Marcel Purnell has worked with AFSC in Seattle for three years.Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana
Dustin Washington, community justice program director in Seattle, talks about understanding the historical construction of racism, the interrelation of racism and poverty, and creating vehicles for young people to take leadership in a society historically founded on race and racism.
Through anti-racist training and community organizing, teens and 20-somethings—people most intimately acquainted with Seattle’s education and criminal justice systems—are working to undo the racism that pervades these institutions.
When the city of Seattle screened “Broken on All Sides,” a documentary that examines racial inequity in the American criminal justice system, the event’s organizers asked Marcel Purnell to sit on a panel alongside the chief of police and a civil rights attorney. In the post-screening discussion, Marcel brought up the issue of a proposed new youth jail, the Children and Family Justice Center in King County.
“I said youth don’t need to be incarcerated,” recalls Marcel. “We don’t need state-of-the-art prisons, we need state-of-the-art education. I talked about the pain that comes with youth incarceration and policing and surveillance.”
Debating the security state and racial profiling with police officers operating the institution that he is working to change is nothing new to 26-year-old Marcel.
In the less than four years since he moved from Baltimore to Seattle, his determination to dismantle dehumanizing systems has established him as a respected community organizer and a go-to facilitator for conversations on racial justice.
Growing up between worlds in a white neighborhood in the middle of a predominantly black city, the third-generation educator was skeptical of institutions from the start.
“When I was really young, I had the sense that something wasn’t right with what I was being taught,” Marcel says. “It was incomplete; things were more nuanced than they were presented.”
“Whatever the institutions told me, I needed to fact-check,” he says.
Marcel read everything he could get his hands on—partly to keep pace with his older brother’s learning, but also to satisfy his urge to understand the world in which he lived.
“Just being a black man, and realizing how those who look like me relate to certain structures of governance which are also structures of dehumanization, gave me a desire to dismantle those systems and work to create more equitable systems,” he says.
Marcel started working with AFSC after meeting Dustin Washington, a longtime AFSC staff member, at a gathering for black men involved in racial justice work in Seattle.
He now coordinates Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), a project of AFSC’s Seattle Community Justice Program; coordinates the Tyree Scott Freedom School; and speaks at Pacific Northwest high schools and universities on a regular basis.
YUIR’s membership is multiracial, which is notable in a city that is 70 percent white.
Young people of all backgrounds join through word of mouth—when a classmate invites Marcel to speak at their school, when a friend shares their Freedom School experience, when a teacher refers them to Dustin and Marcel.
“When I’m out in the community, what I’m saying [about structural violence] is very real, and it’s a framework that often isn’t provided to young people, even though the impact of structural violence is all around them,” says Marcel. “It’s something they want to change, so they become involved.”
Within Freedom School and YUIR, Marcel and Dustin’s roles are more about getting youth to question deep-seated distortions of reality than about giving the “right” answers. Marcel explains:
We talk about how youth have been disempowered by the political process and all structures of governance. I really try to help them understand their position within society, and I think that’s something they really appreciate on an existential level.
Due to the nature of formal education, that’s never happened before. Youth haven’t been encouraged to understand. I take the time and labor to
help folks with that. Not just so folks can understand, but so they can begin to do something about it.
YUIR encourages young people to acknowledge their lived experience and inherent power—to insert themselves in the conversations the city has about them.
Presently, YUIR is working to abolish the prison-industrial complex.
Dialogues among the multiracial group members reveal the disparate experiences of Seattle teenagers when it comes to policing and incarceration.
“The white youth in the room own that they are profiled positively,” says Marcel. “The youth of color, like most youth of color in this city, live in the south end. That’s where surveillance is highest, where policing is highest.”
Drug use is no higher in south Seattle than in the north, around the University of Washington, yet the arrest rate and allocation of police resources are higher in the south.
The process of comparing their lived experiences gives youth of different backgrounds insight into the way racism operates.
Marcel tells a story about one young white woman who came to last summer’s Freedom School, skeptical about the experience in front of her. Over the course of the two weeks, “she was moved quite a bit,” he says. “She saw the myriad ways that she has a totally different position in society than what she thought, and what that affords her.”
Watch YUIR members delivering
the keynote speech at the Seattle
Race Conference in August 2013.
They spoke about their campaign
to end the prisonindustrial complex,
and encounters in their daily lives
that offer room for people to
transform guilt into activism.
Now she’s vocal, out in the community, delivering human rights education and speaking about the school-to-prison pipeline.
This transformation from skeptic to activist is “a beautiful thing to watch,” says Marcel.
Setting the agenda
Marcel and YUIR member James were part of the AFSC delegation to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in October 2013, where they connected their local struggle to a larger, international, youth-led justice movement.
“It’s one thing for us to talk about global capitalism or worldwide oppression in this really small city, but it’s another thing to hear about destructive systems from folks who are experiencing the impact of our foreign policies,” says Marcel.
While this grassroots youth movement builds, YUIR is setting a standard in Seattle for ensuring that young voices are heard in policy discussions.
“Now, when there’s an issue of racial justice and a given group wants to address it, they often reach out to me to ask if my youth will be involved and be a part of the conversation,” says Marcel.