Catching Up With: The Incarceration to Education Coalition

It’s still only a month in the school year, so we sat down with student groups across campus to get the deets on upcoming events, how to join, and what they’re tackling this semester. Editor-in-Chief Kyla Bills sat down with Sumathy Kumar, an IEC organizer, to talk about hard conversations, tight-knit communities, and creating a space that formerly incarcerated students feel comfortable in.


So just introduce your group, for anyone who doesn’t know.

We’re the Incarceration to Education Coalition. We started about three and half years ago, is started as a collection of formerly incarcerated students and allies and community members who were like “We’re against mass incarceration so how is NYU complicit in this system?” And basically coming to this question on an application that asks if you’ve been incarcerated or suspended or expelled from high school is part of that. That’s how the “Abolish the Box” campaign started. The first couple years it was really just gathering a community and talking to the administration, trying to figure out what the situation and environment was. Then NYU in response to what we’d been saying created a policy change that was like, not a great policy change. So last year, we did a bunch of actions.

You guys met with the Common App during last Spring Semester, can you tell us about that? And there was an actual change in the NYU application.

In March, we did a 36 hour occupation in Kimmel demanding that NYU stop looking at the box completely and not listen to the Common App. In response, NYU set up a meeting between us and the Common App, us, and NYU — it was this big meeting.

So, the Common App had very little information. They didn’t have a good justification for why the box was there, they tried to cover it up and make it seem pretty. So, they started doing a research study — or, more specifically they started to start doing a research study — and promised to keep us in the loop. Then, over the summer out of nowhere really, NYU decided to make this policy change where they do ignore the question on the Common App and instead put their own question on the supplement. The new question asks specifically about violent crime. It’s pretty shady. Like, however many months after the sit-in? They’re really trying to control the narrative when they’re really just responding to direct action by students.

How do you feel about the current policy at NYU?

What NYU has really done instead of abolishing the box is adding another one. Any attempt to reform the box just re-entrenches its violence. The idea that those who’ve committed nonviolent crimes are good and people who’ve committed violent crimes are bad is just totally inaccurate. Now we have to talk about violence and how situations of violence are created by structures of racism and poverty. That’s a hard conversation, but it needs to be had. NYU is actually just perpetuating racist, classist stigmas that say that “If you are a product of this violent situation then you can’t come here because you’re a dangerous person.”

What are you guys moving towards this year?

We have a lot of things going on. We have our campaign, “Abolish the Box,” we’re doing that. Our focus this semester is talking about violence.

With the administration or within the community?

I think with both. I think that we’ve gotten to this place where a lot of people are like, “Oh yeah, non-violent drug offenders… that’s fine. But oh no, a murderer!” So now we have to this difficult conversation about this false binary.

So that’s one side. And the other thing we’re focused on is creating a welcoming community for formerly incarcerated students and other students who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. We’re planning more celebratory and healing events that are still pretty disruptive.

How do people get involved?

You can email us, just reach out! We meet every Saturday on campus from one to three. We’re gonna have some events coming up with other groups. We’re trying to build more relationships with other groups on campus, the actions we did — everything we’ve done — we wouldn’t have been able to do without other groups and working together. Which is exciting! Everyone should feel excited to know that there’s such a strong social justice community at NYU. We’re really trying to create our community and build it up more.

Catch up with IEC on their website, Twitter, or Facebook!

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