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The tiny voice sent shock waves across the nation. “What are those for?” the 6-year-old girl asked the police officer who pulled out zip ties that he would soon fasten around her wrists.
“No, don’t put handcuffs on!” she pleaded through tears, before she was led out of her school for a “temper tantrum” staff members said she had thrown earlier that day. “Please, give me a second chance,” the girl cried, as she was escorted to the police car.
The scene was captured on a body camera, and the footage was obtained and published by the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year. It offered a glimpse into what many young black girls in America have long experienced in school.
For years, a small band of female organizers and researchers has been gathering evidence that young black girls are among the most harshly disciplined and overcriminalized student groups in the country. But they say that in the national dialogue around school discipline, young black girls have remained largely unseen and unheard.
Monique W. Morris, founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color, set out to change that.
A new documentary, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” takes viewers into the journeys of five black female students who have confronted, and overcome, the school “pushout” phenomenon, which is most often associated with black boys. Throughout the film, you hear from young black women who explain how their treatment in school pushed them to the edge. One young girl describes contemplating jumping onto a freeway after being mistreated by her teacher in the second grade.
The film is based on Ms. Morris’s book of the same title, published in 2015. It has provided a road map for educators and policymakers who want to address the unique ways in which black girls are placed in the school-to-prison pipeline.
In a conversation with Race/Related, Ms. Morris answered questions about the film and what she hopes it accomplishes. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been five years since you published your book. Can you tell us what has changed for black girls?
At the end of the book, I wrote that I wanted to see “within the next five years a robust and coordinated strategy to change the racial justice narrative in a way that authentically and earnestly includes girls and women.” When the book was first published, girls of color — particularly black girls — were largely absent from discourses on equity in public education. Even when the data were available, many scholars chose only to share the stats for black boys, leaving out that more often than not, black girls were right behind them. Since then, we have been able to build a community that stands with and for black girls, and it is expanding.
What did you hope the impact would be of turning this book into a film?
The film is actually based upon my last two books, “Pushout” and “Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls.” It is my hope that by bringing the book material to film, we are able to introduce the issue to an even broader audience. I am hoping that people will understand that the policies, practices, conditions, and prevailing consciousness that lead to the criminalization of black girls are not insurmountable.
You offer a variety of examples of what it looks like for black girls from different backgrounds to get pushed out of school. How did you choose whose experience to feature? Did you identify with one more than others?
The film features black girls who have experienced some of the most common pathways to confinement and being pushed out — those who have had their behavior described as sassy, combative and defiant when they are behaving in developmentally appropriate ways, and often in response to trauma. We also chose to center the stories of girls who are from communities in the United States that are often left out of national conversations like these, as well as the educators and advocates working with them to cultivate new opportunities.
I identify with each girl in different ways. I was a survivor of sexual assault. I was a fighter. I was bullied. I experienced abandonment and loss as a child. And yet, I had educators and learning spaces that did not criminalize my sometimes misguided reactions to these things.
Who was your audience for this film? What has been the reception?
Our goal is to reach educators, parents, policymakers, the extended community of adults that I call the “village of care,” as well as school-aged girls. And we’re getting there!
These conversations sparked by the film have led to task forces, working groups, and in some instances, new intervention efforts. We began at the Congressional Black Caucus, where Representative Ayanna Pressley hosted a standing room-only viewing for hundreds of people interested in making sure that black girls are included in efforts to promote education justice.
She then introduced legislation on the topic to align federal policy with best practices on this issue for girls of color and other marginalized populations. That’s what this is about — initiating change. We don’t want people to watch the film, feel touched for a few hours and then proceed with business as usual. We want action.
If people took one actionable item away from this film — in how they speak to, interact with or perceive black girls — what would you want it to be?
I invite everyone to understand and approach black girls as if they are sacred. We approach the sacred with love, not fear. We engage the sacred with care and recognize the need to bring it in closer when there is chaos or disruption. That which is sacred is not disposable. I believe that if we shift how and what we think about black girls, we can create new learning spaces that promote learning for every child.
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