It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”

W.C. Fields

Each semester in my “Consciousness, Creativity and Identity” class, we spend one week exploring “labeling theory”. Labeling theory is a sociological method for understanding deviant and criminal behavior. The idea essentially is that to understand the nature of deviance itself, we must first understand why some people are labeled deviant and others are not. Theorists working in this field are interested in how labels affect long term behavior. One consequence of labeling is that labels often stick, marking an individual as inadequate for life.

One of the frustrations of giving the “label” lecture and the discussion that typically follows is that it leaves all of us feeling pretty low. The associated literature paints a picture of a chaotic criminal justice system plagued by almost insurmountable problems and populated by overworked individuals doing their best in an environment of increasing crime and violence. Thinking outside this box may require an act of bravery – especially for people in power who are dependent on election cycles.

Enter: Judge Frank Syzmanski. Judge Frank is a member of the Wayne County Probate Court and a personal friend of mine. I invited him to come to class last week to talk about working with kids in the juvenile court system here in Detroit. For once, the labeling lecture ended on a high note rather than a sigh of resignation.

Judge Frank is aware of the power of labels. His goal is to undermine the forces that help them to stick. His in-class presentation focused almost exclusively on ways to encourage healthy identity development. “When I think of all limiting, divisive, small world attitudes that so many people live with, it makes me want to shout out ‘Enough, There’s a Better Way’! Seeing the changes kids make in my court in spite of their challenges is a regular source of inspiration for me.”

True change always starts with individuals caring about the well-being of others. According to Judge Frank, compassionate attention is the key to shifting the behavior of the young people he sees in his court every day. In addition to building a program that brings yoga and meditation to young offenders, Judge Frank is the founder of the Youth Deterrent Program. His enlightened approach to sentencing offers young people an opportunity for transformational change.

Thanks for the inspiration, Judge Frank! It was a pleasure to have you visit our class.

Video produced and directed by TTSM friend, Alan Sedghi. You can see more of his work at