Why Education Matters | Geraldine Downey | [email protected]

Good afternoon, and
thank you for joining us for the inaugural season
of Talks at Columbia. The purpose of
Talks at Columbia is to bring you market
leading experts, across disciplinary fields,
to engage and discuss important scholarly topics. My name is Jason
Wingard, and I am Dean of the School
of Professional Studies at Columbia University. I would like to introduce
Dr. Geraldine Downey. Dr. Downey is a
professor of psychology and Director of the Center for
Justice at Columbia University. She’s an expert on how
people’s identities are shaped by experiences of rejection. Most recently Professor Downey
has been using her research experience on
rejection and identity to understand how formerly
incarcerated individuals can overcome the obstacles they
face when reintegrating into life outside of prison. Dr. Downey will discuss why
college education matters for those who are
least likely to get it. And how, perhaps,
there is a need for new thinking about
justice through education, while reducing the
reliance on incarceration. Please join me in
welcoming Dr. Downey. [APPLAUSE] Every year when
graduation rolls round, college professors, like me,
feel affirmed in our ability to support young people
in making the transition to adulthood. Truth be told, it’s
a relatively easy job in institutions like Columbia. We get great students,
and the institution is set up to support
their success. But on graduation
day at Columbia, I’m also reminded of
young men and women at the other type of
institution where I teach. Young people like
Kenya, who I first met when she was visiting
her mother in prison as a seven-year-old. And who went to
prison in her 20s, herself, for selling
drugs to make ends meet. And came home committed
to turning her life around but stymied in doing so. Each year, I ask
myself whether we can find a more effective way
of supporting the transition to adulthood, of young
people like Kenya, who face a lifetime
of marginalization because of a criminal history. Today the transition to
adulthood, spanning the years approximately 18 to 25, is being
viewed as a distinctive period of the life course. Young people spend much
of this period in college. And college completion
is becoming essential to making a living
wage and for navigating a world of increasing
complexity and rapid change. College is the new
normal, according to a recent study, reporting
that 86% of high school graduates attend college within
eight years of graduating from high school. Yet, a troubling
number of young people, especially young people
of color like Kenya, spend some or all of this
period in prison or jail or otherwise caught up with
the criminal justice system. And they enter adulthood without
the preparation to succeed. When they finish their time,
and return to their communities, their criminal
convictions severely limit their opportunities
for employment, for housing, and for school. These limitations are put in
place as community safeguards, but they conspire against the
strong and stable engagement in marriage, in
parenthood, and in work. These are roles that provide
the ties and routines that scaffold successful
crime-free adulthood. Now, as somebody who studies
young adult identity and who spent a career teaching in top
universities, like Columbia and in prisons, I’m
very, very interested in the differences
between what it means to have a criminal
identity versus a student identity. And to be up front, I’m also
a very firm believer that promoting the student
identity, amongst young people with a criminal identity,
must be a better way to go than the current approach,
which emphasizes punishment in confinement. So let’s consider the
contrast between the student and the criminal identity. The college student
identity is defined by hope. It’s an aspirational identity
for just about everybody. The criminal identity
is defined by history. A focus on one’s past
failures and mistakes. It’s an imagined identity
that inspires fear and dread. College students are
perceived in terms of their accomplishments and
their potential for success. Where as the criminal
identity is defined by limitations and deficits. As a society we believe
in college students, and we’re willing to
support and help them in achieving their potential
and finding their passion. But we doubt people
with a criminal history, and we surveil them
for signals of danger. And we clamp down
when we perceive any glimmer of these signals. When college
students graduate we remind them that their
future is limitless and that they are our future. You all remember those
graduation speeches. But when young people
leave jail or prison we remind them to think in
terms of the constraints they face, the
careers that are not open to them because
of their conviction, and the sanctions they face
for not obeying the rules. The gap between the lives
of young people in college and young people with
a criminal conviction has become much more
pronounced since I started working in the prisons
and in colleges in the 1980s. Opportunities to be a student
while in prison or in jail have declined since the mid-90s, when
the get-tough-on-crime mindset deemed education in
prison as a luxury, rather than a necessity for
a safe democratic society. The emphasis on criminal
history disclosure, having to check that
box, remains an obstacle to becoming a student,
as well as to employment, and to housing. So it’s not surprising that 78%
of 18 to 24-year-olds released from prison or jail
are soon re-arrested and 50% return to prison. But this is a moment
of possibility, as everybody across
the partisan divide is reconsidering the nation’s
approach to criminal justice. It’s been recognized that mass
incarceration is simply not working. And it’s well established that
taking on the student identity is a pathway to success. And being a college
student in prison is the best known protection
against recidivism. It cuts the rate almost in half. So why don’t we treat young
people in prison and jail more like we treat
students, as learners, who can be helped towards
healthy and fulfilling lifestyles. The kind of lifestyles that
keep people out of harm’s way. Why is there reason
to believe that this is a better approach than one
that emphasizes punishment and exclusion? Research in psychology
and neuroscience is showing a longer period
of brain malleability, as well as of openness to social
and culture influence, than was ever imagined in the past. This is both a strength
and a vulnerability of adolescence and of the
transition to adulthood. It means that when
positive opportunities are in place, rather than
negative opportunities, there’s great potential
to nudge young people toward successful adulthood. And this may be especially true
for young people like Kenya– who have both the motivation
to change and the potential to do so. And, at the same time as
this research has emerged, college educators
have learned to be better at nurturing the growth
and the development of students with a wider diversity of
backgrounds and of histories. Adults who believed
that they would always be defined by a tumultuous
adolescent history, and by earlier
failures in school, show constantly that they
can thrive in college with the right support. So college can be a transition
to a brighter future. Perhaps, especially,
for those committed to overcoming a bleak past. So have I idealized
the college identity? You don’t remember it as
being as good as all this. But a student I met,
when I was volunteering in a prison in Michigan
in 1988, minded me why it’s an identity
worth idealizing. I was a new PhD. I was fresh off of teaching
my first college course– and it had been
a disaster, and I was looking for other
possibilities for a career– when I met Mary Glover. She’d gone to prison
in her early 20s, and after about five
years of cleaning toilets, she decided she wanted to pursue
her dream of a college degree. She sued the Department
of Corrections for equal access for women
in prison to go to college, because men in prison
already had this opportunity. I learned just how much
the student identity could mean to somebody like her. I learned about the
hope that it gave her, and this inspired me
to become a professor. She was the first person to
show me the power of a college education to set people
free, to imagine, and prepare for a better future, and to gain
an understanding of their past. But it’s been echoed in all
of the prison classrooms that I’ve been in
over almost 25 years. Last night, I asked my
students at a local prison, what it said about
their identity to be in a college class
while they were in prison. They told me, it meant that
they were courageous, committed, creative, knowledge seekers. That they were determined to
make something of themselves while doing their time. It meant that they were
resilient and able to raise themselves above the
daily horror of life in prison to make
it to the classroom. They told me that they
came to the classroom because we as professors made
the commitments to go there, and that that showed them
that we believed in them. And that affirmed their
belief in themselves. So how do we support
people in prison or jail to see themselves and
to be seen as students? How do we use contact
with the criminal justice system as a turning point
towards a positive future, rather than a locked gateway
to permanent exclusion? We’re joining with many
others throughout the country here at Columbia in efforts to
answer these kinds of questions at the Columbia Justice
in Education Initiative and at the Center for Justice. I want to give you a
sense of some of the work that Columbia professors
and students are doing with young men at
Rikers Island jail, to support them in harnessing
their creative potential, to tell their stories
through music, through art, and through Twitter feed. Our programs are rooted in
what college educators know work for students. We provide our students are
Rikers with the opportunity to build foundational skills
in communication using the technology of new media. We provide them
with the opportunity to develop and practice
socio-emotional skills needed to work
collaboratively in teams– the stuff of
executive education. To get the opportunity to
learn about and practice self-regulation,
perspective taking, we give them opportunities
to build their confidence, to learn about communication
and entrepreneurship, to learn negotiation skills
and conflict resolution. We give them the
opportunity to use these skills and
their imagination in ways that inspire pride in
themselves and in everybody around them. In these activities, we hope
that they get a glimmer of what it means to have a vocation. A vocation that one wants to
pursue every day in every way, just as we hope for this
in our Columbia students. Our programs are a small
step, they’re not a solution. But there’s every
reason to think that successful
engagement and learning opportunities like this
can be transformative, if there are bridges to
opportunities to continue on this path on the outside. Shoshana Jarvis, who works with
us at the Center for Justice, saw this transformation
on her first visit to Rikers for a graduation
ceremony for one of our most
successful programs– Beats, Rhymes and Justice. She said, when I
arrived into the room, each incarcerated person was
sitting at their own table. They were all facing
in the same direction, and they were seated across from
various numbers of empty seats. The environment felt
impersonal and sterile. But then their
loved ones started to arrive– parents,
siblings, and partners. Once the students’ visitors
sat around the table with the student, the jump suits
and Spartan decor disappeared. The students were
no longer inmates. They were just
students– young people laughing and sharing with those
who mattered most to them. As each graduate was
recognized with a certificate, the pride of their families
and of their correction officers was palpable. Shoshana, here,
described a moment of transformation, when
the young men of Rikers converted from being
prisoners of their history, to revealing the
hope of their future. The fruits of being a student
led to a truly rare moment in jail time, when, to use the
words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “Hope and
history rhymed.” So, to answer my
opening question, supporting the student identity
can help foster the transition to a successful
life for everybody. And, perhaps, especially
for young people like Kenya, who hopes
for the opportunity to transcend a criminal past,
and to celebrate a graduation from something other than the
odds-defying accomplishment of graduating off parole. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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