07 December 2012

(Part 1 of 3) Making Literacy Connections Via Street Lit: One Scholar's Incredible Work

Meet Joseph B. Richardson, Jr., Ph.D., who is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland - College Park. Dr. Richardson is a Philadelphia native whose research focuses on learning the various effects of urban poverty on inner-city teen boys' lives. In one aspect of his research, Dr. Richardson made literary connections with the boys he was working with: he gave them books to read and in turn, they told him what they wanted to read in books, and see in films. Their reading interests illustrated that they were more engaged with reading and improving their literacy practices when they had access to reading stories they could relate to. 

StreetLiterature.com interviewed Dr. Richardson so that we all can be introduced to his work and how reading urban-based stories can become a major component for literacy engagement and improvements among inner-city youth. This interview will be presented as a three-part series. Below is Part I. Parts II and III will be released each Friday, December 2012.

StreetLiterature.com: Could you please share a short biography of your personal background and professional work with adolescent city young adult males. Basically, who are you to do the work that you do?

I was born and raised in Philadelphia in the Germantown and Mt. Airy neighborhoods of Philadelphia. I received by BA in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and my MA and PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Rutgers University (NJ). 

As a Black male growing up in Philadelphia, although I lived in a relatively safe neighborhood, as the rapper Common mentioned in an interview, the hood was all around me. I lived in what sociologists would call a buffer neighborhood, which is defined as a neighborhood which buffers impoverished neighborhoods from middle class and affluent neighborhoods. I think that my infatuation with crime and the criminal mind, started from living in a neighborhood with a lot of guys that were criminals. They were always really fascinating to me - the way they thought, they were so real, funny and human, but incredibly complex.

StreetLiterature.com: How did your research involve inner-city youth? 

In my first research study of adolescent inner-city youth in Harlem, some of the boys in my study were members of the Bloods and Crips gangs and were involved in violence, beatings, stabbings and shootings. How the boys and girls (there were auxiliary gangs for girls called the Bloodettes and Crippettes) negotiated violence in this context framed my study. I had formed really tight relationships with three boys who were members of gangs, one was a Blood (Slyvester), another was a Crip (Manny), and another (Ali) was in a gang affiliated with his projects. His gang, the Valley, had an on-going feud with both Blood and Crip sets. In fact, he was involved in a shootout with the Bloods. His best friend shot a Blood. Because Ali was best friends with this kid, he was guilty by association. 

At his school, the principal allowed Ali to leave school early every day, because the Bloods had a contract to kill him. They would wait for him every day after-school, but they had no idea that he would leave before dismissal, this strategy probably saved his life. I would drive him from school to his home so he would not have to walk through the neighborhood. Every time he exited my car, I would always wonder whether I would ever see him again alive because kids were dying every day due to gang violence.

StreetLiterature.com: In your research, you work with incarcerated young adult males to enact positive change in their identities and approach to education. How does your research affect the literacy practices of teen readers?

First, I want to make sure we address them as children because we are really quick to call Black boys ‘young men’ or ‘young adults’ and they are not. These are children who have been adjudicated as adults but they are still children nonetheless. The great work of Dr.Lawrence Steinberg at Temple University indicates that the criminal justice system should not treat children as adults because their brains are still forming and not fully developed which impacts their decision-making capability and culpability.

Many of these children live in governmentally neglected communities, attend under-resourced schools and are products of really unstable households. Many adolescents in adult jails read on a 4th grade reading level. Fourth grade reading levels are predictive of school dropout and school dropout is predictive of criminal justice involvement. So if we really want to address criminal justice involvement among young black males, we need to start with literacy practices, very early on, well before the 4th grade.

We need to be addressing literacy practices pre-K, even while a child is in his mother’s womb, a mother should be reading to her child. But that also means we must address the educational needs and parenting practices of parents as well. 

StreetLiterature.com: How does literature play a role in your research?

To engage the boys in establishing consistent reading practices, I try to introduce street literature that adolescent males may be interested in. For example, I use Monster: The Autobiographyof an LA Gang Member as one of my texts. This book was a NY Times bestseller and it was written by a Crip, Sanyika Shakur aka Monster, who had minimal formal education. Much of the book was written while he was incarcerated. The kids were really interested in this book. 

I’ve also used texts such as Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. What I’ve found is that if the book is interesting, kids will work their way through it whether they are proficient readers or not because in adult jail, kids have a lot of solitary time on their hands where they often sit in their cells for 23 hours a day. So reading often becomes a form of entertainment for them and a way for them to pass the time. Some kids are voracious readers. For example, I had one kid, Miguel, who had almost thirty books in his cell; I mean all kinds of books too, like The Hobbit. Miguel had books that most people would not think a kid in jail would be interested in reading - but he was. 

--- Stay tuned for next week's installment in this interview series with Dr. Joseph B. Richardson, Jr., where he discusses ways in which Street Lit/Urban Fiction has impacted the reading practices of the youth he works with. --


  1. This is awesome. Mr. Richardson I am so happy to meet you here. I am a librarian in a detention facility. Everything you say here reflects my experience, most importantly that kids will read above their reading level if they find the book relevant to their lives. I have had students (reading at 4th grade reading level) report reading an adult level book up to five times after meeting an author because they are inspired. See http://therumpus.net/2012/08/in-the-margins/ for a few of my top book choices right now. THANK YOU FOR YOUR RESEARCH!!!

  2. Dr. Richardson, thank you for sharing your research. The key that classroom teachers and librarians must remember is that they need to focus on what kids are interested in and relate to. When kids are 'forced' to read books that are not of interest to them, they shut down. If classroom teachers and librarians would recognize this, so many students would not be 'lost' each year in classrooms across this country.