September 12, 2012

On July 21 and 22, 2012, nearly 700 students, parents, and youth justice advocates convened at Millsaps College for the 5th Annual Mississippi Youth Hip Hop Summit and the 3rd Annual Parent/Advocate Conference. The events attracted participants from fifty-five cities across the state for two days of workshops and action to dismantle the "school-to-prison pipeline." As in previous years, we educated Mississippi parents and students regarding strategies to combat unjust zero-tolerance policies that expel students from schools into the criminal justice system. These policies, created in the name of "safety," now present the largest threat to our young people's success. "These harsh rules criminalize normal student behavior and replace in-school discipline and positive behavior training with police and student arrests in schools," said Nancy Kohsin-Kintigh, Program Director of the ACLU of MS. "We are challenging ourselves, our parents, and especially our youth to begin organizing at a higher level in their schools and communities. As students learn more about their Constitutional Rights, they return to their schools and communities with a new perspective and tools to begin creating change themselves. We expect to see more and more students taking the lead around School-to-Prison Pipeline issues and these parents will be right there beside them."

Last year, the ACLU of Mississippi combined these two annual conferences to create the largest annual meeting in the history of the Mississippi youth justice movement. This year, we welcomed even more. Students between ages ten and seventeen attended workshops on organizing, framing issues, event planning/fundraising, civic engagement, media/reporting, dating violence, and comprehensive sex education. At the same time, parents and youth advocates engaged in parallel workshops as well as a program entitled "Students as Our Partners." Youth justice organizations such as the Mississippi Parent Training and Information Center, Mississippi Center for Justice, and Mississippi NAACP also provided parent workshops.

Outside of workshops, our student participants also attended two-day intensive classes on social justice creative arts, including DJing, b-boy/b-girl dancing, urban art, and rap/rhyme. Accomplished artists, dancers, and rappers generously stepped up in large numbers to educate our student participants on the history of each art form and the power of incorporating art into social justice activism.

In accordance with our yearly tradition, the second night of the Summit featured an open stage for our talented youth to shine. This year, without exception, the students inspired the crowd with their brilliance.

On Sunday, the final day of the Summit, the ACLU of Mississippi and its partners made history as we wrapped up our workshops and marched to the Mississippi State Capitol for the first time as a unified youth justice movement. The voices of students and adults echoed through the streets of Jackson as they chanted pro-youth slogans such as "Whose schools? Our Schools!"; "Educate us, don't incarcerate us!"; "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" The trail of blue and orange shirts trailed for nearly a mile and Jackson police officers blocked the streets for the excited marchers. This march represented the first time that many of our students and parents had marched for justice.

Students, parents, and youth justice advocates left the Capitol with a renewed energy and sense of unity. We hope that you help us sustain this momentum by joining us for our next mobilization, "From the Schoolhouse to the Statehouse: Student Civic Engagement Day" on January 15, 2013. Students and parents will convene at the state Capitol to train further in civic engagement methods and to present their legislators with a copy of the Mississippi Student Bill of Rights.