I got a new picture book this week: Milo Imagines the World, a collaboration between two of my favorites: author Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson. In it, a kid named Milo and his sister are on a long ride on the subway. It's an opportunity for Milo to imagine and draw the lives of all the people he sees, including a boy about his own age. Readers discover that Milo and his sister - and the other boy - are on their way to a correctional facility, where they are going to visit their mom. The way that de la Pena gives language to the emotions that Milo is feeling is poetry ("These monthly subway rides are never ending, and as usual, Milo is a shook-up soda.) And Robinson brings life and not only to Milo, but to Milo's imagination.
Milo's journey to the prison is also a journey of realization. When he sees that the other little boy, who he had imagined as someone who's experience was very different from his own, is heading for the same destination he is, Milo understands that the way he imagines the people in the subway might be way off and the pictures he made of them might have been all wrong! Readers begin to see that the ideas that we have about people - including people in prison - might also be based on biases or false narratives. You can read more about Milo at Social Justice Books, or listen to Christian Robinson talk about the book and illustrations on Vimeo (4:33-10:28 are particularly relevant).
At the same time as I'm enjoying Milo, I'm also reading We Do This Till we Free Us, essays on abolition by Miriam Kaba (much more slowly than the rest of the church book group, though I'm grateful they still let me listen in). Kaba writes about seeking justice beyond prison and punishment, building community as an alternative to policing, and transforming how we deal with harm and accountability. I'm not the only adult right now who's beginning to get on board with the idea of police and prison abolition. This awakening in our country is also happening in our denomination. Y'all may already have heard of the curriculum on abolition that MCUSA has created to help churches explore this idea.
But what about kids? The prevailing narrative in dominant culture is that police are the 'good guys.' They are here to help and keep everyone safe. From Paw Patrol to Brooklyn 99 (two programs popular with the young people in my family) media reinforces this narrative. Cops might be goofy or bumbling but are ultimately well intentioned and uphold justice with care. White children especially, who may rarely have had an encounter with police, don't have this narrative interrupted.
We know, though, that not every child does have life-experience to backs up the cultural narrative. Garfield Highschool teacher Jesse Hagopian tweeted last year about an assignment that his first grade son was asked to complete. The assignment invited students to read a page entitled "Police Protect Us" and then answer questions about the reading:
What are some of the things that police officers do? They pepper spray people like when they sprayed my dad.
Why do you think a police officer’s job is important? Nurses, doctors and ambulances are important, but not police!
What would be another good title for this story? Police don’t protect us.
In fact police had not protected this boy and his family. He and many other children have the experience that police threaten and/or do violence and harm to them and their communities.
In parallel to the dominant narrative about police being good, the narrative about prisons and the people in them is that the only reason people go to jail or to prison is that they're bad. Books like Milo make it clear that people in prison are loved and love others, have families, like to read stories and have dreams. They might be there because of limited choices, because they didn't have money to pay for representation or to pay bail, because of complications related to addiction - like illustrator Christian Robinson's own mom.
Milo Imagines the World is one of very few books that give children like Milo a mirror in which to see themselves and children like mine a window through which they can experience understanding and empathy. In addition to her writing and advocacy for and with adults, Kaba also wrote the picture book Missing Daddy because of her frustration finding materials that can help children deal with the “loss, grief, and trauma” of having a parent incarcerated. And there's a list of more books that address policing and prison at Social Justice Books which includes books for children as well as teens and adults.
Though I've been fumbling through attempting to interrupt the narrative about police in myself and my kids for awhile, I still find it helpful to hear new ideas. For example I found a post from the Oakland Public Library on Evaluating Children's Books about Police very helpful and applicable beyond just book and beyond just children. It offers language and questions to test when watching, reading or encountering other media. I also found the teaching guide created by Penguin Classroom helpful; the questions it asks of the books (it includes the author/illustrators other two collaborations as well) are questions we could ask of our own experiences and assumptions as well.
My learning curve now with myself and my family is in trying on ideas about alternatives to police and punishment. It's continuing to build alternatives to policing by creating stronger communities and connections, building empathy and resilience, practicing alternatives to punishment and adopting transformative practices in my own life. I look forward to our congregation continuing to deepen our understanding of the movement to abolish prison and policing.
I will certainly be engaging with the MCUSA curriculum and will likely adapt it to use with youth in fall or winter. I'd be curious if there are parents interested in working through it together with an eye toward how we talk to our children.If you are interested in practical alternatives to police and punishment you can use right now, check out Seattle Area Alternatives to Calling 911 and If You See Something, DO Something: 12 Things to do instead of calling the cops . May we all work together for a just peace!