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A tale from the streets

Posted June 7, 2017
By Kylie Jones, reprinted from InterCom
Photo above: Two illustrators work with the students to bring their story to life. Photos provided by Jarid Munsch SCDJJ/Public Affairs

Teenage boys Javian, Tyrelle, Levern and Amont are helping to write a book about gang violence. They are currently incarcerated and two of their collaborators are College of Information and Communications alumni. No, the alumni are not in jail.

Birchwood High School, in Columbia, South Carolina, serves incarcerated youth by giving them the tools and education to create opportunities for themselves upon release. The school’s goal is to provide an academic experience for the youth while they also serve their time.

Susan McNair is the librarian at Birchwood High School and graduated with her master’s degree from the School of Library and Information Science in 1995. Jarid Munsch is the communications coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and graduated from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 2011 with a degree in broadcast journalism.

The boys may be incarcerated by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, but they are learning from the experience. “I never thought I could write something good,” Amont said.

The graphic novel project started with the goal of improving literacy and writing skills, but it has grown into more than McNair and Munsch could have imagined. Gang violence is a prominent issue in Columbia and in the lives of many teenagers. Recent violence among students at Birchwood High School sparked the idea with the two alumni for a graphic novel targeting gang violence.

McNair and Munsch have teamed with Dr. Karen Gavigan, a School of Library and Information Science professor. Gavigan had previously worked with McNair and incarcerated youth in 2014 to create the graphic novel “AIDS in the Endzone.” Munsch said that a graphic novel is a great way to target gang violence. “There are social issues and there’s a lot of character depth,” Munsch said. “A graphic novel becomes a good vehicle for these guys getting their message out.”

Like “AIDS in the Endzone,” the new graphic novel is being written and designed by several incarcerated students at Birchwood. McNair and Gavigan spearheaded the project with the school’s English language arts teacher. They have been working alongside the four boys every step of the way, assisting them in developing characters, a storyline and important messages. The novel will be titled “Shootout: A Tale from the Streets.” The boys, who range from 15 to 17 years old, also had the opportunity to sit down with two illustrators to see their story come to life. Munsch has worked to publicize the project, taking photos and videos.

“I want to see this book get published,” Munsch said. “There are a lot of great things going on here.” “I also want the world to see what my kids are capable of doing,” McNair said. “A lot of people automatically judge kids who have been in a detention center as not being creative.

“These kids are talented, they’re creative, a lot of them work hard. They have so much potential and I would like for the world to see and recognize that our kids are really powerful.”

Throughout this project, McNair has focused on building literacy among the students. It is important to her to not only raise awareness about gang violence, but to show the world that every child deserves an education. Munsch and McNair agreed that this project has arguably taught them even more than it has taught the incarcerated students.

They have provided an opportunity for troubled youth to express themselves and discover talents that they would not have otherwise discovered. The four boys shared how they hope that they can be role models for younger children and show them opportunities aside from gangs.

The alumni received a $5,000 Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grant in 2016. The grant has allowed Birchwood to purchase more graphic novels for the school’s library and to fund this current project.

McNair and Gavigan are traveling to national conventions to present the project and raise awareness for gang violence and literacy. The two hope that by promoting the project, they can create more opportunities like these for troubled youth throughout the nation.

This project has grown into more than they expected, McNair said, with her two-fold goal of trying to “reach people who are in gangs or contemplating gangs with our kids’ experiences to help them,” and “for the world to see how much potential our young adults have.”

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