, prostitution, drugs, and police brutality. Where you never have the chance to truly live, just survive. We never had the chance to be kids. Some of us just need guidance, a mentor who genuinely loves us and exposes us to the right paths in life. We ask that you take a moment to sit back and understand our experiences.
As you come to work with us, we want you to listen, be patient, and not pity but empathize with us.
Thank you for your time and attention.
UCLA Sankofa Summer School For Girls
To get involved with UCLA’s Prison Education Program, attend the upcoming orientation this Friday, September 28, from 9 AM to 12 PM in the Ackerman Viewpoint Conference Room on Level A. RSVP here.