Yesterday I went to speak with a mix of undergrad and graduate students in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Criminal Justice program as part of my increasing efforts to make our mass incarceration epidemic a national discussion. I was curious to see how much, or little, students majoring in Criminal Justice know about the issue. Whether the school-to-prison pipeline is prompting the formation of new student clubs on campuses across the nation, driving students to push for more courses addressing this national crisis, or at the very least igniting passionate indignation that university students are notorious for channeling towards the most prescient issues of their generation. Suffice it to say that awareness of this epidemic generally, and sadly even on college campuses, is staggeringly low.
I am pretty sure that I shocked many of the group of about 20 students in their early twenties sitting in front of me in this class with just a few statistics (that in New York we spend approximately $12,000 annually on a student’s public education, but upwards of $250,000 to incarcerate him/her in a juvenile detention facility; that 1 in 32 people in the US are under some form of correctional supervision; that the majority of people in prison are functionally illiterate; and the stigma of a criminal record disenfranchises this increasing percentage of our national population by preventing them from voting, getting access to public housing, loans for school or other endeavors, and diminishing their chances of becoming employed. That while we’re gridlocked about how we’re going to pay for universal health care which prevents far more expensive long term healthcare costs, we’re spending $80 billion on a “corrections” system that does just the opposite of its title, thus contributing towards additional staggering costs further down the line.)
As I stood there looking at a mixture of horror, despondency, and some apathy, I knew, as any teacher in front of a class does, that I needed to find a way to lighten up this subject so that it could feel accessible and actionable. If my goal is to inspire these representatives of the next generation to wake up to the implications of this epidemic and get involved in solutions, I have to invite them in with concrete ways to engage that feel manageable, yet impactful.
So I urged them to spread just one of those statistics amongst their network on Facebook. In doing so, I mentally referenced a fabulous advertisement shown in a workshop at Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Conference last Friday that does a fantastic parody of this need to balance the urgency of our most challenging societal problems with our plain old human-ness and its encumbant limitations as well as our universal need for humor. “Follow the Frog” yourself for a great laugh and follow exalt for more ways to make a difference.