Shades of Freedom

The Criminalization of Black Girls

Episode Summary

How did we end up with schools that are based in fear, rather than love, and how is that leading towards the adultification and criminalization of Black girls in particular? Dr. Monique Morris joins us to look into these questions, as well as the paths forward to a better future.

Episode Notes

One piece of dismantling and rebuilding the justice system starts with our schools, which can be an onramp to the criminal justice system for Black girls, who in increasing numbers are subject to criminalization starting in our schools. How did we end up with schools that are based in fear, rather than love, and how is that leading towards the adultification and criminalization of Black girls in particular?

Dr. Monique Morris joins us to look into these questions, as well as the paths forward to a better future. Dr. Morris is an award-winning writer, social justice scholar, professor, founder of National Black Women’s Justice Institute, the executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color. She is also the author of several books, including "Pushout," which PBS recently adapted into a documentary of the same name. We will explore the ideas in "Pushout," and the profound injustice Black girls face in our schools and our country. Dr. Morris is interviewed by Dr. Douglas E. Wood, Director of The Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative.

To learn more:

Pushout, by Dr. Monique Morris

Pushout, PBS documentary

Visit us online at The Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative and follow us on Twitter @AspenCJRI

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, The Aspen Institute is nonpartisan and does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or parties. Further, the views and opinions of our guests and speakers do not necessarily reflect those of The Aspen Institute.

Episode Transcription

Shades of Freedom

Episode 1

The Criminalization of Black Girls

Guest: Dr. Monique Morris

August 12, 2020

Copyright 2020 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative


Announcer (00:00):

Join us for our new podcast, Shades of Freedom, with special guest Dr. Monique Morris.

Dr. Monique Morris (00:06):

So much of how we've come to understand Black girlhood has been through contrived narratives that are not really constructed by them.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (00:18):

Welcome to the first episode of Shades of Freedom, a new podcast from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. My name is Douglas Wood, Executive Director of the program and initiative, and I will be the host of this new podcast. The name of the podcast is inspired by the book of the same title, Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process by one of my former professors, the great and amazing Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (00:50):

Our new Aspen initiative will amplify and uplift promising policy and systems changes needed to reduce mass incarceration as well as think about the ecosystem of related inequalities that surround that perpetuate it. We all know that in the United States, our justice system is at a crisis point. Over 2 million people are in prison in the US and over 7 million are currently under some form of correctional control.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (01:13):

With 25% of the world's prison population, one out of the five people in the United States have a criminal record. We can change this reality, but it will take engaging in dozens of issues simultaneously. One critical, yet important piece of dismantling and transforming the justice system starts in our schools, which have been turned into an on-ramp for some students to the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (01:38):

Joining me today to discuss the topic of the criminalization of Black girls is Dr. Monique Morris. Dr. Morris's prolific career as a social justice advocate spans over decades. She's an award-winning writer, social justice scholar, professor, founder of the National Black Women's Justice Institute, and the new executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color. She's also the author of several books, including Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which PBS recently adapted into a documentary. Pushout chronicles the adultification and criminalization of Black girls in schools and the justice system. In our discussion today, we will explore Pushout's content and the profound injustices Black girls face in our country every day.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (02:24):

Monique Morris, welcome.

Dr. Monique Morris (02:26):

Thank you for having me on. Happy to be here.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (02:28):

We were so very pleased that you were part of our very first digital event focused on your book and the documentary film and pleased to have you here as our very first guest.

Dr. Monique Morris (02:38):

Thank you. First isn't bad.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (02:41):

First is great.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (02:44):

For some of our listeners that might not have read the book Pushout or seen the film, you have said that your entry point for Pushout came after you had the opportunity to examine what's happened in schools over the last 20 years. How did that investigation become your inspiration for this book and later the film?

Dr. Monique Morris (03:02):

I had been going in and out of juvenile detention facilities for decades before I put pen to paper to begin to write Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. But really when we saw the data that showed the disparities that were revealing a particular lived experience for Black girls, that's when I felt like we had to do something, we had to begin to talk about this phenomenon differently. We had to search intentionally for Black girls in the conversation about what we were calling the school to prison pipeline, what I call school to confinement pathways. Because without the intentional way that we engage with our questions around what the system and process does, then we facilitate an erasure of those experiences as they manifest in the lives of Black girls.

Dr. Monique Morris (03:59):

The data revealed that Black girls were the only group of girls who were disproportionately experiencing exclusionary discipline across the spectrum of discipline and at every educational level. Certainly when you see the data, you start to say, "Well, why is this happening?" And sometimes people revert to their own preconceived notions about why this might be occurring, but really we did a deeper dive and found that what we were expecting to see around this being mostly about fights or mostly about other forms of disruption, were really fundamentally about a host of other conditions that we had not yet fully explored. Issues like trauma and victimization, issues like sexual violence and victimization, issues like adultification and the reading of Black girl behaviors in ways that are deeply problematic and aligned with historical and outdated ideas about Black girlhood.

Dr. Monique Morris (04:55):

So once we began to unpack it, it revealed this entire world that we needed to engage in and with intention in order for us to begin to correct.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (05:05):

You mentioned the word adultification of Black girls. Can you say more about what that means? And can you put it into context of a particular Georgetown study titled The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girl's Story.

Dr. Monique Morris (05:20):

Adultification is a concept that's been deeply explored by Dr. Jamilia Blake and her colleagues Rebecca Epstein at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. And the study talked about the ways in which adults read the behaviors of girls as more adult-like. And what they found was that Black girls are experiencing a belief that they are in need of less nurturing, less protection, that they are more knowledgeable of adult topics like sex and more independent than their white counterparts. And that this disparity happens when girls are as young as age five, and it peaks when they're between the ages of 10 and 14.

Dr. Monique Morris (06:03):

It's really, I think, important to recognize that much of how we're reading the adult-like behaviors or the perceived adult-like behaviors of Black girls is happening at a time in their lives when they are most vulnerable to sexual victimization and other forms of violence.

Dr. Monique Morris (06:20):

One of the things that we share in the Pushout documentary is that Black girls are experiencing early onset puberty. And so when their bodies are changing at a younger age, adults tend to start engaging with them as if they are older, even if they're not cognitively more mature. And so using body as proxy for this understanding of who they are and what they're capable of is deeply problematic in the school setting where we're supposed to be adjusting to them as scholars in accordance to their cognitive and behavioral levels of maturity. The reading of them is more adult-like, then shifts our understanding of how to read trauma if a girl is experiencing sexual violence. It also feeds into whether we're going to have more patience or less patience with them if they do make a mistake and determine their mistake as just that, a mistake and not an irreparable harm that requires us to remove them completely from the learning environment or community.

Dr. Monique Morris (07:25):

I think it's been a significant contribution, this work around adultification to our conversations about how we can interrupt cycles of violence in the lives of Black girls and how we need to educate others about the potential danger of reading Black girls' behaviors, bodies, et cetera, as more adult-like than they are.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (07:46):

In Pushout you talked about stereotypes, language, and labels and how, especially during the internet era, it can be detrimental to Black girls in forming their identities. How do we shift the sometimes negative deficit-based narratives and biases regarding Black girls?

Dr. Monique Morris (08:04):

So much of how we've come to understand Black girlhood has been through contrived narratives that are not really constructed by them. A lot of times, people aren't talking to Black girls about what it is to be a Black girl. And so for me, that's one of the reasons why it was deeply important for me to engage a participatory process when doing the research for Pushout. Was to just go into facilities, go into schools, talk to the girls and just explore what their lived experiences actually are.

Dr. Monique Morris (08:40):

So I think in order for us to really begin to disrupt some of those narratives that are rooted in racially biased gender stereotypes about Black girls, is for us to actually talk to them and explore what it is that they're experiencing. And then create platforms that provide ample opportunity for them to correct course. Probably one of the most valuable things I feel from having produced Pushout in book and film form has been the opportunity for girls to speak their truths in a way that people seem to be receiving. That they're able to articulate both what they have experienced positively in their learning spaces, and what they wish were different so that they could actually have a safe learning space that is both conducive to their intellectual development and also their emotional development.

Dr. Monique Morris (09:35):

We know already that if young people don't feel safe in schools, they're not going to feel like they can learn. They're going to be busy and distracted. We're wired this way for our brains to be busy, protecting us if we don't feel safe. And so part of this element of discussing pushout and trying to unpack what it is that Black girls are experiencing is to understand more deeply what it is that we need to put in place for them to feel safe.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (10:05):

That's so interesting because we talked about that during the digital event and what we would suggest educators do around creating healing-centered approaches to learning. So in the context, particularly of COVID, what are your thoughts about creating a healing-centered approach to learning for Black girls?

Dr. Monique Morris (10:27):

I think COVID-19 has complicated everyone's life, and yet we're all grateful to have life also in this moment. I think it's also important to uplift that one of the gifts that we got from this moment of pause was the opportunity for us to explore all the ways in which we were sort of masking, and in some ways masquerading an equity that we can no longer pretend is what we thought it was. So many of our girls in this COVID-19 environment have been struggling to maintain their identities as scholars to build meaningful relationships and connect with their educators and peers and classmates. And yet young people are more digitally savvy than older people. And so the challenges are not necessarily their ability. It's about all the other things that we need to make sure are in place to ensure their safety.

Dr. Monique Morris (11:31):

I'm really excited by the fact that through Grantmakers for Girls of Color, we've been able to support almost 85 organizations who are being very creative in this moment, who are connecting girls with the types of materials they need to be responsive to their learning needs that are able to build community in ways that continue to uplift their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual safety. And that for girls of color, what we seek to do is build out again, the modalities that connect them in community, as opposed to really trying to exploit whatever dangerous conditions there might be in their lives.

Dr. Monique Morris (12:11):

Now, the problem is that not everyone sees this environment as a particular type of disruption that can be harmful. We had the case of Grace. I'm not handling her cases specifically, but I will say having watched it from afar, the 15-year-old girl who was placed in detention for not completing her homework in Michigan, that we also have cases like that. And unfortunately she's not the only one where there are Black girls who continue to be criminalized for normal adolescent behavior or behavior that is consistent with their responses to severe disruption and trauma, that we seek to respond to with a violent structure, as opposed to really thinking about how we can interrupt this cycle with another type of intervention.

Dr. Monique Morris (13:03):

I really think this moment presents an opportunity for us to explore what it is to not rely on some of these systems that exacerbate harm, but to really consider what it is to make a deeper investment in the alternatives to some of these structures that can exist virtually, that have been existing virtually, and that I hope will be utilized more effectively in the future.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (13:29):

We all heard about that case in Michigan, and it brings me back to the question I wanted to ask you. Can you speak to conditions of confinement for Black girls in particular, as we know that every year an estimated 300,000 young people are sent to detention centers and 20,000 are held in detention centers on any given night? And can you speak to that in particular with respect to COVID?

Dr. Monique Morris (13:56):

In general, what we know about the carceral facilities, the detention facilities, and I say this and Pushout, is that they're not healing responsive. That they can't be. The system and structure that they're embedded in is one that is about suppression and oftentimes verbal abuse and violence in response to other forms of violence that these young people are already experiencing and therefore cannot be a healing space. I try to operate with the understanding that there are basically two ways that we can move both in policy and practice. And that's either through fear or through love.

Dr. Monique Morris (14:39):

Carceral facilities are instruments and structures of fear, not love. They are fear.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (14:46):


Dr. Monique Morris (14:49):

Unfortunately we've prioritized sort of resourcing these structures of fear without a deep investment in the structures of love, without a deep investment in the counseling, the opportunities for us to explore education as a critical protective factor beyond just saying those who want to be here will get to be here, but understanding how we create systems and spaces where everyone wants to be there.

Dr. Monique Morris (15:17):

We think about these facilities as being necessary in our community, except that so many of us who have spent time with young people in these facilities, or who have lived experiences with these facilities, understand that if we were to invest in some of the alternatives to the carceral facilities, that we would see a type of transformation that isn't possible when one is behind bars and isolated from their community.

Dr. Monique Morris (15:47):

In the TED talk that I gave on this topic, I talked about the way that we use exclusionary discipline to push people away, rather than think about harm as an opportunity to bring people in closer. And it's actually harder to bring people in closer than it is to push them away, right?

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (16:06):


Dr. Monique Morris (16:06):

It's actually harder to sit and have a conversation with someone about how they engage in a deep transformation and that the isolation is what drives someone to the brink of insanity. That it's the isolation from community that exacerbates the harm and deepens the sore. And so if we're really seeking to disrupt the soreness, then we really have to do this hard work now. So I appreciate this moment. I go through all of that to say that I'm appreciative of this moment that we're in, because I think it's an opportunity for us to engage in a deep reconciliation if we don't waste this moment. That we have this opportunity for us to say, "We want to do things differently." Those of us who have been asking for something different for the past 20 plus, 30 plus, 60 plus years are saying we've been aware of these conditions for a very long time, but now we're in a moment where we're evaluating how we want to do certain things, how we're going to move into the future.

Dr. Monique Morris (17:09):

So I offer, or I invite us to really think about what it might look like if we engage our radical imagination around love and think about developing structures, policies, practices, conditions that are rooted in that rather than fear.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (17:27):

You actually referred to this before, around this notion of transformation. Many criminal justice advocates have called upon not just "reforming the system," but to think about real and true transformation that gets to the core of overlapping inequalities that go beyond tinkering at the edges. What are your thoughts about that?

Dr. Monique Morris (17:49):

The transformative work is really about how we want to shape the future. It's scary, I think, for a lot of people to think about tearing something down to rebuild it. If we move beyond the reflex of us wanting to market our interest in some of these conversations about justice and freedom, then we'll actually get to a place where we recognize that tinkering with the edges does not produce the type of healing that is necessary from the generations of people who have been deeply impacted by a structure and society that was based upon the subjugation and dehumanization of another group of people or other groups of people.

Dr. Monique Morris (18:44):

And we have to reconcile that. We have to reconcile that in all the systems. We have to reconcile it with the creation of the police force. We have to reconcile that with the structures that we have in place around the penal system. More generally, we have to think about that in the context of how schools were created and how they function today. That if we just pretend like this history doesn't matter, that it is one of those things that I think deepens the harm, because even if we're not paying attention to it, it's still there.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (19:17):

And as we reimagine policing in America, many have advocated for rethinking the use and even getting rid of school resource officers. I can't leave this conversation at all without asking your thoughts about that.

Dr. Monique Morris (19:34):

Yeah. In Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, I wrote that safety in schools does not require a police escort. And that we have to think about how we build safety in a way that is co-constructed with the young people who are living in those spaces and not think about safety as something that can be implemented or brought in. You can't bring in safety. You can bring in instruments of surveillance, you can bring in agents of enforcement, but you cannot bring in safety. You pull out safety. You cultivate safety.

Dr. Monique Morris (20:19):

And so I agree that schools should be places where there are no police officers, where there are instead other structures to engage in conversations about accountability, and where young people are connected to the adults and peers in their learning space in a way that is as old as it is now new. Schools didn't always have police officers, right?

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (20:48):


Dr. Monique Morris (20:49):

And a lot of times it's always frustrating for me as someone who spent time in classroom as an educator. We pretend like these kids are somehow different than the way we were or the kids back in the day. I just have to fundamentally disagree with that. That kids are kids. What's shifted is a lot of our narrative about their promise, our expectations for how they engage in conversation with us and build community with us, and our own understanding of what the school system can and should be.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (21:23):

For our listeners and future listeners, I'm going to ask a Monique a question I will ask all of our guests at the end of this podcast. And that is this. This podcast is titled Shades of Freedom. When you hear that phrase, what does it mean to you now and for the future?

Dr. Monique Morris (21:47):

Shades of freedom for me, I see a gradient. I'm a visual learner. And so I think in terms of a gradient. Not to say that there's sort of a continuum of freedom, though I think there's a continuum of access to freedom. But I think that for me, the notion of having a shades of freedom as a framework is really about a deepening of our own interrogation of how we understand freedom to manifest in the different lives and experiences of the people that we come into communication with and who we come into community with around the world. There's a recognition to me that's embedded in this, that freedom doesn't look the same to all people, but that freedom is something that is on all of our minds. This capacity to move without inhibition or this opportunity to participate fully in oneself, one's expressions, one's institutions. And fundamentally to recognize that freedom is accessible to everyone and not a pie that we should see as something to be divvied.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (23:10):

Thank you so very much, Monique Morris. You are so special. We had so many people so happy and thrilled that you participated in our first digital event, and now you have participated in our first podcast. So thank you so, so much. It was a pleasure having you on today. Thank you.

Dr. Monique Morris (23:30):

Thank you. Thank you for hosting this conversation. It's a necessary one and I'm so happy that we are engaging in conversations about shift in thinking in a way that is reflective of our full community and that will also engage and bring in conversations about our girls. So thank you so much.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (23:50):

Thank you.

Announcer (23:51):

Thanks for joining us for Shades of Freedom, a new podcast from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought-provoking guests working to transform the criminal justice system and beyond. Our initiative is supported by Arnold Ventures, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Ascendium Education Group, and Google. You can find out more about the Aspen Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, read our recent reports, blogs, view videos, and join our email list at, or follow us on Twitter @AspenCjri.