BY KATHY CHANG
EDISON — For Wali Quershi, an eighth-grader at John Adams Middle School, the more he explored the topic of criminal justice reform, the more he felt the struggle is real for so many people who find themselves in what State Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) said is a “shameful reality in our country.”
“People deserve a second chance to be able to live to their full potential,” said Wali. “Once a person has been in prison, opportunities are denied and a lot of times for minor offenses.”
Wali said when those opportunities — getting a job, a loan, a federal Pell Grant, food stamps or public housing — are continually denied, there is no choice then to go back to a life of crime.
The eighth-grader put a video together on criminal justice reform as part of the 2017 C-SPAN’s StudentCam competition, an annual student video documentary competition. Wali said this was the first time he participated in the competition.
“I wanted to have a voice to help change this situation and at least create awareness,” he said. “StudentCam gave me that voice.”
Wali’s video was chosen out of 2,903 entries from more than 5,000 students across the country. Only 150 videos were selected for awards and Wali’s video received an honorable mention.
On March 28, representatives from C‑SPAN and Altice USA, which provides C-SPAN in Edison, visited John Adams Middle School and John P. Stevens (J.P.) High School to honor local winners in front of their classmates, teachers and family members. Each student received StudentCam certificates of merit.
Students Shekhar Iyer, Aman Karangutkar and Amit Acharya from J.P. Stevens received an honorable mention for their video.
Using numbers and graphics out of bright clay, Wali displayed the alarming statistics that the United States spends — $80 billion — annually to keep people in jail.
“Many of these people we keep in jail are serving [prison time on] low level offenses such as drug possession or mild use,” he said. “In fact, most of these people are minorities such as Latinos, African Americans, which creates a disproportion.”
For his video, using an IPhone and basic Windows Movie Maker, Wali interviewed people across the board including Senator Booker, local representatives, lawyers, former inmates, police officers and people living in shelters and government housing to really get a good sense and a different perspective on the topic.
“There’s no difference in America between blacks and whites and Latinos and others for using drugs or even dealing drugs, but unfortunately there’s a disproportionate impact when it comes to who is getting arrested for these crimes,” said Booker. “African Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for a drug crime. Frankly, if you are black and you’re poor, you’re chance of getting arrested is more likely.”
Wali said putting together the video was arduous, challenging, fun and a great educational experience.
“Since this was my first time recording and editing a video, I was very pleased at the final result and so grateful to C-SPAN for acknowledging my hard work,” he said. “I traveled to different places to record the video and used different methods to get my point across [and] be creative at the same time.”
Todd Pagel, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at John Adams, said he had all of his students create videos for the CSPAN contest.
“Wali went above and beyond to make his winning video,” he said. “Each day in class he was constantly seeking feedback on how to make his video stand out and he was continually editing his video to make it perfect. He also went above and beyond to reach out to our local representatives to get their opinions on his topic of prison reform and he was rewarded for his persistence with some great videos of Senator Cory Booker personally addressing the issue of prison reform for his video.”
StudentCam encourages middle and high school students to think critically about issues that affect communities and the nation.
This year, students were asked to create a 5 to 7 minute video documentary about the topic, “Your Message to Washington: What is the most urgent issue for the new president and Congress to address in 2017?”
In response, C‑SPAN received 2,903 video submissions from more than 5,600 students in 46 states and Washington, D.C.
There were 150 student and 53 teacher prizes awarded, totaling $100,000 in prize money.
For more information visit www.studentcam.org.