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Reflecting on the Scholar Strike for Black Lives: a letter to my seventh grade teacher

What the ‘injustice’ system, a true community, and radical hope mean to me
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

To my seventh grade teacher,

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself often thinking back to life in my seventh grade classroom. Part of this may have been because I enrolled in the critical studies in equity and solidarity minor program at the end of my first year at U of T. After all, as my seventh grade teacher, you were the one who introduced me to the terms ‘equity’ and ‘social justice’ in the first place, and much of our learning was centred around them. But I think a larger part of it was that I saw more people having the discussions about equity and social justice this summer that we had back in seventh grade.

The Scholar Strike for Black Lives in Canada on September 9–10 only intensified those memories. It was really incredible to see academics across the whole country protest against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence. They paused their work and led or participated in teach-ins about this systemic violence, which students could attend as well. 

I watched the Scholar Strike session entitled “Scholars and Educators for Black Lives” a day before the start of my second year at U of T. I don’t think the timing could have been more perfect. There’s only so much you can — or are allowed to — learn and discuss within the confines of the ivory tower of university. 

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my programs; studying literature has been my dream since I was a child. It’s just that Sandy Hudson and Janelle Brady — the speaker and the moderator of the teach-in, respectively — discussed so many topics that I just haven’t had conversations about in my university classes. To be honest, I can’t really imagine having substantial discussions about racial injustice in institutions steeped in anti-Blackness.

As you may recall, I had been entertaining the idea of pursuing a career in the legal field since I was in middle school. I think it was because of this notion of ‘justice’ that is seemingly so entwined with it. I’ve been aware for a while that the justice system is not perfect, but I guess I just thought that I could help change the system from the inside out — right?

This summer, it became more obvious to me than ever before that the justice system — in both the US and Canada — does not do what its name suggests. In the US, how does the justice system serve justice when it results in police officers attacking people peacefully protesting for Black lives, but not those violently protesting the regulations in place due to a pandemic? When it has been co-opted and has become commodified

Turning to the issues the US and Canadian systems share, how does the justice system serve justice when it allows police officers to evade legal consequences for murdering civilians? When it has enabled the enslavement and mass incarceration of Black and Indigenous peoples?

One question in particular has been eating away at me: how does the system serve justice when the main concern seems to have become more about retribution than restoration and rehabilitation?

You once wrote me a letter, which included a Rainer Maria Rilke quote about embracing questions: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

You knew then that this was something I had trouble with. You’re probably not surprised that I’m still trying to live with the many questions in my mind. While there are some that I’m no longer forcing myself to answer, such as those about my degree or graduate school, there are others, such as the aforementioned ones about our ‘injustice’ system, that I can’t bring myself to wait to answer. I suppose I’ve reached an obvious conclusion: the system doesn’t serve justice. But where to go from here?

To answer this question, I’ve been reading the works of Black scholars and activists. As a former student in the Vic One Frye Stream, I’ve become acquainted with Northrop Frye’s concept of “The Educated Imagination.” He argues that we should study literature because it grants us the ability to imagine greater possibilities for what our world could be like. Expanding our imagination is the catalyst for turning those possibilities into reality. 

The one whose voice has resonated with me the most is Angela Davis, an American political activist and academic whose body of work helped me become an abolitionist. I don’t think that I truly grasped Frye’s concept until I read Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?. She helped open my eyes up to a world where the injustice system can become just again. 

Not only does she provide a plethora of information about the US industrial prison complex and how it disproportionately and deliberately targets Black, Indigenous, and other minoritized communities, but also reading her work encouraged me to wonder why we as a society have become so focused on equating punishment with justice.

As you can tell, it didn’t take long for me to get behind police and prison abolition — though it did take me a while to digest some of what abolitionism calls for. As sad as it is, I had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around the notion of community-based support and safety as an alternative to policing. 

A New York Times article by Rachel Kushner defines prison abolition. It reads, “Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as [activist and scholar Ruth Wilson] Gilmore puts it, they ‘mess up.’ ”

As I read more about what this would look like, I was reminded of the community you helped our class foster. 

I remember our weekly “community circle” meetings. You made it a point to sit at the same level as us to disrupt the notion that you held all the authority and answers as our teacher, and to remind us that we shouldn’t be looking down on each other. It was a welcoming space to discuss anything and everything that was on our minds, from our experiences outside the classroom to events we saw on the news.

This memory reminded me of the teach-in, during which Hudson and Brady discussed “the politics of care” as opposed to “the politics of policing.” Hudson highlighted the example of student-run walksafe programs that allow fellow students — instead of police escorts — to provide support for those who feel unsafe on campus. 

Hudson said, “Students have a long history of providing each other with the services they need.” And I certainly experienced this in your classroom. 

Aside from the macro-level community you helped us build together, you also helped us create micro-level connections with each other. I never felt like any of my classrooms were communities until I stepped foot in yours; I deeply respected and cared for every single classmate. We became so close that if we had disputes, we were comfortable and civilized enough to have open conversations about our thoughts. 

I could tell when one of my peers was upset, and I knew how to support them; some would want the opportunity to vent, some would want advice, and some would simply want acknowledgement. When we entered eighth grade and our class was forced to split because we were too many students, we held a parting ceremony — even though our classrooms would only be two feet apart!

I feel like classrooms are just microcosms of our larger communities. Was our community perfectly harmonious at all times? Of course not. And while I understand that there’s no perfect comparison between a class and a neighbourhood, I think that if we were able to create a functional and supportive community in the seventh grade, community-based care really isn’t such a radical and unrealistic concept.

As I’m sure you know, UTSG has a notorious reputation of being an incredibly competitive and isolating environment. I know that many students can attest to this. I’m very lucky because, after a year of being a student here, I found a similar type of community to ours in the form of my Vic One program, which is designed to foster a sense of community. What I’m trying to say here is that I think we naturally tend to care for and support each other when the systems we exist in are structured in a way that allow and encourage us to.

I’ve often found myself wishing I had more teachers like you, and I’m so glad that the Scholar Strike allowed me the opportunity to learn from educators who care about their work as much as you care about yours. Hudson and Brady stressed the importance of engaging in “the politics of refusal,” and that’s exactly what you encouraged us to do in your class — to not take any information for granted; to think critically about information, how it’s presented, and who’s presenting it; and to never blindly adhere to the status quo. 

I just want you to know that the work we did together will always stay with me, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

 

Editor’s note (October 19, 2020): This article has been edited to correctly attribute a quote to a New York Times article by Rachel Kushner. 

Editor’s note (October 26, 2020): This article has been edited to reflect that Ruth Wilson Gilmore is an activist and scholar, not a Supreme Court Justice.