Hip hop film gets Public Achievement teams thinking and talking about race, social class and power

At InterDistrict Downtown School (IDDS) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Public Achievement is part of the ninth-grade civics curriculum. Danielle Peterson, Minnesota organizer for Public Achievement and an experienced PA coach, is working with social studies teacher Molly Keenan to co-coach two ninth-grade teams as they develop skills to be powerful, active citizens.

In this fourth interview in a series, Danielle describes a film she screened to get students thinking and talking about race and social class and power.

Danielle: The director of Letter to the President uses interviews with rap and hip hop artists, hip hop entrepreneurs, cultural critics, and academics, to trace the roots of political hip hop back to what was going on in urban centers across the United States in the 1980s. The film talks about the introduction of crack cocaine into urban ghettos and what that meant for people in those communities, how racial profiling became perfected as a policy and a practice, and how prisons became a money-making industry with a population made up disproportionately of people of color. The film’s history of hip hop ends around 2004, with P. Diddy’s Vote or Die! campaign and the transition of political hip hop to gangsta rap.

Letter to the President is rated ‘R’ for language and some drug content and violent images. Why did you choose it and how did you set it up?

I chose to use Letter to the President because I think it’s a good film. It talks about issues impacting poor people and people of color, from the perspective of people who have experienced these things.

A lot of students in the class listen to hip hop and know some of the things talked about in the film, such as racial profiling, but when they’re at school they don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about or they don’t think they’ll be taken seriously. I wanted to create a space for them to begin talking about problems in the community that they might want to work on. And as with the DJ free write exercise, I want them to see the power that music can have in creating change.

There is a lot of cursing in the film—it’s raw—but this is pop culture heroes in their own words. They’re thoughtful and they’re passionate. The kids thought I trusted them to get value out of the film regardless of the language. And I did offer students the option to sit out of if the swearing bothered them.

What was the post-viewing discussion like?

Before we watched the film I gave the students a list of questions to answer. They started with factual questions such as “Who was president of the United States during the 1980s?? and went on to reflection questions like “After seeing this film, how do you think people of color and the poorest people in this country are doing??

The film raised a lot of good questions and concern among the students. It was shocking to them to see some of the numbers—that only 10% of the U.S. population is African-American, yet 60% of prisoners are African-American. They were also really upset that prisoners make so many products, but the money that’s generated doesn’t go into the hands of prisoners or even into public hands, because prisons are increasingly privately-owned. They were also stunned to find out that college courses are no longer offered in federal prisons.

Basically, the students were angry. I think it’s good and right to feel angry about these things, and the students pay more attention when they’re angry. If I can keep them pissed off, I’ll feel I’m doing a good job.

How will you channel that anger, or help them use it productively?

Last year, prison and juvenile detention reform was something that young people at IDDS wanted to work on, and it led to a restorative justice program which is being implemented this year at the school. We’ve got a good foundation this year to take action.

Restorative justice will be used at IDDS to address non-violent offenses such as tardies, breaking the uniform policy, causing disruption in the hallways, or using a cell phone or other electronic devices in class. Students, staff and faculty will participate on a restorative justice council and provide opportunities for those called out for offenses and victims or people affected to reflect on and feel what the experience was like for others. The council will then create an appropriate plan to restore what the community may have lost, or create a plan for the prevention of future occurrences. Community members will then hold the offender accountable to follow the plan.

Of note: As reported in the November 2 New York Times (Rules Lower Prison Terms in Sentences for Crack), on November 1, federal sentencing guidelines reduced the minimum prison term for crack cocaine offenders. Previously, the minimum sentence for possession of 50 grams of crack cocaine was 10 years, the same as for 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, African-Americans make up more than 80 percent of federal crack convictions.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs