By Joshua Saleem

The school-to-prison pipeline is for some, at best, a phenomenon that could happen to a few young people in certain communities. For others, it’s just an academic idea. For still others, it doesn’t even exist.

But for James, Sarah, Natera, and many young people like them, it’s their reality.

This summer, AFSC's St. Louis Youth Empowerment Program worked with five young people, four of whom were no longer in school. You can read more about that here.

One of the introductory activities we did was to create a personal timeline; it included important events from each participant's past as well as where they wanted to be in the future. For the majority of these young people, their past included multiple suspensions, multiple schools, arrests in school, and expulsions.

We created these timelines so that they could name some things in their story within the context of zero tolerance, punitive discipline, and education policy that pushes certain students out of the school building. In the era of No Child Left Behind, where test scores equal dollars, it’s in a school’s financial interest to push underperforming or difficult students out so that they can keep up the school’s scores.

Once the young people were able to connect their story with elements of the school-to-prison pipeline, they were literally able to see where they were in the pipeline—a sobering moment for some, but also a challenge and call to action.

Now that they understood this idea of the pipeline and how their experience intersected with it, the question became, “How do we empower ourselves and empower others to do something about it?”

This t-shirt is that answer. We teamed up with a local screen-printing shop, Danger Schmanger, which has been working with youth from our summer program over the past few months. Our goal is not only to raise awareness about the pipeline. In the process of designing and screen-printing their own t-shirts, youth themselves gain the practical employment skills they need to keep themselves out of it.

You can purchase a shirt here. The sale of this shirt goes directly to the young people’s continued work with Danger Schmanger.

So while the school-to-prison pipeline may be just something in a book for some, many young people—particularly young people of color—know it as their reality, their experience, and their story. Let’s work so that it doesn’t have to be.

Joshua Saleem directs AFSC’s Youth Empowerment Program in St. Louis. To view photos of some of the young people involved in AFSC's work, click here.