Five years ago, De La Salle High School in New Orleans, Louisiana introduced the idea of selecting a book on a topic dealing with a peace and justice issue and then involving the entire school in reading and discussing the book. Based on the popular “one book, one community” activity, the idea was both well-received and successful, and the school has continued this social justice project ever since then.
This year, however, students and teachers are taking a drastically different approach to the project and to the entire “one book” concept. The students wanted to do something they felt would be more meaningful to them and the community. De La Salle students decided it was time to write their own book about a social justice issue.
Earlier this month, the school launched One BookEd – A Social Justice Educational Project on Incarceration. In it, every class has undertaken to study the subject of incarceration and then write its own chapter of the book.
To begin the process, guest speakers with first-hand experience of institutional incarceration and the criminal justice system visited De La Salle to meet with students. During the two 45-minute sessions of “One BookEd Day”, students and presenters discussed different aspects of mass incarceration in the United States, with students asking questions based on a list of factoids and statistics compiled in advance.
Presenters included New Orleans-area district attorneys, law enforcement officials, social workers, and legal rights activists. They also included several formerly incarcerated individuals, each of whom shared their stories of finding themselves, either through their own fault or flaws in the legal process, caught in the depths of prison life. Principal Paul Kelly observed, “I believe it was a powerful experience to have many of our students dialogue with former prisoners who were educated, engaging, and friendly, but whose poor choices, combined with the seeming vagaries of our criminal justice system, kept them incarcerated for years.”
Other opportunities for students to engage with the stark realities of life for many in our society soon presented themselves. Teacher Perry Rogers recounted, “We started in a session with the New Orleans district attorney and then walked down the hall to hear from a man who had spent seventeen years in prison, including time in solitary confinement. Normally, these two men would only meet in a courtroom, but they were both at De La Salle on this day, providing diverse perspectives for us to consider as we begin this in-depth study of incarceration.”
As for the students themselves, the project has opened doors to valuable insights into a complex and challenging issue. Senior Keiyada Sanford wrote, “The One BookEd Day really put the entire prison and social justice system into a new perspective. With speakers ranging from people who were in prison to the District Attorney, I was really able to see the topic from different points of view.”
The book writing project is expected to take the academic year to complete, with the first major task due on December 1. Students have been asked to determine how they might relate their own personal and career interests to what they are learning about the issue of mass incarceration.
While both an ambitious and arguably controversial initiative, One BookEd is beginning to earn enthusiastic reviews for its educational creativity – and for its civic significance. After participating in One BookEd Day, social worker and former Louisiana Coalition Against the Death Penalty lobbyist Sidney Garmon would write, “Being at De La Salle High School and seeing how students engage in the discussion of difficult issues and brainstorm potential responses leaves no doubt in my mind that the school is changing the social landscape of the city.”
Learning that leads to overcoming obstacles to compassion and justice is a commitment that is solidly at the heart of the Lasallian educational tradition. With their innovative One BookEd project, the students and teachers of De La Salle High School are introducing a new path that Lasallians can take to go beyond those boundaries.
Tony Behan, Lead Religion Teacher/Campus Minister,
De La Salle High School, contributed to this story.
All photos courtesy De La Salle High School.