PTSD NATION: Anna Deavere Smith and the Disaster of the School-to-Prison Pipeline
EW: Are there issues that come up again and again?
ADS: Well, I’ll tell you, there are certain words that keep coming up and one of them is trauma, because of historical trauma, like [that of] the Native Americans I’ve been talking to. Or it’s trauma in relationship, [or from] the kind of violent broken communities some of the people come from who end up in this situation. For a lot of them, if you graduate from high school, that’s a major victory.
EW: What are you learning through this process? What have the kids you’re speaking with about their experiences taught you?
ADS: So much, because I didn’t know anything, really. I’ve only taught artists and I’ve only taught in environments where people have a lot of advantages—Stanford, NYU and before that USC, Carnegie Mellon, and Yale. So the people I’ve taught had a lot of privileges; I call them Maseratis. The students I teach are all very healthy intellectually. But with the students [I’m talking to for this project], it’s pretty much a catastrophe. And of course, as a dramatist, I like catastrophe. So does an emergency room doctor.
EW: Have the people you’ve spoken to brought up much in terms of intervention?
ADS: A lot of people talk about early childhood. I don’t know. I met with a kindergarten teacher who had some pretty gruesome tales. But I think science is useful because physicians and scientists now have done studies that show the effect trauma and violence have on cognitive development, and I think the fact that medicine is stepping in and starting to talk about this is also terrific—because again I think we are asking a lot of schools. These types of [violent] environments have effects on kids’ hormones, and so I think if science begins to speak up, there will be more resources available. Foundations that have had social justice as their mission, and thank God for them, have been stepping up—now maybe medical institutions will step forward. Deborah Prothrow-Stith who was the dean of public health at Harvard, was, as long ago as 1998, talking about violence as an epidemic, thinking about it as a disease.