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Alumnus uses blogging to explore war on drugs, mass incarceration

June 05, 2014

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Michael Durfee M.A.T. ’07 is a historian and contributing editor to Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. In a recent piece for the blog, Durfee recounts the speech in which President Nixon called drug abuse a national emergency and argues for creating a culture of empathy for addicts. He has also written about Keith Haring’s East Harlem mural Crack is Wack, and the “black-lash”—calls from middle-class black urbanites for aggressive policing and harsh sentencing for crack cocaine.

Durfee earned his master of arts in history from State University of New York at Buffalo and master of arts in teaching from Lewis & Clark. In 2012, he joined Niagara University’s history department, where he teaches courses on postwar urban history, the modern war on drugs, and the rise of mass incarceration. As a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at SUNY Buffalo, he is researching his dissertation, which analyzes crack era reform from 1986 to 1992. 

What led you to pursue a degree in teaching at Lewis & Clark?

 On some level, I knew as early as young adulthood that I wanted to educate in some way, shape, or form. I believe in active citizenship and felt as though a graduate degree in education might help me pursue such a path. Moreover, Lewis & Clark’s commitment to social justice aligned well with my own beliefs and priorities. The clincher came in a phone interview with long-time instructor Paul Copley—an educator and intellectual who has since passed away and will be missed by many in our community.

What did you do after graduating from Lewis & Clark?

I left Lewis & Clark for a high school teaching placement in Northeast Charlotte, at a now defunct Bill Gates-funded small school. Because of “failing” standards at Garinger High School, the institution was broken into five separate small schools. I worked at Garinger’s School for Leadership and Public Service for one year before deciding to pursue my Ph.D. Many of the formative experiences at Garinger have prompted my research.

How did you end up studying the crack era after earning a degree in teaching?

As an educator in a truly struggling district, I sought desperately for answers. What I quickly learned is that problems of structural inequality, race, and poverty are complicated, often highly adaptive, vexing issues. My students were suffering, and many of them rightly felt that they were not valued—or for that matter trusted—by broader society.

Many of my students had been touched by the rise of mass incarceration and “get tough” policing, not only in their communities, but in their schools. Behavior that might be labeled mischievous in another district frequently became problematized and criminalized.  One leading scholar referred to such schools as “prep schools for prison.” Garinger ran more like a penal institution in many ways, as administration seemed more concerned with maintaining order and control than with learning. In this respect, we can see how a claim such as this might be apt.

Ultimately I came to realize that the roots of various financial, emotional, and familial strains were grounded in policy. Our war on crime and drugs—disproportionately fought in poor urban communities—has made difficult family, community, and financial situations significantly more difficult and intractable. On some level, many citizens are starting to acknowledge this problem, but few seem willing to act.

How did you come to join the Points staff?

In 2011, I helped plan an international conference for the Alcohol and Drug History Society (ADHS) under my advisor, David Herzberg. ADHS is affiliated with Points and a managing editor at the time, Joe Spillane, asked me to cover the conference for the blog. After that, we decided my interests and future work were a good fit for the blog. I find it’s a good forum to work through new ideas, receive feedback from other like-minded scholars, and stimulate scholarly dialogue instantaneously. Blogging serves many of the same functions as conferences—with less expense and travel for all parties involved.

What message are you trying to communicate with your posts for Points?

I spend a good deal of time and energy thinking about the war on drugs and the specter of mass incarceration. How has it affected entire communities? Family life? Civic engagement? Political capital? Social capital? Access to educational and economic opportunities? Moreover, I want to drive home the message that the perceived failure of urban communities and urban schools is not evidence of a pathological broken culture, poor individual choices, or a lack of capacity. Rather, it is concrete evidence of bad policy. Whether intended or unintended, our policy with respect to the war on drugs represents decades of policy that has exacerbated lines of social and economic inequality. 

How did your experiences at Lewis & Clark lay the groundwork for the research you do now?

Professors like Paul Copley and Associate Professor of Education Janet Bixby imbue a passion for social justice in their graduate students. I intentionally took a job in a high-needs district because I believed fervently in the possibilities for education to push toward such a goal. My first placement also humbled me, reminding me that education must work in tandem with quite a bit else to effect significant, enduring, wholesale change.

Caleb Diehl ’16 contributed to this story. 

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