Hawa Kebbeh, BS ’21/MSW ’22

Hawa and her sister stand next to each other in front of a wooden wall. They are each wearing the same white, gold, red, and black off-the-shoulder tops and matching flowing pantsHawa Kebbeh, BS ’21/MSW ’22, who currently works with 2-3 year olds with autism at The McCarton Foundation in the West Farms area of the Bronx, created what Professor Kirk “Jae” James described as an “amazing educational video” for her final praxis project in his course Mass Incarceration: Implications for Social Work.

The assignment, said Hawa, who is pictured with her sister Aisha, was to capture everything she learned during the semester about mass incarceration, systems of oppression, and personal commitment to change in a way that would resonate for someone with no prior exposure to those concepts. “Dr. Jae framed the assignment in a way where he gave us a lot of freedom to do it in whatever form felt best to us, whether it was a presentation, poetry, dance, or video. He gave us that space and opportunity to be able to convey our message.”

Hawa’s approximately 8-minute video begins with a title card reading “I am a believer of expressing one’s message through the form of creative arts,” and indeed, she draws on four creative arts in the project: the overarching video production as well as spoken word, stepping, and graphic arts. 

The video transitions from the title card to YouTube footage of Ronald Vinson’s spoken word poem “Letter to Your Flag,” which conveys the injustice of expecting Black people to pledge allegiance to a nation that enslaved them and that continues to subject them to structural disadvantage, state sanctioned violence, and disproportionate incarceration. “I found it maybe a year ago or so and every point that he mentioned really hit home for me,” said Hawa. “As you know, Black men are also highly targeted in this society and so to see a Black man representing and being vulnerable, expressing his emotions, and his reality of being a Black man in America, I thought, ‘I need this video, I’m going to use this clip.’”

The video then transitions to Hawa and her sister step dancing and explaining that it was developed by people who were brought to America enslaved as a means of communicating with one another without the knowledge of their enslavers. Through stepping, Hawa and her sister illustrate the resilience, creativity, and strength of enslaved people, and use it as a window into the intergenerational trauma of slavery, the historic and ongoing criminalization of Black bodies, and the emergence of mass incarceration as “the new slavery.” 

“Step dancing is unique,” said Hawa, “It’s something that’s very hard to learn and perform, but it’s something that is rooted within me and my family line. We have a lineage of slavery and so I’m grateful to have the ability to be able to use what my ancesters knew as a form of communication as a form of expression in the present day.”

Hawa concludes the video by turning to her t-shirt reading “Social Workers Change the World,” and reflecting on her evolving understanding over her years at Silver that social workers themselves perpetuate systems of oppression and enact injustices. She challenges social workers, including herself, to use their privilege to stand in solidarity with those marginalized and commit to undoing structural racism and advancing change. She noted that while she hopes to continue her professional work with children, “I see myself doing things in my free time, like going to marches and writing letters, that help amp up the message and fight the institutional structures that perpetuate mass incarceration.”