Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

 

Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

YouTube: Shaka Senghor

Recently I had the great privilege of hearing Shaka Senghor speak. He has written Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison. Shaka Senghor committed murder. His story of pain, struggle and transformation moved me profoundly. I was particularly interested in his accounts of being in solitary confinement and discovering books—from ancient classics to modern stories of black men. He writes this about one if his first experiences:

“When I got back to my cell, it was nearing time for count, so I sat down and opened up the dog-eared pages of Eldorado Red. From the first page, I was hooked. Goines’s vivid tale of inner-city life and the underground lottery had me in its spell, and his ability to articulate the pain of the streets validated the anger, frustration and disappointment I felt toward life in the ‘hood. Goines placed me back on the streets of Detroit; he made me feel alive again. I read the whole thing that night.” 1

All of us need our experiences to be validated. What do most of us living outside the fence in nice neighborhoods know about the traumas young black people experience in the streets and neighborhoods?

Senghor goes on about reading The Autobiography of Malcom X, “Without question, it was one of the best and most important decisions I have ever made.”2 This made me remember a statement from more than one of my students, “If I’d learned this stuff about my people in school, I don’t think I would have dropped out.”

Senghor echoes the power of black people learning black history when he writes, “My reading of Black history gave me a sense of pride and dignity that I didn’t have prior to coming to prison.”3

Books were an important part of his changing identity, as was learning to write and journal. When he figured out that writing in a journal was a method for learning about himself and a way to manage his anger, it all became a powerful tool for transformation. He writes:

“It’s hard to express how much this process of examination began to change me. Within the lined pages of my notepads, I got in touch with a part of me that didn’t feel fear whenever something didn’t go my way—a part of me that was capable of feeling compassion for the men around me.

For the first time I could remember, I began to recognize my true self.”4

There it is: the recognition of one’s true self. People are not born criminals. People with severe damage or psychological illnesses are in a separate category. I did not want to know about or discuss my students’ crimes. I learned that crucial lesson early on when I looked at a difficult student’s file and discovered what he’d done. It did not help the already tenuous relationship between us, and it was not my job. I did have the privilege of watching people being transformed by education as they learned to read and write, as they learned and articulated what was important to them as they thoughtfully figured out what their futures might look like outside the fence. As they worked and learned, as they figured out how smart and capable they were, they were discovering their own compassion and goodness, their true selves.

When I heard Shaka Senghor speak, he read the letter he wrote to his victim and talked about the letter from the victim’s godmother, who forgave him. He talked about the long road to forgiving himself. When asked about forgiving his mother who had abused him as a child, he said the lesson he learned was that forgiveness did not mean that the other person automatically changes their behavior.

It was an amazing evening. When he finished his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. All the proceeds from that evening’s book sales went to the Children’s Literacy Network, which sponsors Staying in Touch in the county’s prisons. Inmates choose books for their children and read the books into a recorder. Their children then receive the books, recordings and cards from their parents. Senghor praised the program, noting just how important those connections are for both parents and children.

I taught many remarkable men in my prison classroom. Early in my twenty-five year career, I had two men in a history class. (To protect them, I’ve changed their names.) Mr. Hamden was supremely organized in whatever he did, including his school work. A dream student, every assignment was done perfectly. He never missed a class and came in early every day. At a time when the Jaycees, an organization for leadership training and civic organization for people 18-40, had a chapter in the prison, Mr. Hamden found a program that would take store coupons and turn them into a charitable project. Under his leadership, other inmates and both federal and contract staff collected coupons and turned them in.

Mr. Engling was in the same class and another excellent student. He and his classmates wrote a play about a man experiencing events in the 20th Century. I don’t remember a single hitch in the whole process. Mr. Engling was warm and fun as he crafted the script to include everyone in the class. They then loved rehearsing—and the performance turned into a huge hit.

Years later I had Mr. Walls. He was at the end of a long sentence, delighted to be able to earn his high school diploma. He was a joy in class as he sat in the front row asking good questions and keeping discussions lively, interesting and focused. His assignments were typed (no easy task with very few typewriters available in the library), and he earned straight A’s. One of his papers was the story of his teenage years, including what he described as the terrible decision to drop out of school. He went on to write about his re-awakening when he discovered books and school. After he was released, he wrote letters back to our program’s Pre-Release class, encouraging people who were ready to go home and warning them about pitfalls outside the fence.

All three of these men were self-reflective, centered and focused on successful futures. They were kind, compassionate, helpful and courteous. All three helped me enormously by being perfect role models for newer students who were struggling. I found them charming and lovely to be around.

All three had committed murder.

Much of the discussion around prison reform centers around non-violent offenders. If those people are released, that would be progress, but it leaves many more people locked away who have, at an earlier time in their lives—often as teenagers—committed violent crimes like murder. People DO outgrow bad behavior and take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Those people who do not need to be kept behind bars. One of the missing pieces in our broken criminal justice system is any attention on the victims and survivors of violent crimes. When asked, people have amazing capacities to forgive.

I think about the people, especially those in power in the criminal justice system, who cannot look beyond a single, awful event—and see whole people. This article from the New York Times tells of someone who committed a murder and spent over forty years behind bars: False Hope and a Needless Death Behind BarsHe became one of the most respected inmates in the state’s system, took total responsibility for his crime, earned degrees and started a program in which victims and offenders could communicate. He had support from prison guards, judges, clergy and prosecutors. After he was denied parole ten times, he committed suicide at age 70.

Another compelling reason to release people who’ve served long sentences, may have committed violent crimes and are doing good work behind bars, is that the world needs them! Formerly-incarcerated people are organizing across the country to work for prison reform and to work with vulnerable young people. No one can do it like they do. They know. They have the answers, the solutions and the commitment. Many of the men I knew expressed their needs to “give back” to their communities.

“Our worst deeds to not define us,” says Senghor. Prison is tough. In America we don’t simply lock people up and take away their freedom—we add further punishment like the use of solitary confinement. Our current system allows life inside to be miserable and dangerous. It is not easy to admit and atone for crimes committed. But, if people serve their sentences for many years and become valuable citizens behind bars, we should at least consider releasing them. If they can change their hearts and minds, we should be able to do the same. We need to start imagining a world where we matter to one another. Part of the blaming and shaming has to do with how cut off we all are to the people who live in prisons. Media images of “those animals,” as one person described them, abound.

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

  1. Shaka Senghor, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, (New York, Convergent Books, 2013, 2106), p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 101
  3. Ibid. p. 101
  4. Ibid. p. 192

Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

The Danger of a Single Story

 

The Danger of a Single Story

Like most of us, I’m finding it hard to take in the news about so much more violence— more innocent black people killed by police and then five policeman killed in Dallas. The United States seems more violent to me right now than ever before, though I interpret what is going on through my privileged whiteness. I need to remind myself that black people have always endured violence from the authorities like racial profiling to arrests and imprisonments, not experienced nearly as much by white people, the violence in prisons, being shot at and killed. It breaks my heart to know how unsafe people of color feel, and I worry about the police too–how unsafe they feel and how a few men determine the reputation of so many good people trying hard to protect their communities. I worry about guns and the idea that they solve the problem. I realized after a few days that I needed to look for hope—again.

This blog post from OnBeing’s Courtney Martin speaks to me right now and includes the wonderful TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the end. She talks about our human tendency to ascribe only one story to a people, a group or an individual. Her TED Talk is called The Danger of a Single Story.

Adichie is Nigerian storyteller. She says stories about each other matter, because they humanize us and repair dignity. She states that she too is guilty of believing the single story about the negatives, darkness and difference in groups of people. She says single stories flatten other people’s experience and create stereotypes, which are incomplete pictures of people we don’t know. Single stories obscure the reality that we have much in common.

The idea of how  dangerous it is to see only  a single story about people is a powerful re-framing in the way we regard strangers—and applies to people we know too. She challenges us to be curious about people we don’t know and see them as complex, like we all are. The idea that the single story is dangerous is exactly what I’m trying to say about people in prison. The prison fence essentially implies that all the people inside are all bad and dangerous. It is simply not true.

The idea of a single story can be extended to our tendency to choose sides in this awful week: we are either on the side of black people or on the side of the police. We can choose to be on the side of all hurting people. Taking sides is neither necessary nor helpful. Looking at the roots of the problems, however painful and difficult, will move us closer to the solutions. We can choose to look at our fears and the divisions that rise out of our fears of each other. Chimamanda Adichie asks us to see people as more than the surface, often what the media portrays. She is asking us to listen. It is what we want other people to do for us.

Entertaining Angels

Entertaining Angels

Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.

Hebrews 13: 2

Hearing about the horror in Orlando felt like a physical blow, and I had to absorb it in small pieces over the course of a few days. I don’t want to become numb to these tragedies, so I’ve looked for solace and positive ways to respond. Many of my thoughts slide toward my grandmother, and I’ve been walking around with the image of her smiling in her kitchen, her faded apron tied around her middle. I’ve had a few moments of yearning for her huge hugs and completely loving presence. Tapping into who she was has been both a comfort and a guide.

Gramma was the most hospitable person I’ve ever known. She loved having company, especially members of her very large family. But, with boundless interest in new people and ideas, her ever-present warmth welcomed strangers too. When I took new friends to her little house in the country, she loved meeting them. I could have dropped in with anyone at any time, and a meal would have magically appeared. She would have put people at ease, listened carefully and asked them questions.

Her generosity of spirit extended out into her community as she volunteered to be with the “old folks,” even in her 60’s and 70’s. She was a faithful member of her small country church, providing whatever was needed—usually food. Once in a while, she had to play the organ on Sunday mornings. She admitted she wasn’t very good, but with a giggle, she’d say, “Well, if they want me, they’ll have to take what they get!” Nothing had to be perfect—not her food, her house, her music or her weedy gardens, brimming over with vegetables and flowers. It was never about money or status. For her it was about loving people right where they were. With a sturdy faith, she so appreciated what she had—her family, her friends, her community. She’s been gone for over thirty years, but her spirit of generous hospitality lives on.

I watched with awe as my students in prison welcomed strangers and likened it to Gramma’s care and concern. Many of the men I knew remembered what being frightened of the institution felt like when they first arrived, and they would show new and nervous inmates around, give them toothpaste, soap and shower shoes. They would tell them what to expect in the place. One student, who came in to lead a discussion on civility, noted, “Watch the Mexicans. They know how to take care of new guys comin’ in.” I found hospitable space in my classroom, and often that space felt sacred. I often felt the presence of holy men. Angels. They taught me to be aware of angels all around me—and in the most unlikely places.

With so many mass shootings, especially after so many people died in Orlando, it is easy to see and feel the presence of evil. The attack on LGBT people and Hispanics made this attack even more sinister and frightening. Certainly we need to confront it, figure out why it happens, deal with so many lethal weapons and the rancor and polarizing between us. But, my grandmother’s examples urge me to be open and warm to people who are different than I am—and to welcome strangers.

On NPR’s All Things Considered on Sunday, June 12, 2016, I heard Michel Martin interview one of the fathers in Orlando. He lost a daughter. On Father’s Day, instead of being bitter and angry, he expressed his pride in his daughter who had made it out of Pulse—but then went back in to her friend. He consoled our shaken president as once again, for the 16th time, Obama had to fulfill his role as “comforter-in-chief.” And this grieving father wants to meet the killer’s father and invite him into his house. He says he’s about love and forgiveness, not hate. He counts the gunman as the 50th victim. If you read his words or listen to his voice,  I think you will define this father as an angel. Right now, in our violent, divided country, we can use all the healing we can find. Angels help.

A Father’s Grief and Forgiveness in Orlando

 

 

 

 

 

Living from the Inside Out

Parker Palmer became my North Star as I read and re-read his  books about education.  His wisdom, clarity and compassion kept me focused. This June, as I remember the absolute joy of our prison graduation ceremonies, his commencement address is the best I have ever read, speaking not only to graduates, but to the current chaos and concerns in our politics.

 

Living From the Inside Out

In May, 2015, I gave the commencement address at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Founded in 1974 by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, Naropa merges Western scholarship with Eastern wisdom in a context of contemplative practice. I was grateful for a chance to welcome the Class of 2015 to a world in deep need of their competence and compassion. In this season of graduations, I wanted to share my talk with you.


I have two modest graduation gifts for the Class of 2015. The first is a six brief suggestions about the road ahead of you. The second is a promise to stop talking in about twelve minutes so you can get on that road sooner rather than later!

My first suggestion is simple: Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Now, before someone thinks I’m trying to corrupt America’s youth, what I mean is fall madly in love with life! Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds, and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m so glad for the self-centered, self-serving, and self-protective life I lived.” Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your spirit — with open-hearted generosity.

But understand that when you live this way, you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail. To grow in love and service, you must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success. This is ironic advice on a day when we celebrate your success at passing a rigorous test of your knowledge! But clinging to what you already know is the path to an unlived life. So cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling, again and again — then getting up to learn again and again. That’s the path to a life lived large in service of love, truth, and justice.

Second, as you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself.

Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to your shadow side: let your altruism meet your egotism, your generosity meet your greed, your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow: even Buddhists, even Quakers, even high-minded people like us. Especially high-minded people like us! But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection — it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. As a person who has made three deep-dives into depressionalong the way, I don’t speak lightly of this. I simply know it is true.

As you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well. Our world is in desperate need of leaders who live what Socrates called “an examined life.” In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadow side because they don’t want to look weak. With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use their power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions. If you value self-knowledge, you will become the leaders we need to help renew this society. But if, for some reason, you choose to live an unexamined life, I beg of you: Do not take a job that involves other people!

Third, as you welcome whatever you find alien within yourself, extend that same welcome to whatever you find alien in the outer world.

I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as “other” than us.

The old majority in this society — people who look like me — is on its way out. By 2045, the majority of Americans will be people of color. Many in the old majority fear that fact. And their fear, shamelessly manipulated by too many politicians, is bringing us down. The renewal this nation needs will not come from people who are afraid of “otherness” in race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Because of that fear, our once-vital society is gridlocked and stagnant — and our main hope for renewal is diversity welcomed and embraced.

I recently met a professor who left a predominantly white college to teach undocumented youth in Southern California. When I asked him how it was going, he said, “Best move I ever made. My previous students felt entitled and demanded to be entertained. My undocumented students are hungry to learn, hard-working, and courageous enough to keep moving out of their comfort zones.”

America will be renewed by people with those qualities. And if we who have privilege and power will welcome them, collaborate with them, and help remove the obstacles in their way, 2045 will be a year of promise for all of us.

Fourth, take on big jobs worth doing, jobs like the spread of love, peace, and justice.

That means refusing to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. We all want our work to make a difference, of course. But if we take on the big jobs and our only measure of success is next quarter’s bottom line, we’ll end up disappointed, dropping out, and in despair.

Think of someone you respect because he or she lived a life devoted to high values: a Rosa Parks, a Nelson Mandela, or someone known only to a few. At the end of the road, was that person able to say, “I’m sure glad I took on that job because now everyone can check it off their to-do lists”? No, our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard is “faithfulness” — faithfulness to your gifts, to the needs of the world, and to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.

The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Public education is a tragic example. We no longer care about educating children — a big job that’s never done. We care only about getting kids to pass tests with measurable results — whether or not they measure what matters. In the process, we’re crushing the spirits of a lot of good teachers and vulnerable kids.

Care about being effective, of course. But care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do — faithful to your calling and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care. You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime. But if, at the end of the day, you can say, “I was faithful,” you’ll be okay.

Fifth, since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves — as in overwork that leads to burnout and worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse. Sometimes we aim that violence at other people — racism, sexism and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others.

The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first, they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that — not in spite of their loss but because of it — they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys.

These are broken-hearted people — but their hearts have been broken open rather than broken apart. So every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s pains and joys. That kind of exercise will make your heart supple, so that when it breaks — which it surely will — it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.

Sixth and finally, I quote St. Benedict — not a Buddhist or a Quaker, but still worth quoting! — who said, “Daily keep your death before your eyes.”

That may sound like a morbid practice, but I assure you it isn’t. If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life. And that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining. So I’ll close with this brief quote from the writer Diane Ackerman who reminds us to live — truly live — our lives:

“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”

Once again, a deep bow to the Class of 2015. To each and every one of you, traveling mercies and blessings as you make the journey from one mystery to the next and the next and the next!

 

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.