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Mastery Shoemaker students see a film and discuss mass incarceration

The charter hosted a screening of the film "13th" with advocacy group Mothers of Black Sons Move Philly.

Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative focusing on the challenges of prisoner reentry.

Usually, school is the last place that high school students want to be on a Saturday. But on March 11, Quamir Palmer made an exception.

Palmer was among about 60 students and community members who gathered at Mastery Charter Schools’ Shoemaker Campus for a screening of 13th, the Oscar-nominated documentary about how a loophole in the 13th Amendment has led to racialized mass incarceration. The issue of mass incarceration is viewed by many as a reincarnation of slavery.

The documentary explores the prison industrial complex and discriminatory crime policies, from slavery to Donald Trump’s controversial presidential campaign. It features commentary from longtime political activist Angela Davis, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, CNN journalist Van Jones, and more.

The film was directed by Ava DuVernay and was released through Netflix in October 2016. DuVernay also directed Selma, a film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s march for voting rights in 1965.

After the almost two-hour screening, audience members split off into four separate groups and classrooms to discuss the film.

Palmer, a senior at Shoemaker who aspires to own a tattoo parlor and recording studio that would help youth, said the documentary informed him about how many people in the judicial system perceive Black youth like him.

“It added to the message I am trying to spread,” said Palmer, who left without participating in the post-film discussion groups. “And it gave me a lot of insight about what really happens with the [justice] system, and how they look at [the Black community].”

The discussions varied from classroom to classroom, as some students were more engaged than others. But, in one room, when asked by a discussion leader to describe how the movie made them feel in one word, they shared terms like pain, hurtful, anger, and shocked.

Shortly after, most of the students in the group agreed that there was no resolution in sight for the problem of racialized mass incarceration.

One student said the country hasn’t made much progress when it comes to racial equality and a fair justice system, even if discrimination and racism are less overt.

“There are ways to stop this,” the student said. “But, like, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, everybody tried. […] The stuff that’s going on now is just hidden. Nothing is changing.”

The screening was organized by Mothers Of Black Sons (MOBS) Move Philly, a community organization advocating for the protection of young Black males.

MOBS member Joelen Gray, a former corrections officer, was the lead organizer of the event. She said that when she was working in the prison, the demographics of the inmates made her suspicious about the criminal justice system.

“I always would say, ‘All these Black folks couldn’t have done these crimes,’” she said. “We’re only so much of the U.S. population, but most of the prison population is Black and Brown.

“So I always knew something wasn’t right. After watching [13th] , it gave me the point-by-point why it’s not fair. No one ever put it this plainly.”

After seeing the movie, Gray, who has a son attending Boys’ Latin Charter School and a daughter at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, wanted to host a screening, but didn’t have a location. When a mutual friend introduced her to Mastery Shoemaker Principal Sharif El-Mekki, she asked him and he immediately obliged, seizing an opportunity to use the school as a community forum.

El-Mekki, a strong advocate for community activism, said “education without social justice at its core is no real education,” and it is important for school communities “to engage in these conversations.”

By offering Shoemaker as a space for an important dialogue involving community members, El Mekki, who is working to increase the numbers of African American teachers in city schools, wanted students to learn about the tests in life that are too costly to fail.

Pleased with the outcome of the screening, El-Mekki said this is the first of a series of collaborations to come between MOBS and Mastery Shoemaker.

“A lot of times people think education is how well you do in math,” he said. “Or how well you perform on a state test. I want them to also be able to see the state traps. It’s not just about state tests. It is about the traps of the state for Black and Brown and marginalized communities.”

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