Teaching activism to youth through cyphers

Photo by Anete Lusina/Pexels

Cyphers for Justice is a development program for inner-city youth to learn about activism research through multiple literacy methods like spoken word, poetry and cyphers.  

Cyphers are when rappers have a freestyle session surrounded by groups of people. CFJ encourages young people to not only share their thoughts on current issues, but tell their own personal stories and feelings.  

Jordan Comrie, a youth board member at CFJ, has been in the program since his senior year of high school. He was introduced to the program by his mentor Mijin Yeon, a CFJ member since 2016.  

Combrie and Yeon both discussed CFJ’s impact in the “Nourishing Youth Activism” session, part of the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education’s secondary English education program, “(Re) Imagining a More Just English Education.”  

A small group of secondary English education majors gathered around a table in the Gentry Building to hear the speakers discuss the program.  

“If you have a voice in the things that matter… that’s the only thing that could make a change,” Comrie said.  

Comrie is currently an undergraduate at the SUNY Alfred State College of Technology, conducting research on marginalized youth punished by the U.S. prison system.  

He stated that society wants everyone to be an “upstanding citizen” but then creates invisible barriers that separates people, particularly minorities, from ever reaching that goal.  

In talking with his family and the neighbors, Comrie has heard stories about police brutality and mistreatment. Students in inner-city schools often have to walk through metal detectors while teachers are free to walk in normally. As a result, he feels that the students see themselves as criminals from an early age.   

Yeon, an English language art teacher in the South Bronx, New York, says she was initially shocked by CFJ when seeing students and adults become allies. She sees the program as a “nourishing and sustaining space” for students.  

“If we can continue to prioritize students’ stories, students begin to identify their first encounter with activism,” said Yeon.  

Yeon is also a professor at Queens College and Syracuse University.  She advocates for abolitionist teachings and works with other professors to design anti-racist curriculum.  

She believes that teachers should be more eager to engage with students outside the classroom. Some, she says, are so removed from students’ reality that they can’t relate to them in any way, making good communication very difficult.  

The students participated in a Q & A session with Comrie and Dr. Limarys Caraballos, the founding Co-Director of CFJ. Caraballos said that activism is an evolving, diverse realm and she always has to change her definition of what it means to be an activist.  

Caraballos works with teachers, future and present, on advocacy and how to intertwine it with teaching.  

Wanting to know how to prevent activism and research from co-oping, a participant wanted to know about the efforts being made so students are not exploited.   

Caraballos admits that it can’t be fully prevented, but the program is doing the best it can to be protective of how they share their space despite how many researchers ask to observe the students.  

Another student asked, “How do you provide the space for students to explore their trauma but not only focus on it?” 

“There’s an urgency to address issues we want at the forefront, it’s important for the youth to choose what they want to talk about,” said Caraballos. “This way, relationships are built on students’ well being.” 


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