Telling different stories differently: The possibilities of multimodal (counter)storytelling with African American adolescent boys

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Lalitha Vasudevan

Dissertation summary

Telling different stories differently:

The possibilities of multimodal (counter)storytelling

with African American adolescent boys

Problem and Significance

The problem that I address in this dissertation is at once convoluted and simple: there is a growing symbiosis between the systems of education and justice that is resulting in a “prison track” of schooling into which increasing numbers of kids and youth – mostly male, mostly African American and Latino – are being corralled. Wald and Losen (2003) describe this phenomenon as the “school to prison pipeline,” the ripple effects of which include institutional policies like “zero tolerance” which are smothering what questions might have existed about inequitable punitive practices in favor of a cloak of safety (Ayers, Dohrn, & Ayers, 2001). One insidious result of social structures that increasingly prioritize “delinquency” prevention and perpetuate a victim/perpetrator dichotomy is the fact that youths’ futures are significantly and adversely affected. A culture of prevention includes institutional policies and practices that assume urban youth to already be, or are in the process of being, “delinquent.” As if in response, Luis Rodriguez (1993) asks rhetorically, “What to do with those whom society cannot accommodate?” (p. 250). He answers himself by saying:

Criminalize them. Outlaw their actions and creations. Declare them the enemy, then wage war. Emphasize the differences – the shade of skin, the accent in the speech or manner of clothes. Like the scapegoat of the Bible, place society’s ills on them, then ‘stone them’ in absolution. It’s convenient. It’s logical.

It doesn’t work. (p. 250)

In this culture of prevention and labeling, differences in terms of clothing, skin color, ways of speaking, dressing, knowing and telling are painted as deficits. By embodying these “deficit” practices, urban youth, who are for the most part of a minority race and/or ethnicity, are first seen as deficient and then as youth who must be “saved” (Platt, 1977; Varenne and McDermott, 1998). Literacy, long associated with schooling, is often included as an indicator of “propensity toward crime”; that is, low-literacy achievement on part of adolescents who inhabit environmental, racial, and economic subjectivities are viewed as less-than-ideal, and in fact perpetually delinquent (NIFL, 2001). Literacy proficiency is mainly seen through the lens of school literacy, and the conversation about youth as literate people who engage in multiple and complex literacies (linguistic, para-linguistic, and other multimodal practices) is notably absent in the discussion about “delinquency”, education, and urban youth.

These realities reveal the current state of affairs for urban minority youth, in the context of the criminal justice and education systems, as a double edged sword. On one hand the dominant institutional Discourses1 of containment and remediation fixes the identities of youth through policies and practices that focus more on controlling potential “troublemakers” (Ferguson, 2001) than supporting the academic success of marginalized youth. These practices deny youth the right to an education free from suspicion and focused on learning. On the other hand, the discourses of youth who are outside of the official institutional walls are viewed through deficit lenses and subsequently form the basis from which policing and community controls are enforced. The practices of learning and creative production that youth engage in across these informal spaces is overlooked by research in favor of privileging predetermined definitions of race, crime and justice. In both cases, the increased terrain of surveillance is coupled with a lack of attention to youth as learners thereby creating a gap in knowledge about who youth are, and particularly who African American adolescent males are, as learners and literate people and the nuanced critiques and challenges they hold for the steamroller of deficit assumptions. Furthermore, what we know about learning and literacy in the lives of adolescents living in urban areas remains stagnated in archaic presumptions about literacy, race, and, in the case of boys, masculinities. Urban boys’ perspectives about their learning are noticeably rare and when they are included are in the form of easily quantifiable data, e.g. surveys and questionnaires; an omission that creates a gap in our understanding of the subtleties of urban boys’ literacies and their identities as meaning makers. The significance of literacy in labeling youth, especially in urban settings, provides an important space of inquiry through which to critically study literacy in the boys’ lives. By embarking on the process of conducting a research study motivated by my experiences as a teacher of youth on probation, I am asserting that I believe there is a role that research can play in disrupting existing images of urban youth while actively producing, with youth, more nuanced images and representations of who youth are, their literacies outside of the confines of institutional spaces, and the ways in which they are engaged in the discursive production of knowledge as they mediate a variety of modalities. This is a study that intends to disrupt the current deficit narrative about literacy and learning in the lives of urban boys while suggesting new possibilities for what “counts” as literacy.

“The need for story”2

Listening to and creating spaces for the youths’ stories in my experience at the adjudicated youth program profoundly affected how I conceived of and practiced my pedagogy as a teacher and subsequently informed my practice as a researcher. In this dissertation study I envisioned research as a space in which the stories of youth would serve as guideposts for inquiry about literacy and learning in their out-of-school lives. The boys with whom I worked in this study were a few years younger than the youth I taught in the adjudicated program, and were not adjudicated; however they, too, had stories to tell and were also negotiating complex social contexts. Their identities as students are complicated by their stories in which they are at once boys and brothers and Black3 and sons and pranksters and readers and middle-schoolers and consumers (and more!).

Although we were ideologically located outside of institutional walls, as a group of five African American boys and a South Asian American woman who met inside of a school and who began regularly meeting initially for academically related purposes (this dissertation), we could not help but engage with this primarily in-school debate ourselves. My original goals had, in fact, been to create a space to examine Discourses of “delinquency” that were embedded in the social institutions that urban adolescents traversed through the construction of (counter)narratives (Andrews, 2002; Delgado, 1995) that centered on race. I soon found out, however, that without a predetermined frame of reference for our interactions – e.g. as an after-school club, in-school elective, community-based program – we were faced with the wonderful opportunity, and somewhat awesome task, of creating a space to be together. Through conversation and repeatedly hanging out, the boys reminded me that they had a wide range of life experiences and that their negotiations of externally imposed rules and deficit expectations were situated within a broader and richer context of familial love, friendships, community connections. I was reminded through our conversations and their stories, photographs, and videography to remain centered on their hybridity and not complicit in essentializing their identities myself – within the victim/perpetrator dichotomy, for example – by limiting their storytelling to responses to the etic notions of increased institutional surveillance and the inundation of media images that portrayed youth as “at risk.” As it turned out, however, these Discourses of “delinquency” followed us: in our movement across the city and their neighborhoods, we regularly encountered, interacted with, and storied the heightened awareness to our presence that followed us in and out of stores, the library, and even their school.

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