Messing Up

 

Messing Up

At the end of one of my school years, my staff was invited to a dinner and program featuring Chick Moorman, who has written wonderfully useful books on teaching and parenting, including Spirit Whisperers: Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit and Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. Moorman talked about mistakes and their usefulness. He advised teachers to ask, “Who made a good mistake?” which he defined as one we learn from. My students in prison, who returned to school as adults after years away, often voiced their concerns about “messing up.” These were people intimately aware of the mistakes they’d made, including dropping out of school, and I sensed that asking about good mistakes was a new and healthier way to deal with their worry about being able to do the work. I heard “messing up” all the time, but their confidence grew and their anxiety lessened, especially about taking tests, when we discussed good mistakes.

I heard a lot of negative statements about prisoners from people who had never talked to or known anyone who had been incarcerated. This one annoyed me: “They all claim they’re innocent.” In all the years that I taught, I never heard this. I heard a lot about being convicted on conspiracy charges; I heard a lot about the injustice of the war on drugs. I heard a lot about the police and the way they broke the laws. My students as a group were remarkably honest. More than one said, “I caught a case and I didn’t do it, but I did other things I didn’t get arrested for.”

We all mess up, all the time. As I wrote in my last blog, we all break the law. But, not everyone takes responsibility or even admits they’ve made mistakes. In a recent commencement speech Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates that we can learn more from our not-so-good experiences that we can from our good ones.

In the current political discussions (which seem at this point to be unending), the Great Blame and Shame Game is on—in full force. Candidates are constantly pointing their fingers at rivals to attack their opponents’ mistakes. But, rarely do they admit their own. To do so, would make them even more vulnerable to being blamed. Part of the American culture doesn’t seem to value looking at our own mistakes, making apologies that repair relationships, and making amends to people who’ve been hurt. Too many people working in the criminal justice system are all about meting out punishment for those who make mistakes—and very bad at not examining their own carelessness, missteps and often devastating failures in carrying out justice.  Paying for Years Lost Behind Bars illustrates a terrible wrong. Using the example of Glenn Ford, who served thirty years for a murder he did not commit, the article says he was freed in 2014 but died of lung cancer that was not treated while he was incarcerated. Neither he nor his family was compensated for the state’s mistakes. “Marty” Stroud, who was the prosecutor who sent Ford to prison, did apologize. His moving letter is found here: Lead Prosecutor Offers Apology I hope Stroud’s courage gives other people the room and permission to admit their own failings. In some capital cases, people’s lives are at stake.

Taking responsibility for messing up isn’t easy, but doing it lessens the grip and sting. It helps everyone move forward. Sotomayor said, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha” moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise.” 1 One of my thoughtful students said quietly one day, “When I am pointing my fingers at other people and criticizing them, I make myself think about me. Often what I’m criticizing is really how badly I’m feeling about myself.” Great wisdom comes from courageous prosecutors, from Supreme Court justices, and it also often comes from people in the margins, from people we cast out away from us. It would be so much better for all of us if more people in power learned these lessons.

1. Kim Bellware, “Sonia Sotomayor Tells Grads to Embrace the Awful ‘Uh-Oh’ Moments,” Huffpost Politics, May 22, 2016.

Notes on a Wonderful Conversation: Who We Want to Become Beyond the New Jim Crow

 

Krista Tippet’s interview on NPR’s OnBeing with Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is full of insight and wisdom for us all. Alexander has an ability to transform our thinking with new perceptions and knowledge that is harder to see from a white perspective. These two women have taught me so much, and I continue to look to them for understanding and guidance about the country I live in. Among the many good points made about our criminal justice system and who we want to become were these:

      1. When jobs disappeared 30 and 40 years ago, the people in inner cities were experiencing grief and trauma. Instead of going to them with care and concern, we waged a war on them.
      2. Civil rights are meaningless unless people have basic human rights: enough food and adequate housing, a safe and secure place to live, a decent education and sustainable employment.
      3. Given the way we lock up so many people and then make it so difficult for people to put their lives together after they leave prison, we have become a “nation of stone-throwers,” unwilling to forgive people even after they’ve served their sentences.
      4. We need to be in touch with the “criminality in each of us.” We have all broken laws, but those of us who experience privilege rarely do time in prison. We also need to be in touch with our culpability and complicity about mass incarceration, because we’ve let this purely punitive system develop and flourish.
      5. Alexander makes the point that white people have also been swept up by the War of Drugs, and they and their families and communities are suffering too.
      6. Asked by Krista Tippett where she found hope, Alexander pointed to the work being done by formerly-incarcerated people as they find and add their voices and experience to the hard work of criminal justice reform.
      7. Democracy is about our own humanity, and unless we understand that all people matter and need to be cared for, our democracy may not succeed.

Both an unedited and edited version for broadcast are available as podcasts.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/michelle-alexander-who-we-want-to-become-beyond-the-new-jim-crow/8603

I had the privilege of proximity as I taught my students in prison, learning from them and about their backgrounds and experience. I never would have known them otherwise. The majority of my students came from the inner cities in the Midwest, from schools that were not adequately funded, from neighborhoods that weren’t safe and from families who were struggling to make ends meet. Many of the men I knew had relatives in prison, and many had grown up without their fathers. I saw men shut down, put their heads in the crook of their arms and zone out. I saw that some of them were dealing with traumas in their backgrounds, and some were simply overwhelmed by being in school. Dropping out does not lead to confidence, and people needed time to find their strengths as students. Many reported experiences of homelessness as children. The majority of them had been sentenced for drug crimes, occasionally for as many as thirty-three years. More than one person reported, “No one cares about us.”

Going out the door of a prison is a risky experience. The world has grown and changed. Technology feels overwhelming. It is tricky, often painful and confusing, to re-connect to families, especially to children who have grown up without their dads around. In addition, we make it really difficult to find housing, and many barriers to re-integrating are legal. President Clinton made sure that formerly-incarcerated people would be denied Section 8 housing. Public assistance and help for food are difficult to secure. Professional licenses are denied. It broke my heart to hear men talk about wanting to be teachers and nurses or return to being barbers and know it would be difficult if not impossible to get or renew a license. Many states deny people the right to vote. The recent backlash against Virginia’s governor for giving formerly-incarcerated people the right to vote is an example of how difficult it is for some people to forgive returning citizens who have already served their sentences.

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/felons-virginia/480834/

I am intrigued with Alexander’s language that we all need to be in touch with “our own criminality.” She says in The New Jim Crow:

“The notion that a vast gulf exists between “criminals” and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about “them.” The reality though, is that all of us have done wrong. As noted earlier, studies suggest that most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Indeed, most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives.” 1

We all need hope to address the tragedies inherent in mass incarceration. I am familiar with the work of JustLeadershipUSA from my friend Ron Simpson-Bey, who works in this organization as an alumni associate. He joins a group of people who have all served time and now believe that “the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” He has recently written,

“Adjusting language in no way means condoning criminal or delinquent behavior. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable. But accountability requires making amends, an objective that is much harder to achieve when a person is denied the chance to move forward. The people who leave our correctional facilities every year have paid their debts to society and they all deserve a chance to rebuild their lives.”

JustLeadershipUSA builds leadership skills for community building, advocacy and policy-making, organizational management and communication. They are committed to reducing the prison population by half by 2030. Michelle Alexander serves on their board and says this:

“I believe that the launching of JustLeadershipUSA will be viewed, one day, by historians and advocates alike as a true game changer: the moment in the emerging movement when formerly-incarcerated people finally had a chance to be heard, to organize, and to influence policy in many ways—even though many of them still lack the right to vote.”

Informed and active citizens can help change the perceptions about who lives in our prisons and what can be done for them—and for us. It is about who we want to become. Our very democracy is at stake.

1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (The New Press, New York, 2010, 2012), 216.