“Why The Streets Don’t Speak” Campus International interview:
My first interview assignment for the Witness Project, “Why The Streets Don’t Speak” placed me at Campus International School located at 3100 Chester Avenue.
Campus International High School is the continuation of the collaboration between the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Cleveland State University. The building is brightly lit with an innovative feel and style to it.
While I waited in the main office a young man, sharply dressed like a GQ model, politely contacted the language arts teacher, Mr. Charles Ellenbogen, who graciously agreed to open up his class to me for the interview.
I walked into the classroom, immediately arranged the chairs in a circle, and set up my speaker to play music. The circle started small with a few students, before more students trickled into the space, uncertain but interested in what this conversation entailed.
As an experienced educator, I learned the importance of using music, movement and games to create a warm, supportive and safe atmosphere before any formalities. We tossed my spirit ball across the circle to each other connecting, smiling and laughing before the interview began.
The class consisted of Junior and Senior students, all African Americans, with about half the class being young men and the other half young ladies. I introduced myself and shared a bit of my background as a teacher, speaker, performer, father and writer. I used a talking tool or spirit ball and when students wanted to speak they tossed the spirit ball or passed it around the circle.
The circle arrangement of the chairs established an environment of safety, trust and respect. Mr. Ellenbogen decided to step out of the room once we started, giving me full privacy with his students. I appreciated that sense of trust, bestowed in such a short amount of time.
Eventually, the initial questions were asked, “What is a snitch? Where did that word come from anyway?” Students collectively had no answer and they were excited to dive into the rest of the talk.
Next question, “If a crime was committed in your neighborhood, and you had information about the person who committed the crime, would you cooperate with the police?” One young man said,” the justice system is corrupt, designed to incarcerate Black men, and cops gun us down in the streets, so no I would not cooperate with the authorities.”
More students chimed in with their thoughts, “we don’t snitch, police don’t help us, street justice will handle it, and it’s not our place to tell.” With each minute more students expressed similar sentiments about street justice and lack of trust, or no trust at all for the police.
They mentioned loyalty to the street code, and if you did cooperate with authorities that information could get out and put your family at risk. One student mentioned more loyalty to the persons committing the crime because families and friends are closely connected and intertwined, no way of breaking that bond.
Next, a young lady mentioned a time that she witnessed a domestic incident of a man assaulting a woman. She wanted to help but her mom discouraged her from getting involved. The class collectively agreed that these situations are complicated. You have fear involved and in some cases the women go back with the abusive men. The domestic situation evoked lots of spirited debates about domestic violence and how touchy the subject it is. Another student said, “you can’t really get involved because you never know what’s really going on.”
Lastly, a young lady summed up the ‘no snitch’ rule well by saying, “it ain’t my business, he’s going to get caught one day!” Surprisingly, right before the conversation ended, a young lady passionately said, “no matter what the risk, it’s important to speak up and say something!”
Teens have strong voices; we need to continue to establish the space for their voices to be heard.