When asked about the organization I work with, I usually offer a formulaic response: Circles & Ciphers is a leadership development organization for young men of color who are prison-, court-, and gang- involved. Fusing restorative justice practices and principles with hip-hop arts and culture, we empower participants to transform legacies of violence, incarceration, patriarchal masculinity, and disengagement.
When asked to describe my specific responsibilities, I explain: in addition to grant writing & program coordination, I am blessed with the opportunity to design and implement curricula for many of the circles. When I tell them this, they quickly clarify, “So you’re their teacher?”
“No,” I respond.
“Oh! Got it. You’re more of a mentor to them? A role model of sorts?”
“Not really, no.”
They continue to offer terms that me force the youth participants and I into a hierarchical relationship. In America we have been socialized to perceive the college-graduate grant-recipient as the disseminator of knowledge – or, at the very least, as a model for “good behavior.” This perpetuates the colonial legacy of depreciating the intelligence & power of lower class, minority youth.
How, then, do I characterize my relationship with the youth leaders in Circle & Ciphers?
I am an ally in their struggle against the prison industrial complex; a peer who will engage in critical discourse when they insist I read, “The New Jim Crow” or “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson”; a friend who is similarly obsessed with Hip-Hop as a tool for social justice.
Circles & Ciphers supports its participants in many ways – fueling economic empowerment, cultivating critical thinking, building social/emotional skills, etc. – all of which are astounding. But the organization’s ability to dismantle traditional notions of hierarchy is truly revolutionary.