Prison Break: Can We Be Like Norway?

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment

I love this article from Mother Jones, August 2107. Two women prison administrators from North Dakota toured the famously humane prison in Norway and were profoundly moved. “We are hurting people,” said Leann Bertch, the warden. On their return, they made a huge shift from punitive policies to treatment that was more positive and compassionate. Staff members were willing to try new ways of relating to inmates, like being “social workers, friends and mentors.” Karianne Jackson, a deputy who was also in Norway, said, “When the environment feels less aggressive and contentious, you’re safer.” In Norway, violence is rare and assaults against guards do not happen.

With over two million people in prisons and jails across the country living in harsh and crowded conditions, we should not be surprised that recidivism, according to this article, is shockingly high. 77% of people across the country are rearrested within five years. I have never understood why people think that severe punishment and long sentences without any treatment programs prepare people adequately for living on the outside. These policies are “ineffective, costly and cruel.” I would add that they not only hurt people who need treatment and healing, but they hurt the families, especially children, in the their communities. And, they hurt the rest of us by damaging our national moral identity.

In my last years as a teacher in a federal prison, I taught a class called Educational and Employment Opportunities. I hoped there were opportunities, because having a prison record makes employers jittery. It is very hard in some places to even get an interview, according to men I knew who had come back to prison. Even my most competent students were very worried about going home—to children some hadn’t seen for decades, to families who had gotten along without them, and to being able to cope with a world they hadn’t seen in years.  Almost every man I knew worried about gettting a job. My high school completion program was and is the only one of its kind in the federal system, offering a diploma beyond the GED program. Even my good students had to take time to brush up on school skills. Going to college would have been difficult without building confidence and skill levels.

The article talks about a gradual release so that people have day passes home, shopping trips and a chance to wear their own clothes. Many of the men I knew yearned to see their children, and I know they would have benefitted from a more gradual release. I heard them talk about missing regular clothing. We need to do a lot with sentencing reforms, drug laws, and releasing people who’ve committed violent crimes but have outgrown their violent tendencies. If people do need to be incarcerated, I wish facilities would all add not only college classes, but rigorous and comprehensive high school completion programs. The Bureau of Prisons has an annual budget of 7.3 billion dollars annually. For that amount of tax money, the general public deserves to have the people who are released return as  healthy and self-sufficient citizens.

We could do so much better! Norway shows us how.

Inspiration from ER

Democracy falls apart when people are not informed, engaged and invested in its success. Our own democracy feels fragile right now, and requires us to be brave and move out of our comfort zone. We need to listen carefully to views different than our own, make our voices heard and put our gifts to work for the greater good.

It would be hard to find a more engaged and caring citizen than Eleanor Roosevelt. She just never gave up—on fighting for people who were less fortunate, on caring for people who needed her (including wounded soldiers in the Pacific during WW II) and telling her truth in whatever way she could. I just heard this quote from her, and because it is helping me get out of my comfort zone, I want to share it. She said,

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run, it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight, just a step at a time, meeting each thing as it comes, seeing it’s not as dreadful as it appears, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

 

Is it Government or Democracy?

 

In the first years of finding my way in my prison classroom, I had to teach a class called Government, always at 9:30 in the morning, making knots in my stomach as my students filed in. They were very eager to articulate the many ways they hated the government. They labeled it corrupt, evil, and racist. Given their long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, I understood. Given the fact that many of them were earning 11 cents/hour in the prison factory (going up to $1.25/hour), they felt used. Many called it slave labor. One of my first lessons was not to discuss the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Seeing that the Constitution permitted slave labor in prisons only fanned their anger. Some men sent their meager wages home.

Seeing so many people of color in prison for drug offenses made it easy to see why my students labeled the system racist. It was and it is. Michelle Alexander says in the The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

“People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.” 1

She goes on to say:

“Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.” 2

All of these realities led to a profound sense of powerlessness. I could see it, hear it, feel it as I struggled along with the standard high school government textbook. We had few really good days. However, when I began to slip in other subjects like the Civil Rights Movement and non-violence, my students perked up, started listening and having lively discussions in class. As I watched them treat each other and me with courtesy and kindness, I created a short unit on civility. As they wrestled with what they valued and what is right, we talked about integrity. Discussions were lively with both of these subjects. Finally, with the help of Mr. C, my classroom assistant or “tutor,” we re-did the whole course and called it Civics.

Talking about and becoming good citizens proved successful as we wrestled with how to do the right thing, and they discussed how to live in together peacefully in prison, how to deal with the staff and rules. But, it took a while for us to figure out how my students could become empowered behind bars where so much power is taken away. Eating lunch one day with an assistant warden, he said, “One of our goals is to take responsibility away from them.” I thought about that a lot, realizing that being in school made them as responsible every day.

We decided together that the first duty—or level—of a citizen is to stay informed about how the system works and about the issues with as much unbiased, accurate information as possible. Citizens need to talk together about the issues important to them. Using a student’s idea to have students read and respond to a news article every week, the men then formed a circle to discuss everyone’s article. I’ve written about the success of this Round Table idea before. Nothing we ever did was as valued or successful as this was. The students loved the circle discussions, but it was being able to articulate their own reactions to the news they loved most. Finally, in a place that essentially silenced them, they had a voice—and it gave them a vital sense of their own power. People want and need to be heard.

The second level was to make their voices heard over the fence to the outside. I wrote about their correspondence with Dick Cheney in my January 25th blog called “Power to the People!” My students wrote to people in the state government and welcomed a state representative, himself an adult education graduate, to class one day. We were all evolving from the dreaded idea of a class in government to a class in democracy. Civics is a study in the ways we become good citizens. In a healthy democracy, the people vote for and create the government—on local, county, state and federal levels. We the people hold the power. If we simply call it government, we fail to take responsibility for allowing that particular government to be there—and nothing changes. Being good citizens means we are the current government’s watchdogs, holding elected officials accountable. Competent, responsible officials want and need to hear from their constituents.

Even people behind bars can make a difference. Mr. Glenning, incarcerated for a drug offense for many years, spent every day writing letters about the injustice of the drug wars. He learned who was interested in reform in his state legislature and in Congress and wrote them letters. Occasionally, they wrote back to him. He wrote letters to the editor. He was an active member of FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  If I had a question, he was in the library every day, and I went to him. He worked tirelessly every day for years.

Mr. Walls, also incarcerated with a long sentence, was a tireless advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. He too did research, talked to any group that would listen and wrote letter after letter.

A third level was to engage each other. The point of a democracy is to disagree, but my students were thoughtful and courteous when they argued. They listened carefully and respectfully to people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. They laughed together.

I cannot remember a time in this country when our fractures have been so painful and our divisions so deep and misunderstood. I want to engage people who don’t hold the same views and values as I do. I want to learn to listen carefully, ask questions and stay calm. I want to remember that that a lot of anger springs from people’s anxieties and fears about changes in the country’s demographics and growing wealth divides. I want to hear and understand the alarms about the future. I would like to find common ground. Within the radical changes we are experiencing, I need to remember my remarkable students. In spite of their anger, frustration and feelings of powerlessness, they managed to be exemplary citizens. I need them as role models of courage and wisdom.

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, New York, 2012, p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 100.

Bryan Stevenson, Great Spirit

 

On March 7, 2017, along with 1,100 other people, I heard Bryan Stevenson speak and saw him accept the 25th Wallenberg award. The University of Michigan has designated this honor for people “whose courageous actions call to mind Wallenberg’s extraordinary accomplishments and values.” Raoul Wallenberg attended the University of Michigan to study architecture in the 1930’s. During WW II, the Swedish government sent him to Budapest to save the lives of Hungarian Jews, trapped in the last months of the war. Cleverly and courageously, Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews before he was captured by the Soviets in 1947.

Stevenson opened his remarks about the “great spirits” among us and advised us all to go out and “change the world.” He gave us four ways to move forward. The crowd rose to its feet several times and gave him a long standing ovation at the end.

First, we must get proximate to people who are marginalized, in our prisons, in places of poverty and oppression—wherever people are “disfavored.” He told us about being unable to attend an integrated high school, in spite of the Supreme Court ruling that separate was not equal in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.  Some lawyers appeared in Stevenson’s community and made it possible for him to go to high school. “They got proximate,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be standing here tonight without their actions.”

Second, he often talks about “the politics of fear and anger” as weapons against justice and progress. He talked about the need to change the narratives that drive injustice, oppression and disadvantage. He talked about the injustice in the criminal justice system, citing dismal statistics: 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, the huge rise of incarcerated women, and the tragedies of incarcerating children for life. He told us that Michigan has one of the worst records for treating juveniles unfairly. He talked about the need to change the “great evil in the narrative of racial difference,” the idea that white people are somehow better than people of color.

Third, he said we must stay hopeful, as hard as it can be at times. He explained how even people on death row have hope, and he explained his mission to erect monuments about lynching as giving him hope. His work with people given life sentences as children gives him hope. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he declared.

Fourth, we need to do “uncomfortable things.” Getting out of our comfort zones isn’t easy, but it is also the only way forward. Stevenson has done the painful, hard and sometimes tragic work with condemned people on Death Row for decades, providing us with a model of extraordinary heart and courage.

He also addressed the problem of America’s unwillingness to face the ugliness in our past. “We are living in a post-genocidal society,” he said as he talked about the millions of Native Americans who have died in the name of American progress. As Americans, we have a very hard time talking about slavery. The Equal Justice Initiative that Stevenson founded is housed in Montgomery, Alabama, and it has undertaken a project to put monuments and markers in places where slaves were sold. EJI is also planning a memorial to the people who were lynched, so “we can begin to heal,” he said. The video on Proposed National Lynching Memorial is very moving.

Americans don’t like to look at these wrongdoings, because we are so punitive. But, he said people in Alabama are beginning to see the merits of doing these uncomfortable things, such as learning the awful realities of slavery, segregation and lynching. It is the only way we will get beyond our divisions of race and class. “The Germans have markers everywhere to mark what happened in the Holocaust. They want to remind people what was done so that it doesn’t ever happen again,” he said. He reminded us of how burdened we are by our history and how important it is to have the uncomfortable conversations to understand all of our history. Those efforts are the only way to get beyond bigotry and injustice.

Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a must read for all Americans. I smiled to myself as I listened, feeling so honored to hear him. As he talked about other people with courage and great spirit, especially people in prisons, I could not think of anyone who could wear the label of Great Spirit more than this man. We are living in such troubling times. How lucky we are to have Stevenson’s tenacious courage in the face of persistent injustice and the good humor and grace to inspire the rest of us. No wonder he is called “America’s Nelson Mandela.”

Are We a Melting Pot or a Mosaic?

 

 

Within the politics of fear and anger, the United States is at a critical juncture in our history with millions of people—and children—experiencing pain, dread and even death. A Jewish school in my community of Ann Arbor received a bomb threat in the last week of February. These threats and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries have increased. 100 Headstones Toppled in Jewish Cemetery is an article in the New York Times on February 26, 2017 about what happened in Philadelphia. Immigrants hide in their homes, fearing they will be picked up and deported. Immigrants Hide Fearing Capture on ‘Any Corner” is also from the Times on February 22. 2017.

Bullying in schools increased since the election. Bullying in Schools is Out of Control, Mother Jones, November 11, 2107.  One Indian man was shot and killed, and two more were wounded in St. Louis. The shooter thought they were Iranian. Suspect Apparently Thought Victims Were Iranian, LATimes, February 27, 2017.

In the backlash against immigrants, I’ve heard several people say this: “Well, they can come here, but they have to be Americans. They can’t be bringing their culture in.” This is not a new idea. Immigrants who’ve arrived on American shores for two hundred and more have heard the same thing. “You have to leave all that old stuff behind and become Americans.” Officials on Ellis Island in the New York harbor echoed this warning, and so did new neighbors and employers. Somehow, the melting pot was supposed to swirl around and make some kind of blended mush that defined them as new and part of a whole. This idea ignores how we are a “borrowing country,” taking in the cultural food, music, celebrations, traditions, dance, music—even language from places all around the world—and we always have. We borrow and blend it all in, creating a rich tapestry of differences. This vibrant diversity is what makes America the unique place that it is.

It’s impossible to recall what it was like to grow up in Rogers City, a northern Michigan town, without remembering its international flavors. Polish, German and Irish immigrants, among others through the years, settled along Lake Huron and fished, farmed the rocky soil, taught school, opened businesses and worked in its limestone quarry. Older generations hung on to their language, sometimes not learning much English at all, like elder immigrants everywhere.

We knew some Polish grandparents in the neighborhood and called the woman “Babcia”, bab-cha, the Polish word for grandmother. We said “dziekuje,” pronouced jen-koo-yeh, Polish for thank-you. My mother make galumkies, cabbage rolls, often and neighborhood butchers made delicious keilbasa sausage. We danced the polka at weddings, parties and school dances.

Like most American kids, we all went to Kindergarten, a German idea started in the late 18th Century for parents working outside the home. We cut down and put up Christmas trees, a custom begun in medieval Germany. Family members made German Christmas cookies and we sang Silent Night in German. My family history goes back primarily to Germany and Ireland, so we heard stories from the “Old Country” from grandparents. We sang songs in school, and we heard lullabies from Australia, England, Ireland and Germany, among others. Chef Boyardee brought “pizza pie” in a box, a totally new thing, and we loved it. We ate spaghetti and chop suey. Welsh pasties were a treat when we visited the Straits of Mackinac. Determination and hard work, civic pride and a caring community, values inherited from immigrant ancestors, still define Rogers City.

Fear is a potent political tool. Trump’s first statements about deporting immigrants feed people’s fears about terrorism and immigrants taking jobs. However, the worries are bigger than that. The fear also stems from the idea that somehow new people with different cultures will dilute or erase our own, and our whiteness will disappear. We have so many different and distinct cultures in the United States, defined by land, climate and history, along with the background of the people. Cultures are not static, but constantly changing, even if no new people come at all. I used to tell my students that there were no cultural police in the hall. No one can take away what we value, but we need to keep working on and defining who we are and what we care about.

I gave assignments to my students to learn about their own cultural heritage, and we discovered together what an important and positive part of our identity it became. Students in one class asked me to share mine, so I told them about my great-grandfather and how he had come to Michigan as a young man, because his older brother inherited the farm. I told them that I chose to claim the Irish in my background and how I love Ireland, its people, its poetry, its music and the land itself. Such an interesting mix of backgrounds in my classes gave us all a chance to share—and take in what we loved from other cultures.

If someone wanted proof that diversity is our greatest strength, my prison classroom would prove it. I had students from all over the world and from many cultural groups in this country. Men were eager to share. For example: a man from his reservation in South Dakota demonstrated the process of shooting a buffalo and the honor it was given. Students from Jamaica explained cricket and reggae music. An Iranian student gave a speech  about how much he honored women. A student from Mexico talked about the importance of his family and their annual celebrations. A Mariachi band came in and sang for us. African-American men shared people and events in their history, and they shared their love for jazz and rap music. We listened to and loved black spirituals. Native American men came in to do a drum circle in honor of our graduates. We could not have asked for more cultural richness.

As I watched my students research and celebrate their cultural backgrounds, I figured out that the deeper people go into their own heritage, the more open they are to other cultures. White people are at a disadvantage if they want any kind of pure culture, especially as more time goes by and there are fewer immigrants to pass along cultural riches to their descendants. I noticed that the only exception in my classes was the Italian men, who were far more comfortable with being Italian.

One of my white students complained, “I feel like I’m from the Burger King culture.” I encouraged my students to find out what they could from the older people in their families, which was tricky from prison, but one white man was thrilled with letters back from his grandparents, eager to share what they knew of their family background. Through the years in my classroom, my students shared who they were and what they were learning all the time, and they took in other cultures with respect and celebration.

Is there a danger of a melting pot turning into a Burger King culture? Canada, which admittedly has a much smaller population than the United States, works hard to be a mosaic, a country in which all cultures stay distinct and are honored. French Canadians work hard to keep their language and customs. Because so many people in Canada speak French, cultural distinction is easier, but in places like the prairie provinces, Ukrainians  keep what cultural connections they have. I was moved by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who chose people for his first cabinet from as many cultural groups as he could, including several from Canada’s First Nations. Half of his cabinet members are women. He wanted his cabinet to look as much like Canada as possible.

The question of whether the United States is a melting pot or a mosaic presses other questions during this dangerous time for so many people. How can we keep people safe? How can people who are afraid of losing their identities be reassured? What are the ways to not worry about being swallowed up by another, more unfamiliar cultures? How can we creatively honor our own identities without stepping on any others? How can we live more peaceably together, feeling fun and community with people who are different—instead of fearing them?

Power to the People!

Here’s some good news, in what feels like a dark time for many people. We do have power.

One of the first things we did in our civics classes was to look carefully at the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches in order to understand their powers and functions, why and how the three branches of government were set up, the interaction and restrictions between them. Checks and balances were set up so that none of the branches would have too much power. We can look to the situation Obama was in as Congress obstructed him, most recently and importantly by refusing to even look at Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

My students agreed that with elections every four years and campaigns lasting so long, too much attention is put on the president, which leads to misconceptions about who holds the power. My students were surprised by the number of actions the president cannot take. Democracies are set up so that the ultimate power lies with the people.

We live in a complicated system and a complicated world. It isn’t easy to figure it all out, but if we don’t read newspapers, listen to the radio, look at lots of sources, we lose our power. The last election laid bare the misinformation that people have about how the government works and who can fix the problems. The president, no matter who he or she is, cannot fix much in our individual lives. So much is up to us, we the people. We need to know who represents us,  this website is just one of many sources: whoismyrepresentative.com.

The Republicans in Congress are giddy about their power right now, holding majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the White House. There is a lot of chatter about their desires to repeal Obamacare—without any viable plans to replace it, which would take health insurance away from millions of people. Kids in their twenties could not stay on their parents’ plans nor could people get insurance with a pre-existing condition. There is talk about saving those two plans, but without the mandate to buy insurance, those parts are not affordable. They would like to privatize Social Security and Medicare. George W. Bush tried this, but he found little support from the American people. No one knows which side of these issues Trump will finally land on, but for people who are worried about issues important to them—now is the time to exercise our power.

Our elected representatives think about one thing all the time: getting re-elected. I heard a state representative on the radio one day talking about hearing from his constituents. “If I get even one letter on an issue, I pay attention to it.” In Michigan, legislators are term limited. In the House, they can serve three two-year terms. In the Senate, they can serve two four-year terms. House members just get there—and they need to start fund-raising and running for office again, which makes it very important for them to tune in to what their constituents are saying.

Though the Senate is the more powerful body and people serve six-year terms in Washington, people in the House of Representatives serve only two years. The House was designed to be more responsive to the people. That only works if we do our job. As one of my foreign students noted on a particularly contentious day in civics class, “Americans have one great talent, and that is to complain.” I complain when I feel powerless. I think a lot of people feel forgotten and powerless. The good news right now is that people are getting organized and engaged in the system. Here are four ways to put pressure on the people who represent us.

 

1) Attend Town Halls

Most members of Congress hold regularly scheduled “town hall” meetings, where they meet and listen to their constituents, the people who voted for them. If our elected officials are doing their job, they want to hear from us, so we need to stand up and make our ideas and feelings known on the issues we care about. Our job as constituents is to keep our elected officials accountable. If they try and duck a question or we don’t feel satisfied with the answers, we can tell him or her that we will be spreading the word. Or, we can e-mail or snail mail them. Our attention needs to go to our own representatives. Even though it’s tempting to contact other people, if we aren’t voting for them, they will not care.

2) Non-Town Hall Events

Every member of Congress loves holding public events back home that increase their visibility and provide “photo ops”. We can show up and press the questions about the issues that are important to us.

3) Go to District Offices

Members of Congress and state legislators check in at their district offices to meet constituents, sometimes on a regular basis. Their schedules should be available from the district office staff. We can ask for a meeting with them, prepare good questions and ask them. They have no idea how much influence we may have over others in the district, so if we are a member of a committee or a group, we need to say so. They need to know we will report back to other people. If they won’t meet with us, we can get that word out—with the media or on social media.

4) Coordinate Phone Calls

This method is the cheapest and quickest, and it has the best potential to get the attention of a member of Congress or a state legislature. We can organize a group of people who really care about an issue, say Social Security or the ACA. The more people—the better. We can prepare what to say, and when it is convenient for everyone, make the phone ring off the hook! Staff members might ask for our name and address and are usually very friendly. Terms in office are not permanent, and people usually want to keep their jobs! There is strength in numbers and numbers add up!

Citizens behind bars have very little power, so one of the lessons I wanted to convey was that my students were able to wield some power politically. They did not believe me—initially. Our high school program inside prison had its funding threatened and cut all the time. Our students worried constantly that it would be eliminated. We invited a state representative, a Republican who had been in adult education himself, to visit our Civics class. He was very impressed by the students and encouraged them to write letters. I made it an assignment, telling them they could write to whomever they chose. In a state-wide coordinated effort, we did manage to delay some funding cuts. For a while, our program had a federal literacy grant, and that was threatened too. When three men said they wanted to write to Vice-President Dick Cheney, I balked a little, thinking he would be the last person to support such a program. My students reacted with, “You said we could pick!” I backed down and a group of five men wrote heartfelt letters about how much they valued being in school. The letters went out at the end of the year, pleading with Mr. Cheney not to cut any of the small federal grant we were receiving. I promptly forgot about it.

When I came back to school in September, our program director handed me a large package. Attached to my students’ letters was a page that went right down the line, the “chain of command,” from the vice-president’s office to the attorney general, to the head of the Bureau of Prisons to the regional director, to our warden, to the prison educational office and then…across the hall to our high school office. Except for the local people, everyone of these people had signed off, several of them commenting, “It is obvious how much these men value being in school.” I was shocked—and couldn’t wait to share it with my students. I will never know if Dick Cheney had anything to do with it, but our federal funding stayed in place. Even better, my students felt like they’d been heard.

I know it’s easy to feel like we don’t count and that we are powerless to affect any change. We can expect some confusion and conflict. As Obama says, “Democracy is messy.” Our job is to hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire. If they don’t do their jobs—they can be beaten either in a Democratic or Republican primary or in a general election. People must be informed and we must vote. The system sometimes feels like steering a large ocean liner in a storm, but it works far better when people are aware and make their voices heard. 

One last thing, some wisdom from a few of our Founders:

When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

—Thomas Jefferson

Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you.

—Benjamin Franklin

The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.

—James Madison

Power to the People!

That’s How the Light Gets In

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

A long list of losses define 2016—nationally for progressives with an election that proves ever more ominous as the president-elect appoints people on the extremes of issues. All kinds of communities: LGBT, African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, government workers, women and others are facing new fears and harassment. The country seems more divided than ever.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet, songwriter and singer, died on November 7. Beloved by many, his music and lyrics live on. The above is the chorus from Anthem, one of my favorites, and these lines speak to me of the particular hard space we find ourselves in at the end of this tumultuous year.

The most important question to me is how we heal the wounds between Republicans and Democrats—and stop demonizing each other. Cohen’s line “forget your perfect offering” speaks to me again about the value of mistakes. My students in prison taught me that nothing is perfect. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes.There is a crack in everything. Everyone suffers and feels some brokenness. Everyone feels vulnerable. But, that is how we find our common humanity. Dialogue means that we listen, acknowledge, and respect not only our differences, but each others’ vulnerabilities. If we reveal ourselves to each other—our hopes and fears, our hurts and vulnerabilities, it should not be impossible to stand on common ground—even make new friends. We could start with working together on projects that matter to everyone.

I am taking heart from all the people fighting the pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota. I am so impressed by  the number of veterans who have shown up to provide support and by the perseverance of all the people who endure the cold and provide solidarity. Louise Erdrich, Native American author and activist, wrote this piece in the New York Times on December 11: How to Stop a Black Snake.  She says we need to form new coalitions, become more powerful together and realize that we must fight for our land, our water and this “precious democracy.” If any group knows about long struggles simply to survive it is Native Americans. They’re not trying to be perfect. They know there are cracks in the world, and they also know they need to reach out in love, not hate. That’s how the light gets in.

We Can Be…Extraordinary!

 

November has been a tough month. I lost my brother Eric, who died from a massive stroke on November 1. A week later, on election day, his son turned ten. With a little time to sort through what felt like too much to process in a short time, a few things became crystal clear.

The extraordinary listening and kindness extended to me has made all the difference as I grapple with this great loss. So many people are hurting.  To heal our deep divisions, we need to do the same things: listen far better and be kind. We are so segregated in this country. It’s hard for people who live in cities to understand people in rural areas—and vice versa. Huge misunderstandings and misinformation exist between racial and religious groups. Men and women struggle to understand each other, falling short so much of the time. Young people and older people often fail to understand each other’s realities.

We cannot expect the politicians to do the necessary healing. People are different—in how they live, what they experience and in the ways they see the world. Much as we may want to totally understand each other, we cannot walk in anyone else’s shoes. What we can do is trust what people say, believe their experiences—and validate them. It doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t speak our truth. It requires open-mindedness and better communication.  All of it: being present, listening more carefully, speaking our truth requires extraordinary effort and courage. We are all capable, however. It is what we want from other people. We want to be listened to, understood and treated with respect and kindness. If we started with the Golden Rule, that would be a huge step forward.

The politics of fear and anger are more potent after this election, but Americans have always been capable of extraordinary things. People from both sides of the political divide can do this— listen with bigger hearts and more kindness. These efforts make all the difference. We have extraordinary skills and together we can summon our courage and resolve. Our very democracy depends on it.

Voting is…Falling in Love!

 

Voting is…Falling in Love!

“When people asked me what it felt like to vote for the first time, I answered, “What does it feel like to fall in love?” said Desmond Tutu, social rights activist and retired Episcopal archbishop of South Africa. America is supposed to be the world’s beacon of democracy, so we should never take voting for granted—nor should we deny it to anyone who can legally vote.  It is no small thing—nor is voting responsibly easy.

2016 is a year filled with chatter about both rigged elections and voter suppression. Any search of voter fraud issues brings up lots of fact checks about how rare it is: Trump’s Bogus Fraud Claims.

Voter suppression is the other far more important story. People of color and women have endured all kinds of tactics since our beginnings. Abigail Adams cried to husband John, “Remember the ladies!” Though black men were given the vote after the Civil War, all kinds of tactics from poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses ensured they could not vote. (Black grandfathers had been enslaved, therefore black people could not vote, but the grandfather clause protected poor whites from literacy tests and poll taxes.) More modern kinds of intimidation continue from purging voter rolls; from flyers, billboards and robocalls that give false information; from tactics that make voting more difficult like ID laws, difficult procedures to register, cutting back on early voting and polling places that favor people of color.

I am interested in the disenfranchisement of many of our returning citizens coming out of prison, who face huge obstacles in voting in many states. The chart is this article: State Felon Voting Laws shows current laws and regulations: 20% of states may take people’s right to vote away permanently, once again saying, “We will never stop punishing you if you’ve served time in prison.” Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have unrestricted laws allowing people behind bars to vote.

I have fond memories of my students in prison organizing and carrying out presidential elections. As an election inspector in Michigan, I had access to the authentic forms and procedures needed to register, to vote and to count the votes. My students elected two co-chairmen each time, who took everything very seriously and followed the rules to the letter. It was painful to talk to my students about the importance of voting, because some of them were people going home to states that would make it very hard for them to vote—if ever. As an election inspector, I watched people voting for the first time look very nervous. Those of us who have voted comfortably need to recognize how intimidating it can be. I was moved by this man’s story from the Marshall Project and how much pride he takes in voting after being in prison.

A Former Prisoner on Voting for the First Time in his Life

Voting is no small thing. It says so much about taking charge of our lives in concert with other citizens. It says, “I count too.” It’s like falling in love to know you have a stake and a voice in your future and the future of your family and community. All of that makes it sacred. To make it difficult to vote, to make such a fundamental part of our democracy intimidating or to take it away completely is to deny someone their humanity. It should never happen.

Prison Stories: A Good Apology

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A Good Apology

One of the most important lessons I learned from my students in prison was the value—the necessity—of making mistakes. We all make mistakes. All the time. We are not designed to be perfect. In fact, I’ve noticed that perfect people—and people who have all the answers—seldom win popularity contests or find many close friends. Being open, vulnerable and willing to admit what we do wrong does connect us in far more genuine ways.

I learned to ask my students,”Who made a good mistake?” We defined that as one that teaches us something. Learning requires confidence, but a healthy dose of humility is required too. Mistakes help us learn more than doing things perfectly. Lessons learned from mistakes stick with us longer. People in prison are intimately aware of their own mistakes—and, I might add, fairly observant of other people’s missteps, especially those of elected officials. People who live behind bars develop a sharp sense of justice, often because justice has been denied them.

My students and I tossed a lot of these issues around in civics class as we were all learning how to be better citizens by resolving conflicts, shoring up relationships and building community. Many of the men I knew had been hurt—and had hurt others. Many felt betrayed by people who were supposed to care about them:  their school systems, the police and the larger community. Questions about forgiveness and apologies rose up. At a particularly difficult, painful and contentious time in our American life together, I’ve watched people in power apologize. They could have used some lessons from the men I knew behind bars.

We talked about what makes “a good apology,” what to do and what not to do. My students roll played, talked in small groups and thought about the apologies they had experienced. We concluded that most people usually know when they’ve hurt someone else. Together, my students and I came up with a few basics:

      1. Be careful of timing. Don’t wait too long, but avoid trying to apologize when people are still angry and not able to hear clearly.
      2. Some soul searching is sometimes necessary to figure out what we’ve done wrong. Asking the person you’ve hurt how they feel helps too. Validate their feelings. For example: “When I shared something after you told me not to, you must feel hurt and betrayed.”
      3. Acknowledge your regret for your behavior and ask if the other person can think of a way to repair the damage.
      4. Announce that you will try very hard to never repeat the behavior.
      5. Recognize that it often takes time to re-establish trust.

Behaviors that make things even worse are:

      1. Not apologizing directly to the person you’ve hurt.
      2. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
      3. Pulling in a 3rd person without permission from the person you’ve wronged. “Triangles” usually complicate things.
      4. Saying, “So and so does it too!” or “So and so does it far worse than me!”

Ironically, owning our own behavior and apologizing gives us more freedom. It makes us human. It connects us to people. It can go a long way toward healing the brokenness between and among us.

Erick Erickson: The GOP After Donald Trump, an article and a video from the New York Times on October 14, 2016 about a RedState gathering of Never Trump Republicans, shows how upset and unsure people are about the future of the GOP. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I don’t agree with most of their stances on issues, but I wish I could sit down and talk to people who do not agree with me.  No one party has all the answers. I know that for a healthy democracy to work well, we need a healthy party (or parties) on the other side. I love the idea that truth—and often the solution to problems—comes out of both sides listening carefully. Compromise is essential. Our elected officials used to do this in the chambers of Congress, but our deep divisions and the demonizing that is happening in our current politics is poisoning the air and making progress almost impossible.

As citizens in what is supposed to be a participatory democratic system, we cannot let ourselves off the hook by pointing at “corrupt politicians” or constantly demonize people on the other side. Both liberals and conservatives do it, along with shouting and name calling. Our elected officials reflect who we are, and we need to do the work of mending and moving forward. We also need to realize that there are 535 people in Congress, and many still try hard to reach across the aisle and work things out with creative, respectful,  bi-partisan cooperation. They need our support.

I am so moved and impressed by the Republicans in this video who are stopping to ask what responsibility they’ve had in creating the deep divisions. Katie Pavlich from Fox News says she feels demonized by the left for her beliefs. She also says we care about the same issues. I think so too. Glenn Beck says he has been doing some painful soul searching about his part in the great divides. He is wanting to do more listening and says we must start talking to each other and chart a new course. We can all do that! We can listen and own our part in the brokenness and bitterness.

Krista Tippett’s Civil Conversations Project on OnBeing.org has a place to start. With two people holding opposing views, her questions are: 1) What in your own position makes you uncomfortable? 2) What do you admire about the people and positions on the other side?

Part of the problem is our geographic divisions and the difficulty of meeting and knowing people who are different and hold very different ideas. After growing up in northern Michigan with people very much like me, one of my life’s greatest gifts was having the privilege of teaching in a federal prison. Almost no one shared a background like mine. My students challenged me, made me squirm, and made me change my mind about the country I live in. They also nurtured me for twenty-five years. I owe them, and writing my book is one way to give them a voice. Now in this painful and difficult time, I want to meet and talk to people on the other side of the political fence—listen carefully and own my part of the problem. Good apologies are a good place to start and go a long way toward pulling us together again.