April 25 2011 by PD Staff
Sitting in the library watching Leah Salgado approach, I note a confident and attractive young woman, like many other college students. But her story proves me wrong. Leah's mother, a Yaqui Indian, was part of the third generation to grow up on the impoverished Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation outside Tucson, with rampant substance and alcohol problems and high rates of incarceration. Leah's mother was 15 when Leah's oldest sister was born, and she had seen enough men go to prison for heroin while the women raised kids who grew up barely knowing their fathers. Leah's mother, determined that her children not be raised in an environment drenched in drugs and alcohol, moved her family to a poor minority community outside of Los Angeles.
Before Leah's parents met, Leah's father had been incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Just at the point he felt he had reached rock bottom, he had a brief but eventful interlude with a prison guard, who handed him a Bible. Reading from the Bible daily, Leah's father began the long, arduous process of transforming his life, which he steadfastly pursued until his death.
Without high school diplomas, Leah's parents juggled many minimum wage jobs while managing to create a spiritual home where curfews and homework were givens, but so were close, loving, supportive relationships. Leah's parents often attributed their successful family life (and their five children attending college) to their spiritual underpinnings.
Leah's community in Southern California was dominated by minorities — Hispanic, Mexican, Samoan and African-American. Families were poor and kids were raised to fend for themselves. Being poor correlated with understaffed schools, single-parent homes and scant supervision. Leah's sophomore chemistry class was so crowded, with kids sitting on counters, there was not enough room to do experiments. The few who had money opted to go across town to a school with more resources. Leah was not one of them.
After the family moved, Leah was singled out by two high school teachers who coached her to pursue a college education. A strong student and athlete as well as a very successful debater, Leah chose Cornell University out of an array of college acceptances. Now a junior at Cornell, Leah is one of the top debaters with the Cornell Forensics Society, coached by Sam Nelson. Female debaters, it turns out, are few and far between.
In addition to the challenge of adjusting to Ithaca's long, cold winters far from her family, Leah jokingly describes rubbing elbows with much more privileged students everywhere she turns at Cornell. Yet once a week, Leah treks with her debate team to a maximum secure facility to teach debate skills to incarcerated teens.
Within the facility, Leah finds herself surrounded by inmates who remind her of her classmates growing up — kids from poor, minority backgrounds, tangled up early on with the criminal justice system: "He could be the kid I sat next to in middle school who went to prison, or my friend who was killed because of the group he chose to associate with."
In her Cornell classes, Leah has reflected on how our environment structures how we react in our struggle to survive. Leah notes that many incarcerated teens have lacked the stable, supportive community and family that provide opportunities to use language and reason in interactions:
"I'm a big believer that the environment that these young men grew up in shaped the way these young people interact. The typical reaction that they have is aggression, if only to provide themselves with the ability to protect themselves. When you grow up being told that you must be aggressive, it seeps into every aspect of your life — friendships, romantic relationships, physical encounters, sexual encounters. These young men are a product of the environments that they grew up in."
Why teach debating skills to incarcerated kids? Leah points out that as we speak, we also learn to think in an orderly and logical manner. "When we learn alternative ways to see a situation, we learn that we can challenge norms in a constructive manner. We don't have to use confrontation; there are other ways to solve problems.
"Debate forces us to examine the root cause of problems. Once we figure that out, we can structure a plan that changes the negative situations around us. What we learn in debate, we can apply to other situations in our own lives."
In the facility, the young men are taught to communicate in a way that doesn't rely on aggressiveness, but rather rhetorical skills and argumentative value. It won't and doesn't change everything, but it's something.
"In these situations it's better to change what you can, to help when you can. If you sit idly by because you don't believe you can change everything, you lose sight of the big picture, the long-term goal, and the ones who are hurt are the individuals who needed your help in the first place."
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