(CNNMoney) — Linda Cliatt-Wayman has the daunting task of being the principal at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. Nearly forty percent of her students have special needs, many of them are reading below their grade level and almost all of them are people of color whose families have been affected by poverty or incarceration.
“They can’t read, they can’t follow directions. Who’s gonna give them a job?” says an exasperated Wayman played by actress Anna Deavere Smith in the off-Broadway one-woman play, Notes from the Field. “That’s why they turn to crime.”
Despite those obstacles, Wayman is passionate about teaching her students to read and exposing them to life beyond a prison cell. “You can’t have a life if you don’t inspire or hope for anything.”
Wayman is one of 17 people Smith profiles during the two-hour performance (which ends its run in New York City this weekend). Smith said she was inspired to do the project when she first heard about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which poor minority students are disciplined more harshly than white students and are more likely to end up in prison at an early age for minor offenses.
“It all clicked,” said Smith in an interview with CNNMoney. “I was like ‘Yeah, middle class kids get mischief, our kids get pathologized and criminalized.”
Smith seamlessly morphs into her interview subjects, which include a formerly incarcerated Native American man, a Latina mother and civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. She began working on the project in 2013 and since then, has conducted 250 interviews across the country about education, incarceration and a resurgent civil rights movement that has been reignited by videos of black Americans being killed or abused by police.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, black preschool students are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschool students. Black students from kindergarten through twelfth grade are nearly four times more likely than their white peers to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. As adults, black and Latino men represent 59% of the 1.6 million men in U.S. prisons.
“It’s sort of unfair to blame schools and teachers because it’s really an outgrowth of what the nature of poverty is in America now,” Smith said.
Throughout the show Smith weaves in video clips, including one of a black high school student in South Carolina who was violently dragged out of her classroom by a school officer in 2015.
On stage Smith personified Niya Kenny, a classmate who shot the now viral video with her phone. Kenny said she felt compelled to record what she was seeing in order to protect her classmate. “How can you mind your business?” Kenny told Smith. “That’s something you have to make your business.”
Including the stories of women and girls was also important, Smith said.
“I understand that we are concerned about the vulnerability of boys and men, but many of our girls now are also very, very vulnerable,” she said.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or ethnicity. In 2014, 54% of the women in prison in the United States were black or Latina.
Under President Obama, mass incarceration and school discipline gained the attention of policy makers, but activists worry that any progress made on those issues will be severely curtailed under President Donald Trump. In 2014, the Obama administration announced a clemency initiative that would reduce or end the prison sentences for hundreds of non-violent, low level offenders. But that, among other initiatives, are at risk of being overturned once Trump takes office.
In addition, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for secretary of education, has been criticized for supporting Detroit’s low performing charter schools. In her monologue as public school principal Wayman, Smith bemoans how “the for-profits are taking over, the charters are taking over.” In Smith’s portrayal, Wayman is suspicious of how charter schools select only certain students for admission and not students like hers who may have special needs.
To help inspire her own students, Wayman organizes bus tours to college campuses. For Wayman, if she can inspire “just one kid” to go to college and stay out of prison, it’s a success.
While Smith said she can’t predict what the next administration will do, she remains hopeful. “We’re going to use faith, in all kinds of faith, to get where we need to go,” she said. “I believe in the dignity of struggle. I’m interested in struggle and what we learn from it.”