Book Club Round 2! Author Liza Jessie Peterson Shares her Experience Educating Incarcerated Teens
In this new episode of Listen Ladies, host Maryalice Aymong speaks with Liza Jessie Peterson, an actress, poet, playwright and the author of the second edition of the Listen, Ladies virtual book club pick. Her book is called All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.
This interview has been edited and condensed. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in itunes.
Listen, Ladies (LL): I would like to start off where the book does. You write that you came to New York with ambitions to be a supermodel and things morphed into discovering your artistic side. So how did that happen?
Liza Jessie Peterson (LP): That was quite a long, winding journey. I came here to model and I wound up going to Paris. It was in Paris that I discovered a whole artistic community of free thinkers, of free spirits of creative expression that I had never been exposed to. It opened my mind, my world to the possibilities that I don’t have to do the corporate route. I don’t have to be a robot. Which is kind of the path that I was on, because that’s all my parents knew. You go to work, you get a job that has a pension and benefits and you ride life out. I didn’t know about this other world of self-expression that people were actually living in and thriving in.
So when I came back to New York, I stumbled upon the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and I was also pursuing acting, taking acting classes. It was the convergence of acting and doing poetry that really unearthed my inner voice. I knew I had something to say, I knew that it was more than just modeling and having a surface effect, and being judged by how I looked. That’s what put me on the path to writing and it was through my poetry experience and building a reputation in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and reciting poetry, and spitting poetry at the Nuyorican that developed a reputation. I wound up doing a lot of poetry and so I was asked to teach a poetry workshop at Rikers Island. To do a three-week poetry workshop. It was a great way for me to earn some money temporarily. It was going to be a three-week workshop and then I was supposed to go to a different school and teach another three-week workshop. But when I first stepped foot onto Rikers Island, in 1998 to teach a poetry workshop, was my first introduction to the prison and industrial complex.
LL: It stood out to me when you were talking about the legal situations of so many of your students. Many of them hadn’t been sentenced yet. A lot of them agree to plea deals because it is simply too expensive to afford a lawyer. I was wondering if you could paint a picture for us of who the students were? Who you were working with? What were your responsibilities in terms of teaching them and the daily challenges that they were confronting?
LP: The kids that I work with are literally normal everyday teenagers that we see on the street and who annoy us on the subway because they are talking loudly. They are doing what normal teenagers do, they are obnoxious. I don’t care if you’re white, black, Asian. Teenager is a normal period of what I call temporary insanity. They’re crazy at that age and so the kids I worked with were no different than kids in regular high schools, but they got caught up in criminal activity, or sometimes just normal adolescent behavior that was criminalized for things that would normally be settled in a dean’s office or suspension. For black and Latino kids, unfortunately, they are held to a different standard and a lot of them wind up in the criminal justice system instead of mediation or the principal/dean’s office. I was their pre-GED teacher. I was getting them prepared for the GED class. They weren’t quite ready ready to take the GED so I was to get them ready to build up their skills and their academic attitude so they would be able to take the test.
Really the challenge was, there were a lot of kids who were transient, who were there for a week or two, and then maybe some of them did get released or have court dates so there were a lot of absences because their fate was still being determined. It is not like they are sentenced and just there and then they know when they are being released. Because of that, there’s a lot of anxiety on their part. A lot of depression and anger or acting out because their fate is hanging in the balance. Some of them were looking at some serious time, and even the ones who weren’t wanted to go home. They didn’t know what was going to happen, they didn’t know what the judge was going to say, they didn’t know what the DA was going to say, and they were scaring them with these horrific numbers of years that they would have to do if they do decided to take it to trial. Most kids take a plea deal, which means they plead guilty so that they can go home even if they didn’t commit the crime. They just want to go home, they want it over with, they want to get out.
LL: From your perspective, in addition to making investments to diversify teachers, do you have any thoughts about how the current workforce can make sure that all students are supported?
LP: First of all anybody who signs up to be a teacher doesn’t do it for the paycheck, they do it for the passion, they do it because they want to make a difference, because they want to help children, because they want to invest in the future. That said, teachers work harder than you do no matter what you do. It is really important for teachers who are not of color, white teachers, if they really want to make a difference in the public school and even in the private school system, there has to be a willingness to want to learn beyond what they even learned in terms of history, and have cultural competence when you are walking in front of a classroom and the majority of your students are black and Latino. If you don’t have a reference for the history of this country, then you are doing a disservice because you are just toeing the line of this colonial education and you’re programming the children with propaganda. It is important that teachers do anti-racist work on their own so they can bring that awareness to the classroom.
LL: You actually went to the inauguration for President Obama. Do you want to speak to that experience at all? How did the students react when you got back?
LP: That was incredible. I had to witness it. Not only did it have an effect on the kids; it had an effect on all people, especially black people. We had been so used to seeing negative images of ourselves. And to see a black man rise to that level and to actually win, to break though what has been an ironclad white supremacist, whites-only system in the political process at that level—it was shocking. The streets were buzzing. The barber shops were buzzing. The beauty shops were buzzing. Black people were like, “Oh My God, Oh My God.” There was a fear for his life, because they always kill our leaders. They always kill our great shining princes. I had to witness the inauguration of the first black president of the United States. I never thought in my life that I would get to witness that. I went and I stood in the freezing cold and I was able to see President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. They were like a rose’s throw away from me. It was really moving. What was also moving was to see the diversity of the people who came out. All people: black people, white people, Asian people, Latino people, old, young, hippies, conservatives. It was everybody, America just cheered for this man. Maybe something was shifting in the spirit of this country.
Editor’s Note: For those in NY, Liza’s play will be performed at Joe’s Pub on March 19th.