by Rachel Mangini
Portraits contributing writer
Understanding, evaluating and eventually overhauling this country's criminal justice system is no small task, but Dr. Breea Willingham '95 has dedicated her career to tackling it from several angles.
Although she dreamed of being a news reporter from the age of 13 and attended Pitt-Bradford to earn a degree in broadcast communications, Willingham quit journalism after working in the newsroom for 10 years because she said she hated it. She enjoyed her classes at Pitt-Bradford, but said college “doesn't teach you about the backstabbing, racism, sexism in the newsroom.”
As both a distraction and a means to a new career path, Willingham earned a Master of Arts in business management while still working as a journalist. But she still felt dissatisfied.
It wasn't until she gave a guest lecture in a journalism class at Ohio State where she was on a Kiplinger journalism fellowship that she discovered her true calling: teaching and research. For that, she would need a doctorate, so she headed back to school, this time at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she enrolled in the American studies doctoral program.
Because of a history of incarceration in her own family, Willingham knew she wanted to study incarceration in the African-American population. “I started the Ph.D. to learn more about that. To have a voice,” she said. To that end, her new career has already been a roaring success.
Willingham's research is focused on race and crime, specifically higher education in women's prisons, black women and police violence, black women's prison writings and the impact of incarceration on black families. She has been presenting her work on these subjects all over the country and the world.
In March she was at the Experiencing Prison 7th Global Prison Conference in Budapest, Hungary. In April she presented before the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences at its annual meeting in Denver. In 2017, she'll publish her first book, “Black Women and Police Violence,” with Lynne Rienner Publishers.
When she's not travelling to share her research with colleagues, Willingham is working in a tenure-track teaching position as assistant professor in the criminal justice department at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
Aside from trying to attain some semblance of work/life balance amid the myriad demands of a career in academia, Willingham says some of the biggest challenges she faces are in the classroom. In student reviews of her Minorities and Crime course, she is sometimes “criticized for talking about race too much.” She says, “I always laugh at that because it is the topic of my course.
“Everything I teach is about race because you can't teach about incarceration without teaching about race. Most people who are incarcerated are black and brown men and women.”
Discussions about race, though they can be tense, can also be fruitful, for both students approaching the issues as aspiring police officers and those who are Black Lives Matter activists or supporters. She encourages students to engage with each other and to try to understand points of view that might not align with their own. Her classes may be one of the only places her students get to talk about race in a safe, supportive setting.
Willingham said this is particularly important for minority students - black and Hispanic students - for whom she is one of the few black role models at Plattsburgh. This, for her, is one of the most gratifying aspects of her teaching job.
When she was attending Pitt-Bradford, and later while pursuing her master's degree at Webster University, she didn't have any black professors. “I have become (for my black and Hispanic students) what I didn't have,” she says. “It is all about representation.”
Inspiring young people to both question their biases and to be confident in their identity is a smart move when you are working as an agent of change. Many of Willingham's students agree, as is evident by the fact that she was recently presented with the Women in Higher Education Outstanding Leadership award by Fuerza, the Black and Latino Student Union at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Willingham said the criminal justice system needs to be overhauled. “In an ideal world,” she said, “we would start from scratch.”
She noted the numerous injustices taking place in the criminal justice system: unarmed black men and women being shot and killed by law enforcement officers, female prisoners being raped by those who are supposed to be caring for them, and privately run prisons that are designed to make money “like a plantation,” Willingham said. Right now the United States relies upon a system of punishment that - according to Willingham - is not working. She encourages “policy makers to look at this from a humanistic point of view.”
Policy makers should evaluate “how the policies impact not just the people inside (the criminal justice system) but the people outside as well - the families of those who are incarcerated.” An ideal criminal justice system for Willingham would be one that is more focused on addressing root causes of crime.