What I Learned Teaching Black Men at the Cook County Jail in Chicago

I teach a class called “Black Male Leadership” in Division 6 at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. With over 9,000 inmates, Cook County Jail is the largest jail in the United States. It’s located in the center of Chicago, a city that holds the unimpressive distinction of having the nation’s highest murder rate—with over 700 people killed in 2016. Needless to say, the brothers in my class—which is made up of only Black men—are inhabitants of a community in which marginalization is common, violent confrontation is inevitable, and oppression is the standard. For them, the abnormal has become normal.

It is into this world I walked, hoping to contribute, in the most modest of ways, to help clean up my community and improve my city. In this class we cover topics such as conflict mediation, male-female relationships, African American history, and fatherhood. I felt if I could help Black men who have committed and been convicted of crimes think differently about who they are, what they are capable of, and their responsibility to their community, that maybe I could make a difference. I could connect with a young man in a way that changes forever the trajectory of his life.

The truth is that I am the one who has been changed forever.

From the first day of class, each of the 20+ men in the classroom have expressed sincere gratitude for me coming in and volunteering my time to work with them. They have shown great appreciation for the content of the class and have been engaged every single second throughout. Many of them have written letters, notes, poems, and stories detailing what they have gained from the class and how it has affected them. What started out as a one day-a-week for one hour enterprise has turned into a two day-a-week program for a total of five hours.

Throughout my entire time working with my students, I have learned two priceless lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life: (1) no one form of struggle, resistance, or organizing will alone bring about total liberation for the Black community and (2) as a healthy and able Black man, I have an obligation to fight for the improvement of my community until the day I die.

To the first point, the men in my class face a whole host of challenges daily, and their experiences are a microcosm of the larger Black community. For instance, the large majority of the men in my class did not finish high school. It is obvious that their current habitation in the county jail and their failure to complete high school are, at the very least, indirectly linked, which points to the need for activism and changes to the nation’s educational system. In addition, many of the men in class are representatives of society’s lowest socioeconomic sector, suggesting a struggle on the economic, entrepreneurial, and employment front for African Americans. Still, almost all of them comment on the pervasive injustice they face in the courtroom as they fight their cases. Indifferent lawyers, dishonest prosecutors, and prejudiced judges are a regular experience for them, indicating that the Black community needs a revolution in legal equity. Compound these issues with negative experiences with police officers, lack of quality food options in their neighborhoods, and incompetent local politicians, and it is easy to see that our plight as a community is extremely complex.

Considering these revelations, I have learned that we do our community a disservice when we argue about a one or predominant way in which we struggle. Too often we have activists and allies who mean well, but dismiss any form of resistance outside of their preferred realm of struggle. For instance, there are some who say that the answer is massive protests and organizing people in large numbers to march and dramatize an issue, and anyone who isn’t doing it this way is not really affecting change. Or there are those that may say economic boycotts are the only way to get the power structure to pay attention and respect us as people. Others say the struggle is in the classroom, or the boardroom, or the voting booth, etc. Still, some say that true change can only begin in the home through parenting and childrearing.

What I have learned is that none of these avenues is the one essential pathway through struggle. We must struggle and fight on all of these fronts. It is ineffective for any of us to become “bourgeois” in our preferred forms of activism and convey the message that our way is the only way. No, each of us must fight in the lanes we were made to fill. Those who organize and march must organize and march. People who teach should teach. Entrepreneurs should create businesses, jobs, and wealth. Political strategists must run for office and press for changes in the laws that disenfranchise us. There is no one exclusive form of struggle. If we are going to be successful everyone is going to have to play their part in their own special way.

Secondly, I have learned that as long as I am alive, and physically and psychologically able, I have a duty to fight for the liberation of my people. As a Black man, I understand that it was purely a twist of fate that prevented me from being in the shoes of the men I teach. Considering that one in three Black men in America today encounter the criminal justice system, imagining myself as a student at a desk in the class instead of in front teaching it is not an exaggerated sentiment. The only difference between my students and myself is that I have been the beneficiary of numerous blessings and advantages. Advantages many men in my class have not had the opportunity to experience. And as a result, I am obligated to share them with the least advantaged of my community. This commitment requires me to give all that I can for as long as I am alive to reshaping the Black American condition. To do anything less is to turn my back on my community.

In an attempt to teach one of the most undereducated and underserved populations in society, it has been me who has learned the most. These men have taught me more than I could have ever taught them. It is time to apply the lessons I have learned from them and promote Black struggle, resistance, and activism on all fronts for as long as I live.

By DeWitt Scott

DeWitt Scott is a Student Success Specialist at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, IL, Instructor at Sister Jean Hughes Adult High School in Chicago, and writer for Inside Higher Ed’s GradHacker Blog. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife Cecelia.