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Not Trending: Can horses help rehabilitate inmates?

When we only pay attention to the things that are trending in our social networks, we may be missing some compelling stories. Carlos Watson, CEO of website Ozy, joins Gwen Ifill to share a few overlooked items, including a man trying to reform schools in Oakland, and a program that aims to transform the lives of inmates.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And now it’s time for our periodic look at interesting people and ideas online that you may have missed on the Web, a segment we call Not Trending.

    I recorded this conversation recently.

    There were several stories that caught our eye on the Web site OZY recently, including ones focused on some intriguing efforts with public education and matters of justice.

    Carlos Watson is the founder and CEO of OZY, and, as always, joins me now.

  • CARLOS WATSON, CEO, OZY:

    Good to be with you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I want to start by asking you about this gentleman Antwan Wilson. He’s the superintendent of schools in Oakland California, not a job for the faint of heart. In fact, he spends a lot of his time dodging spitballs.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    Dodging spitballs, sadly, but seriously, death threats, a lot of anger.

    Oakland, as you know, has been a place of protest for many years. They have never been afraid to protest. And when it comes to public education, which has not been good there, they have got a new superintendent, Antwan, comes from Denver, and is trying to change things in a fairly dramatic way.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What does he have to change? It seems like he has got everything that comes all together in this one municipality, whether it’s debate about Common Core or violence or academic standards for young black men.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    All in one place, and, unfortunately, a 67 percent high school graduation rate, whereas, in much of the country, it’s in the 80s and the 90s, so really difficult.

    He’s trying to tackle this in a couple of ways. One, he says the most important thing is, who is in the school buildings? Who are the teachers? Who are the principals? It’s been a little bit of a tough fight to try and hire different people. He’s had to increase salaries. But he’s always asked for more flexibility in saying yes and no to people.

    The charter school conversation, you have heard how difficult that’s become. He actually has said, you know what? We can coexist. Some of the public school superintendents have tried to push him aside. That’s been something he’s been open to, trying to reduce class sizes in some ways, trying to bring back that conversation, going from 30 students in the class sometimes down to 24, 25.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The fight is often left vs. right when we talk about education in this country. In Oakland, it’s left vs. left.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    You know, you are 100 percent right. And what a terrific and great way to say it.

    No, the protests are serious. If you go to one of the school board meetings, people would argue that he’s not doing enough. So, in some places, it’s, as you have said before, left vs. right — left vs. super left in Oakland.

    What’s interesting about Antwan Wilson, also, it follows — he’s one of the last reform superintendents. You remember when Michelle Rhee was such a big name?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mm-hmm.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    Now there are very few.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Here in Washington, D.C.,

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    Very few names across the country like that who have got that kind of compelling reform agenda.

    He’s one of the last, one of the few, one of the few black men.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let’s talk about something uplifting, even though it starts in a bad place.

    And that’s in a prison in Arizona. And it’s an effort, an interesting effort, and something that certainly isn’t trending, to kind of transform the lives of inmates.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    Very much so.

    So, you know today in the U.S., we have got north of two million people in prison. Almost half of them, when they leave prison, end up back in prison within a few years. And so a number of folks have said, is there a different way forward?

    And one of them is having some of the prisoners work with wild horses. So, in the West, in places like Arizona, over 40,000 kind of wild mustangs, Bureau of Land Management said, let’s take these horses in. Let’s try and tame them. And in some cases, let’s sell them or give them to others, including even working for the U.S. government.

    And now they have got a couple dozen prisoners who are working for four to sixth months at a time day in and day out, not making a lot, but maybe learning a little bit.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is there any evidence that this kind of effort to deter recidivism actually takes holds, that once they connect with these wild horse, these wild animals, that perhaps they see a different purpose?

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    There is.

    Before it started in Arizona, you saw it in Colorado. So it’s been around for 20-plus years. And the recidivism rate, the number of people who end up back in jail within three to five years, has been down to 15 percent in some of those cases vs. 50 percent-plus.

    So it can have dramatic impacts. Now, this program is new. It’s only been around a year-and-a-half. They’re working with a couple of dozen horses. But one of the things that Randy Helm, the guy who runs it, says is people have to learn that bad decisions are hard and good decisions are easy, and doing that with the horses in some cases, they hope, can teach that to some of the prisoners as well.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    On that optimistic note, we’re talking about things Not Trending, as always, with Carlos Watson.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    Always good to be with you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Thank you.

  • CARLOS WATSON:

    Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You can find more of my conversation with Carlos online, a look at the president of a small African nation called the Gambia. He rules a regime increasingly criticized for human rights abuses with an iron fist. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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