Lead image of open lock with black and white face silhouettes on lock face facing each other.Illustration by Doug Chayka
Magazine Feature

The Power of Proximity

Embodying Anti-Racist Learning

By Michelle Mary Lelwica

Spring 2022

I didn’t know much about the youth justice system five years ago, when I decided to make weekly visits to the local detention center an integral part of a new course I was designing called Religion, Race, and Social Justice.

I’d just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which examines mass incarceration in the United States as the moral equivalent of Jim Crow, and I felt an urgency to do something to help my students and myself grow our capacity to not just intellectually grasp but care about the catastrophic consequences of systemic racism. One of the biggest challenges I face as a White professor teaching mostly White students to recognize and challenge racial oppression is the comfortable distance from racism’s dehumanizing effects that many of us enjoy. This distance can make it difficult to develop the intellectual understanding, emotional habits, and moral sensibilities we need to be anti-racists. As Black civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s grandmother told him when he was young, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. . . . You have to get close.”

There are a variety of ways to get proximate to what we study—labs, internships, student teaching, study abroad. In my Religion, Race, and Social Justice course, getting close to the dynamics of structural and internalized oppression through our visits with incarcerated youth generates the questions, critical insights, empathy, and self-examination that anti-racist learning requires. These visits compel my students and me to reflect on what it means for many of us to be members of a dominant and/or privileged group, while challenging our dualistic assumptions about guilt and innocence. Listening to the youth’s stories and perspectives prompts us to also interrogate the meaning of justice, especially its common association with punishment within the criminal justice system, and to ask what a compassionate approach to justice might entail—one that takes seriously the suffering inflicted by structural oppression and childhood trauma. Ultimately, what teaching this class is teaching me is that proximity can be a powerful though challenging strategy for anti-racist learning.

In addition to Alexander’s book, my motivation to make detention center visits part of the Religion, Race, and Social Justice course was sparked by a recent initiative at Concordia College, where I teach. In 2017, the faculty institutionalized our commitment to integrative learning by requiring students to take part in two “pivotal experience in applied knowledge” (PEAK) learning opportunities. PEAKs are designed to get students out of the classroom to work and learn alongside people who are facing complex problems. Immersion in such challenging, unscripted situations requires students to wrestle with ambiguity, work through frustration, experience disequilibrium, and construct meaningful responses that take into account the perspectives of others. The proximate pedagogy of Religion, Race, and Social Justice enables the course to fulfill one of these PEAK requirements.

The course also fulfills the college’s upper-level religion requirement. This means that the eleven students (capped at this number because of limited space and to ensure a good ratio with the youth we visit) in the class represent a variety of majors—from business to biology, music to mathematics. We read authors who represent Christian, Muslim, Indigenous, Buddhist, and atheist perspectives on racial justice, and the interfaith perspective that informs the course not only values the diverse ways people orient around religion but it also assumes, in the words of Ali Asani, that “religions don’t have agency; people do.” This insight facilitates knowledge of the ways religious discourses have been (and still are) used to justify—or resist—oppression. Fostering intellectual understanding of this ambiguity is a key goal of the course, as is developing the ability to analyze how power and privilege shape people’s different life situations. Together with writing assignments, a collaborative research project, and seminar-style discussions of course readings, our visits with incarcerated youth also cultivate students’ self-knowledge by requiring them to reflect on their own (relative) privileges, identify and examine internalized narratives of dominance and inferiority, and consider how they will use the advantages of a college education to challenge injustice.

Illustration by Doug Chayka

The detention center we visit serves up to eighty youth ages eleven to nineteen of different genders (female, male, nonbinary, and trans). It has a nonsecure and a transitional program, but the youth we visit are in the secure unit—usually because they have been arrested, sometimes for violent crimes. These kids’ freedoms are strictly limited—doors between rooms, pods, and hallways are locked, and the kids wear the same colored T-shirts, wake at the same time, and have limited minutes for showers. Despite such carceral conditions, the facility’s directors aspire to move away from the punitive culture that permeates the broader system by providing educational and therapeutic programming that aims to foster accountability and healing. Still, most of the youth we work with experience “being locked up” as punishing, though some express gratitude for the opportunity to turn their lives around, and a few say that if they were not in detention, they would likely be dead.

The residents we visit are disproportionately youth of color. Every Monday throughout the fifteen-week semester, anywhere from five to fifteen of them voluntarily come to the facility’s gym to participate in what’s come to be known as the Mindfulness Group. My decision to make mindfulness part of our visits was influenced by Black authors like Resmaa Menakem and Ruth King, both of whom suggest that anti-racism must include strategies for calming the fight, flight, or freeze tendencies of our “lizard brain.” My students, the youth, and I do a few minutes of meditation—conscious breathing, checking (and accepting) our “internal weather,” watching our “mind movies” (without judgment), silently reciting a self-designed mantra, or listening to music. But we spend most of the hour in small-group discussions, prompted by questions I prepare that generate conversations on topics ranging from mental health challenges and childhood adversity, to current events and social issues, to favorite foods, films, and music. Some of the stories the youth share reveal the violence that structural oppression—especially racism, poverty, and sexism—has inflicted on their lives. Their experiences compel us to consider the humanity of those our society views and treats as dispensable, to examine our unwitting complicity with an unjust system, and to ask what we will do now that we know.

I don’t think of our detention center visits as a form of service learning. I tell the youth (and by proxy, my students) that we’re not there to serve or even to help them and that we can’t fix anything about their situation. Instead, we aspire to use what we learn to help us challenge and change the opportunity gaps that have created our different life situations. The quote at the top of my syllabus captures the ethos that grounds our visits. Attributed to Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist, it reads: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation and freedom are bound up in mine, then let us work together.”

In his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson says that “proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own.” This question becomes pressing for my students and me as our conversations with the youth take racial injustice out of the realm of ideas. “I was aware of [the harm caused by racism] prior to visiting” the detention center, a White student wrote in her paper, “but my conversation with the youth highlighted to me the realness and intensity of this truth.” The discussion she was referencing occurred during our first visit with a particular cohort of youth. Within the first fifteen minutes, a fifteen-year-old boy shared that his dad was being released from prison that week after fourteen years of incarceration. A sixteen-year-old girl talked about her struggle to stay sober; she’d become addicted to meth to escape the recurring pain of sexual trauma. And a seventeen-year-old boy told us that the following week was the one-year anniversary of one of his brothers’ deaths. Altogether, he’d lost three brothers to violence and his favorite auntie to cancer. The therapeutic services that the youth receive enable many of them to talk about their traumatic backstories with relative ease, and for the most part, without shame. As one of my White students wrote in his paper, listening to these stories “humanize[s] theoretical discussions of injustice.”

The urgent question of the youth’s humanity prompts students to reflect on what it means to be a member of a dominant and/or privileged group. This happens for both my majority White students and for the students of color in the class, some of whom are international students and all of whom come from economically stable families. A Black student described the discomfort she experienced during the check-in part of our small-group discussions, which is when we share highs and lows from the previous week: “I feel as if I should not be sharing my low because how on earth could my silly, petty problems compare to theirs.” Then she described a small-group discussion in which an Indigenous girl talked about several family members who had died by suicide or homicide. Reflecting on her connection with—and difference from—this girl, the student wrote: “Sometimes I feel like I can group myself into the ‘underprivileged’ category because I am black.” Ultimately, however, she concluded that because of her privilege as a private college student, “it is disrespectful to try to relate to [the youth] merely because of the color of my skin. It gives me no right to say, ‘Oh yeah, I kind of know what you’re going through.’ ”

Illustration by Doug Chayka

The youth of color are reliably articulate about how systemic racism has contributed to their trouble with the law. A few years ago, one of the Black youth in the group said to my students, only half-jokingly, “I’m locked up for doing something I know a lot of you college kids do on weekends. And how come you don’t get arrested?” A group of mostly BIPOC youth shared similar perceptions of racial and economic disparities with another one of my White students. As my student wrote in her paper, one youth, E, said, “Some people were given a silver spoon when they were born. And other people, they were given a plastic spoon.” E looked at my student and added, “No disrespect to your silver spoon though.” One of the other youth responded: “I don’t know your life growin[g] up, but I know mine and, yeah, I [don’t know], I wouldn’t trade my plastic spoon for the world.” After a pause, one of the youth started to laugh, saying, “Look at us over here just talking about spoons.”

What the youth tell us also reveals their resilience. An Asian American youth shared his strategy for staying sane: “It’s important to remember—things could always be worse. That’s what I tell myself to get through.” In response to the question “When do you feel most brave?” a soft-spoken Black male responded, “When I’m in my trauma therapy group.” Asked about future aspirations, an Indigenous girl stated, “I want to be a lawyer, because I like to argue and because then I can help kids like me!” Once when we were talking about forgiveness, one of the Latinx girls explained, “I forgive myself because I have survived so much”—to which a White boy in the group added, “I think it’s possible to have regrets without wishing you could go back and change things.”

Going into the course, my students don’t expect to be on the receiving end of our interactions with the youth. By the end of the semester, however, there’s little question that we are beneficiaries of the youth’s generosity—their willingness to spend time with us and trust us with their stories. “It bothers me when someone tells me how ‘great’ it is that I’m in a class that visits incarcerated kids,” one of my White students wrote. “When they say that, I know they don’t have a clue. They think we’re doing something good when we’re the ones who gain the most from our visits.”

In fact, what we learn from the youth is so powerful that I worry—a lot—about whether the benefits of our visits are lopsided. My partners at the facility, though, have repeatedly assured me that the youth are enriched by their positive interactions with my students, who are consistently good role models, take a genuine interest in the youth’s lives, and encourage the youth and see their potential and worth.

In summer 2020, I conducted a research project called “Compassionate Justice.” The title refers to an approach to justice that recognizes and responds to the suffering inflicted by the structural violence of racism, sexism, poverty, and historical trauma. I wanted to learn how youth “offenders” would respond to activities aiming to foster introspection, self-knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity. Two student assistants and I engaged a cohort of ten youth in mindfulness practices (meditation and yoga), small-group discussions (using prompts like the ones for the mindfulness group), a book club, and creative writing projects. The qualitative data we collected, especially from the writing projects, affirmed that a compassionate approach to justice is more likely than a punitive approach to encourage accountability and healing. In the words of one of the Black youth who participated in the project: “It can be hard to take accountability for things you feel shame [about].”

Trying to ensure that the Mindfulness Group is mutually beneficial for my students and the youth we visit is just one of the challenges surrounding the course. I also struggle with the ethics of participating in a system that’s so riddled with problems, including, as Nell Bernstein writes about in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, the alarming rates at which youth are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes; the abuse that too frequently happens in carceral settings; the astronomical costs of youth incarceration coupled with the high rates of recidivism associated with this method; and the system’s overrepresentation of youth of color and kids from economically impoverished families. Even though my partners at the facility strive to promote the dignity, self-worth, education, and healing of the youth in their care, my students and I are still guests in an institution whose historically punitive tendencies we are learning to critique.

I’m also wary about unwittingly succumbing to “White savior” syndrome. Consciously, I know this syndrome is not only oppressive but nonsensical—because it’s so clear to me that we’re not saving anyone. For example, one of the Black youth who participated in the research project was shot dead by his buddy as they were stealing a car just four months after his release from the detention center. This is a boy who’d written about wanting his family to forgive him. “I want my mom to forgive me for all the trouble I been in,” he wrote. “I want my Dad to forgive me because I didn’t become a basketball star and I was running the streets and being hard head[ed]. . . . But I can’t keep saying forgive me. I gotta show it and be about it.”

Another youth from the summer research cohort committed second-degree murder in a botched robbery attempt eight months after his release. This young Black man had written about his desire to be a good example for five younger siblings, especially his seven-year-old brother. Nine months before this youth committed murder, he wrote about the excruciating loss of his favorite auntie in a poem that he later developed into a rap, in which he says:

I know you disappointed with the ways I tried to cope with pain.
They on the outside lookin‘ in my tinted windowpane,
I lost the one I loved the most now I can’t feel the same.

One boy murdered. Another a “murderer.” Getting close to the immense pain inflicted by systemic racism does not lead to a happy ending. It makes you see just what’s at stake. It changes your mind because it breaks your heart.

Despite the enormous opportunity gaps that separate my students’ lives from the lives of the youth, the visits to the center reveal the common ground some of the students and youth share through their mental health challenges and/or traumatic experiences. Once, one of the Black girls in my small group shared that she was having a rough week because she was writing her trauma narrative, including the story of her sexual abuse, as part of her treatment program. One of my White students looked the girl in the eye. “You’re not alone,” she said. “The same thing happened to me.” My student thanked the girl for having the courage to speak up and talked about her own struggle to name what had happened to her—how her parents still don’t know, how even though she knows it’s not her fault, it’s still hard for her not to blame herself. The youth, who struggles with attention deficit disorder, was completely focused on what my student was sharing. The youth’s entire demeanor had relaxed. My student wasn’t offering a cure or trying to fix anyone. Yet in the vulnerability she risked, there was an undeniable connection, despite the immense distance.

These kinds of connections don’t happen often. Nor are they the point of our visits. Nonetheless, they underscore how in different ways, and in drastically different circumstances, we all need liberation, compassion, accountability, and healing. Recognizing this truth is essential for our visits not to devolve into a kind of trauma tourism. Even though the youth have told me that “people with privilege need to hear our stories,” I worry about their pain becoming a spectacle for those of us on the outside to affirm our supposed innocence. And while some of us are comfortable connecting with the youth through our struggles with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, whatever common ground we share is grossly uneven. As my students often comment in their papers, after the visits, they get to go back to their dorms and apartments, back to families that love them and have the means to support them, back to the comfortable distance of concepts and ideas. In addition to this unbridgeable chasm, the relationships we create with the youth in the course of a single semester, however mutually enriching, fail to address the dire need for long-term systemic change with regard to racism and youth justice.

My Religion, Race, and Social Justice course and my research related to it are works in progress. Yet both are teaching me that proximity to those who have suffered immensely under the weight of systemic oppression can be an effective way to awaken college students’ hearts and minds to the ongoing legacy of racial injustice and to the urgent question of how we will use our privileges to create a more just and compassionate world.

I’d like to publicly thank the Bringing Theory to Practice Project for introducing me to the value of integrative pedagogy for promoting college learning that facilitates social justice and students’ well-being.

Lead illustration by Doug Chayka


  • Michelle Mary Lelwica

    Michelle Mary Lelwica is a professor of religion at Concordia College.