Melanie Andrade and Lash Lorraine believe in standing up for social justice and rallying students for a cause.
Andrade, a junior English student from Polk County, and Lorraine, a junior chemical engineering student from Orlando, are helping to bring positive change to Florida A&M’s community.
Both are campus lead organizers for the activism and community outreach organization Dream Defenders. The group is a coalition of minority youth who pride themselves on building relations within the community and fighting for social change.
Both women were encouraged to join the Dream Defenders after the organization’s first encounter with injustice. The Dream Defenders organized a three-day march for Trayvon Martin in April. The organization demanded justice for the 17-year-old Martin, who was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The group blocked a Sanford police station to protest Zimmerman’s release on bail before his trial.
“It opened my eyes, and it encouraged me to create a community here on campus,” Lorraine said.
Dwayne Wallace, a senior psychology student from Mobile, Ala., and friend of Lorraine has always been a supporter of her and her vision.
“She’s always stood up for other people,” he said. “She hates seeing good people suffer.”
Andrade, Lorraine and other members are organizing a campaign to raise awareness for Polk County’s policies concerning the privatization of prisons. The organization is calling the campaign “The School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
“Kids as young as 8 years old are in adult jails because Polk County law allows the closing of juvenile detention centers if there is an equivalent facility in the area,” Andrade said. “Juveniles are forced to live in the same facility as adult convicts.”
Andrade and Lorraine argue that the system is unjust and fails the youth.
“It seems like a trend here in Florida,” Lorraine said. “We’re leaning more towards privatized prisons and closing juvenile centers.”
Although the juveniles placed in these facilities are housed in a separate division from adults, Andrade and Lorraine believe that is inadequate.
“Adult prison facilitators are also handling these children,” Andrade said. “They need to be educated and guarded by faculty who has proper training to deal with kids.”
Lorraine agrees with Andrade in rehabilitation and educating juveniles.
In the last 20 years, Lorraine said, the amount of suspensions in schools has tripled.
“High schools and middle schools are like the breeding ground for jails and prisons,” Andrade said.
Lorraine believes the “pipeline” is like a step program for prison.
“Test scores are being used to determine how many prisons to build,” Lorraine said. “The mentality should be how many programs are going to create to help these kids. If you get them once, without the proper guidance, you’ll get them again, and we’re fighting to change that.”
The group is getting support from the Southern Poverty Law Center to aid in its prison pipeline campaign. The SPLC, based in Montgomery, Ala., has filed a lawsuit against the Polk County Sheriff Department to change the state of children detention centers in Polk County.
The group is also active in informing and building political relationships with youth in this election.
“We are putting in all of our efforts to keep everyone on the same page,” Andrade said.
The Dream Defenders has organized watch parties for the presidential debates and posted younger viewers’ comments and concerns on Twitter. Using the hashtag #ChangeTheDebate, the group encourages youth to speak their minds about topics that should be a priority in the debate.
“We want our issues addressed, for we have the obligation to make sure these candidates live up to what they promise,” Lorraine said.
The Dream Defenders recently organized a community event called Dream Work. Its main goal was to inform voters of constitutional amendments and candidates that are on the ballot, as well as providing fun family activities. The organization also provided transportation for early voting.
Andrade and Lorraine said that they are more than angry activists – they are “socially-aware community leaders.”
“Dream Defenders goes way beyond activism,” Andrade said. “A lot of people like to go out and protest, but there is a lot of organizing that takes place before and after anything happens.”
Andrade and Lorraine said they want to officially establish the organization on FAMU’s campus in the near future. They would also like to create a community-based center off campus to give an outlet for students to express themselves.
“Nine times out of 10, your dream is my dream, and my dream is yours, ” Lorraine said.