Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Trans teacher changing lives in SF jail


Dana Rivers is now teaching in the San Francisco Sheriff Department's Five Keys Charter School. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Life is different for transgender teacher Dana Rivers, who lost her high school teaching job in Sacramento nearly 10 years ago. The media spotlight that was her life for nearly three years has faded, she now lives in the Bay Area, and while she still teaches at the high school level, her students are different.

Rivers, 52, an award-winning educator, knows she's fortunate and is happy to be teaching again.

"I always thought that [I] would teach again because it's what I do," said Rivers, who teaches social studies and history at Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco's county jail. "There was a period of time when I thought that the activist part of my world would kind of dominate things for a while, and it did for a couple of years, but when that quieted down, I just went back looking for another teaching job and went back to doing this."

After a nearly three-year stint as a transgender activist, which brought her face-to-face with Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), who later led the charge against a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the House of Representatives in October, Rivers said, she knows how lucky she is.

"He just doesn't get it," she said, disappointed, but not surprised, by Frank's position.

Rivers, whose teaching style is creative and interactive, settled her discrimination lawsuit against Center High School in the Antelope Unified School District in North Sacramento for $150,000. The agreement included that the school district would maintain her good standing in her professional record. Rivers said she turned down other teaching opportunities in neighboring Sacramento high schools during the media hype because "I wasn't ready to pursue jumping right back into that fish bowl that Sacramento is."

Instead, Rivers road the media wave during her transition that included a potential book and Lifetime movie deal. The book and the movie didn't materialize, partially due to conceptual differences and to management changes, Rivers said.

Rivers moved away from the Sacramento area when the media frenzy was over and settled for a while in Boulder Creek, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to finally get to know her new self, something she didn't have a chance to do during her transition, she said. She then moved to the Bay Area and applied for teaching jobs. Nearly two years ago she began teaching at Five Keys Charter School in the county jail.

Five Keys is one of the many rehabilitative programs initiated by Sheriff Michael Hennessey after local educational funds for the county jail dried up. The only charter school of its kind in the United States, Five Keys opened four years ago and operates on $1.2 million from the state's education budget, according to Eileen Hirst, chief of staff to Hennessey and a board member of Five Keys. Nine teachers, a principal, and seven board members oversee the school, which is based on five key goals: education, employment, family, community, and recovery.

Classes are provided at three locations: one at the women's facility, one at the men's facility, and one facility on Bryant Street for former prisoners. Students, with an average of a 90-day stay in the county jail, are tested monthly to ensure they are learning. Testing also ensures continued funding of the school. Since the school opened nearly 60 students have graduated from the program.

The charter school model allows teachers to create curriculum that fits their students and their teaching styles.

Rivers understands the uniqueness of who she is and the city and county that has employed her. That understanding comes across in her lessons to the students who come into her classroom. Rivers, who is used to teaching with multi-media tools, teaching outside of the classroom, as well as having more time, has had to par down for her students. The county jail doesn't provide many tools and semesters are cut to a month due to a student population that gets transferred in and out, Rivers said.

Yet, during a recent visit, the white classroom wall was lined with colorful maps of Africa, some quite detailed, and Rivers handed out "Making sense of English law enforcement in the 18th century," to the 22 students dressed in orange sweats, the jail-issue wardrobe. The lesson plan for the day, Rivers said, was a part of the social studies teacher's new program, the Incarceration Project. The project, developed last summer, is to shape the curriculum "around the reality that our students are in the jail system," Rivers said.

"I hope that I have an influence that helps place themselves in their own history," said Rivers. "That they understand ... that there is no 'us and them,' it's all 'we' and that we can celebrate our differences. We are all unique beings ... that same quality makes us the same – we are all unique, therefore we share this uniqueness, we share our differences."

Rivers continued, "We all get to celebrate this human experience that's not time specific, that is all of our lifetime and all the lifetimes before. If I can get them to make those connections and some of the decisions they've made in their life, maybe they get to re-examine them."

Rivers, who isn't explicitly out about being a transgender woman with her students, but is open about her life, translates her belief that "each one of us has a voice" that can reduce the stigma of labels through her lessons. The students of all ages and ethnicities who are new to, or who have been in and out of, the criminal justice system engage passionately in the learning process.

When asked if they were aware that Rivers is a transgender woman, two of her students told the Bay Area Reporter that it didn't matter personally to them. Both of them agreed that if it was common knowledge there might be some problems.

"I didn't know she's transgender, so for me that's something new," said Kevin Joseph, 44, who said he was in jail due to drugs. "Does it matter that she's transgender? Not to me, it doesn't. I think if that was common knowledge ... it might be less calm in her class."

Michael Bailey, another student, agreed, but he wasn't as surprised. He told the B.A.R. that he picked up hints from Rivers's personal stories that she shared with the students.

"I had an idea, living in San Francisco," said Bailey, 41, who said he violated his parole. "Personally, it doesn't bother me. There have been some comments made previously ... which is expected around here."

Rivers is very much aware of prisoners' homophobia.

"There is a real homophobia among the inmate population," said Rivers, "because there's a fear amongst themselves that being out when they live in such a close, confined space just has a tremendous pressure to seem virile and strong."

Rivers, who said she wants her students to see themselves as "part of the solution, not as victims of a problem, but as proactive change agents," has seen some "lights" turn on in some of her students.

Hirst said that an estimated 15 percent of prisoners return to the county jail, according to an informal study in June 2007. The typical rate of recidivism is 55 percent for prisoners not in programs, Hirst said. Hirst also said the study found individuals in the program stayed out of jail longer than their previous experience.

"Human beings are social creatures. We need to know that we are not so unique that we live in the constant fear of being banished of being ostracized," said Rivers. "That's the message that I carry to my students. They need to see themselves as powerful messages of an important story that must be told."

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