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.

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

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.

The Blame Game Continues

The conditions in the Detroit Public Schools are beyond belief. I cannot imagine sending my children to rat-infested, moldy, cold and dangerous schools—nor can I imagine being able to teach under those conditions. There are not enough teachers and not enough supplies. When I taught in Detroit’s inner city fifty years ago, I had forty-three third graders, but the building was clean, welcoming and safe. We had adequate materials. It is so ominous for so many impoverished communities that conditions have worsened to such an extent.

I listen carefully to teachers working in our public schools and all of them are discouraged and disheartened. They feel blame from all corners—administrators, parents, politicians and the public. This isn’t new, but with dwindling funds, conditions and morale are much worse. The following reaction in The Guardian on January 12, 2016, is a typical response. I doubt that the attorney general has investigated the schools by touring these places with such awful, health-threatening conditions. I hope his response would be different. Once again, our extreme separations cause these less-than-compassionate responses. Once again, it is black children who suffer.

Asked by the Detroit News about the legality of Monday’s protest, a spokesperson for Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, side-stepped the question, instead slamming the teachers’ move: “Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”

“Outrageous” is the right term for what is happening to children, parents and teachers in Detroit. Where does the responsibility for this situation lie? My friend Amber Hughson’s comments about institutional racism say it well:

Imagine yourself in elementary school, showing up for your day and seeing rats crawling across the floor of your classroom. Sleet and rain coming into the room where there’s [ black mold]. The textbook you’re working out of is a decade old and ripped. Imagine that you’re black and the majority of the kids around you are black. Imagine that as you go through school you become more and more aware that other kids in other places don’t go to schools like this.

What would this tell you about how you are valued, who cares about you, or whether or not your education–or your life–matters?

There is more segregation in American schools now than there has been since [1968]. And here we are today–just down the street teachers are being told that they are hurting students by protesting (using their sick days, because it is illegal for teachers to strike in Michigan). Our government is vilifying educators who work in buildings where the gym floor is swollen into hills and the playground is closed off because hot steam is pouring out of a broken pipe.

This is not desegregation. This is not even separate but equal. If you want evidence of institutionalized racism–this is everything. If you want evidence of class privilege–this is everything. Every single public school should have the same quality of facilities and materials, regardless of the class or race of the adults in the surrounding community. Education and opportunity are how you get people out of poverty–yet we create deeper and deeper poverty by giving more and more opportunity to the students attending school in West Bloomfield, MI and then allow students in Flint and Detroit, MI to go to crumbling schools where certified teachers won’t even take jobs (as they shouldn’t under these conditions).

You cannot get more intersectional than this issue–unions, which are democratically created and run organizations are being destroyed by politicians who know unions (a now dirty word for ‘organized citizens’) are the one strong force which fights for low wage workers to get out of poverty. Those unions cannot represent the interests of these teachers (who are mostly women) because we have made it illegal for teachers to strike; we’ve done this in the name of students–the very students who are mostly minorities and who are hardly receiving an education at all because our state funds for schools are not equal and our education system and society are deeply segregated.

If you believe in justice, equity, and the right to dignity for all children–do not disparage these teachers. Fight for better schools in Detroit, and I promise you will be on the side of what is right.

 

Guest Blog: Wake Up White America

My friend Jan Brimacombe, concerned citizen and social activist, volunteers in a prison facility to help inmates read books to their children. These books and recordings are then sent home, providing much-needed connections between incarcerated children and their fathers. She participates in a group that reads, learns and discusses the complicated issues of racism every month. She works on environmental issues, in particular with the dwindling populations of Monarch butterflies as she helps people to save their habitat by planting milkweed. I am honored to post her piece (written before the tragedies in Charleston) about our responsibility as white people to be aware of how our complicated and painful racial history and current tragedies impact black communities—and she urges us to get involved in the piece below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

Wake Up White America

by Jan Brimacombe

I am a 72 year old white woman; wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher. On a recent Sunday afternoon while volunteering at the Milan Federal Prison Detention Center, I counted 25 African American children visiting their fathers. Ranging in age from infants to teenagers, the children were very engaged: lively conversations, hugs and laughter, seemingly normal father/child interactions except all of these children’s fathers are incarcerated. (The negative effects on the children, families and communities of the incarcerated warrants an entire new editorial.) And this is just one small visiting room for one unit in one section of a federal prison. My informal surveys of this visiting room have nearly always revealed the majority of inmates to be men of color. This microcosm of incarcerated men seems to mirror what some in this country are beginning to acknowledge and question: the mass incarceration of black men in America.

The recent series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers revives an obscure genre of plays dating to the early 1900s. Anti-lynching plays were written and performed to show how lynching devastated African American families. Readings of these plays has begun at JACK, a Brooklyn Community Arts Center. After performing Blue Eyed Black Boy the troupe read Safe in May. An Ohio State University professor who has studied the history of anti-lynching plays states that being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege is an important counterpart to being told you deserve what you get. By performing these plays today one of the actors concludes that the audience might think, Oh, my that looks like what’s happening right now.

Eric Garner dies while in the choke hold of a white police officer in Staten Island as he pleads, I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe. Unarmed Michael Brown dies amid a volley of gunshots from a white police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries conclude non-indictment in both cases. Violence erupts in Ferguson. Protests staged in New York City. Demonstrations take place around the country. Walter Scott is shot and killed by a white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina after being stopped for a faulty car taillight. In Inkster, Michigan Floyd Dent is stopped by white police officers; video captures him being dragged from his car and then punched in the head until his injures require medical care. Violence and rioting erupt in Baltimore after Freddy Gray dies from injuries suffered while in police custody after his arrest. Like Eric Garner, Gray’s calls for medical help go unheeded by the police. At Gray’s funeral his brother remarks, Most of us are not here because we know Freddy Gray, but because we know many Freddy Grays. The perennial black/white racial divide surfaces in reaction to all these incidents.

Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Martha MacCallum of Fox News discuss the Michael Brown case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are sensationalizing these events for their purposes. You can’t take an isolated case and say racial profiling occurs. Profiling happens to everyone. NBC News pays Al Sharpton to deliver garbage. He has the nerve to insult the American police community. How audacious of these Fox “newscasters” to claim that profiling happens to everyone, choosing to overlook the meaning of profiling in the case of Michael Brown. This interpretation of the tragedy in Ferguson fuels racism in white audiences.   

Bryan Stevenson, director of The Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama shares these statistics in his TED Talk: one third of black men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, prison, on probation or on parole. In many of our urban areas 50-60% of young men of color are in jail. 34% of black men in Alabama have permanently lost their right to vote. Milwaukee Public Radio devotes a year to reporting on black male incarceration in Wisconsin, which has the highest incarceration rate of all fifty states. The state spends more on prisons than education. By age 34, only 38% of men living in the 53206 zip code area of Milwaukee (95% black) will NOT have spent time in a state correctional facility. Why is it that law enforcement targets predominantly black neighborhoods?

Parents of black boys in the United States must teach their sons the rules of engagement during encounters with the police. Don’t forget you are black. Do not get into a power struggle. Keep your hands visible; DON’T reach for your cell phone. Make the officer feel he is in charge. Don’t move suddenly. Use sir when addressing the officer. Portland lawyers create an app titled Driving While Black to teach people of color how to stay safe during traffic stops. As a white parent of a white son I worried about him being involved in an accident as a new driver, but NEVER feared he was in danger of being targeted or mistreated by police officers. I felt secure in knowing that if my son had car trouble or was in an accident the police would be there to assist him. The contrast between my reassurance and black parents’ fears in regard to policing is stark.

After George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict in the shooting death of Travon Martin, Alicia Garza posts her outrage on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors responds and culls Black Lives Matter from Alicia’s posting. A movement is born. Garza writes in an article for the feministwire: Black Lives Matter is an intervention in a world where Black Lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black Folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. I think back to the sixties and the Black Power Movement and the coinage: Black is Beautiful. Fifty years later African Americans continue to struggle and plead for dignity and justice in our society.

I feel compelled to ask white America to Wake Up. We must dig deeper into our souls and recognize that the oppression of our African American citizens continues to this day, as is highlighted currently by the deaths and beatings of unarmed black men at the hands of majority white police officers. Since the abolition of slavery, mechanisms have emerged that ensure the continued subjugation of African Americans: the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, share cropping, segregation, the war on drugs and now mass incarceration of black men (as well as an increasing number of black women). Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent springboard for studying our country’s enduring practices of racial oppression. White America must shed its cloak of indifference and join the movement: BLACK LIVES MATTER.