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.

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.

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!

 

The Well-Traveled Path

Our future doesn’t lie in the towers of power but in the well-traveled path from house to house.

Sometimes deep and sturdy wisdom comes in just a few words. This quote comes from NPR’s program OnBeing with David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for his work with interfaith dialogue. This simple sentence speaks volumes to the people of Michigan right now as we grapple with the unbelievable crisis of poisoned water in Flint. Democracy has taken a huge hit, and the people in Flint and in Michigan feel that government has failed them.  

I taught the state-required course in government with my incarcerated students. They didn’t trust the government either.  In fact, the mere word put them in the red zone. Most of them, imprisoned for drug offenses with very long sentences—and most of them people of color—had just cause to distrust the system they labeled as racist, corrupt and unfair. In the early years as I was finding my way, I got a knot in my stomach at 9:30 when my students filed in and took their seats in their least favorite class. Let me simply say we had some miserably bad days. We stumbled along. My first mistake was in thinking that I had to be in charge.

While teaching the course for several years out of the standard high school textbook, I added subjects, watched  and listened carefully. My students were very interested in ideas like non-violence. They were fascinated with The Civil Rights Movement. Because they represented so many cultural backgrounds, mainly African, Hispanic, and Native American, discussions around diversity came up all the time. I had students of all ages and from several religious backgrounds, which made discussions lively and rich. I saw people all over the prison treat each other with remarkable civility and caring. They were interested in issues of integrity.

So, one summer I completely changed the course. At its heart, government is learning how to live together. My students were learning this lesson under some of the worst possible conditions in the country. I decided to focus on good citizenship, knowing they had much to teach each other—and me. Re-naming the course Civics helped a lot. I realized how much they already knew from their lives at home, and by then I knew how well they got along in class.

Prisons have towers, both real and symbolic. They have a top-down, military chain of command with a heavy focus on rules and regulations. Prisons are designed to take control away from inmates. But, I was hearing and seeing how much my students wanted to determine the course of their lives, and being in school gave them that opportunity. Whenever I asked for ideas about class structure and what we should discuss, I got wonderful feedback. I learned to ask each class at the end of every semester what they would add or change for the next group. One man suggested that students read a news article every week and then discuss them together. Nothing we ever did was as popular or successful as their beloved Round Table. I insisted on a circle so that everyone would feel a part of it, but it was their time together and I stayed at my desk where I listened carefully to make sure they were on track. We agreed together that no one was ever left out. If the facilitator didn’t get all the way around the circle, the class insisted on time the next day to finish. The Round Table gave them a voice in a place where they had almost no voice at all.

Being in school, and especially participating in the Round Table, created community and the men said that often. “It’s cool to greet a fellow student around the compound,” one man wrote, “because I know that without school, I never would know the guy.” They were making connections in class, in the Chow Hall, on the yard and in their housing units. They were creating “well-worn paths.” I was seeing many of them take exquisite care of each other. In a communications class one semester, a white man wrote me a note at the end of it voicing his gratitude for the opportunity to get to know black men. He regretted that it was so much harder in the community he had grown up in.

That’s how democracy functions best: when people create community, go door-to-door, sit in a circle and make sure no one is left out. It functions when people have a voice and are heard. It works best when there is a diversity of people and opinions. It functions when people feel important and when elected officials regard every single person as important as anyone else. It functions when the people living in poor communities of color are as important as the people living in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods. It functions best when we try to get to know and understand people who are far different than we are. Democracy flourishes when we  care about each other.

People don’t like to be fixed. It’s patronizing to be told you cannot solve your own problems.  The citizens of Flint are angry about being told they had no voice and no power when emergency managers were installed by the governor. Our emergency managers in Michigan take local control away from communities and school districts. The roots of the water crisis lie in the stripping of power from Flint citizens. From their towers of power, the elected officials in Lansing, our state capital, did not listen. Though the people of Flint went to Lansing and to local meetings with their bottles of brown water, they were not heard. Even when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha tested her pediatric patients and found dangerous levels of lead, she was ridiculed and attacked.

“Children are routinely screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, Hanna-Attisha said. “So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done.” She found that levels of lead poisoning among children tested for lead poisoning had increased dramatically between 2013 and 2015, the year after the water supply started drawing from the Flint River. She immediately held a press conference, telling Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

“[T]hat evening, we were attacked. So I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie.”

–MintPress News, January 30, 2016

Things are tough in Michigan right now, and the nation grieves with us about the damage done to children. I can get bogged down and cynical if I don’t look for hope. There is hope, however. On February 1, 2016, Dr. Laura Sullivan, a global expert on water issues and a native of Flint, was a guest on NPR’s All Things Considered. She said she feels like she is helping her family and that jobs may open up to fix the broken pipes. She said it was their city. She said, “Light is shining so brightly on Flint right now, and we’re going to help you heal your city.”  People from all over the country are donating bottled water. 300 union plumbers showed up to install donated faucets and other plumbing supplies. The 300 plumbers are from local unions from across the country. 1 They’re going house to house.

more “The Well-Traveled Path”

Our Only Hope

The last few weeks with the attacks on Paris and in San Bernardino, along with even more mass shootings here, have put us in a new place, giving rise to these questions:  What will keep us safe? What gives us hope?

A lot of political chatter says that we should close our borders to all Muslims, not admit any Syrian refugees—even three-year old orphans. We hear that we need more guns and more armed people. All of this withdraws our goodwill and fuels potential terrorism. These statements and proposed policies ripple out to mosques being vandalized in several places, Muslims and their children being frightened and bullied, and more fear and terror implanted in our hearts and minds. And, this kind of negative energy toward other people is bad for us.

There are other ways to react to frightening events than by demonizing whole groups of people and by turning inward and baracading our borders. “Our only hope is in valuing each other,”  said Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and essayist on NPR’s program On Point.

In today’s political climate, being kind and compassionate about people we don’t know or disagree with isn’t easy. It is so easy to find what Robinson calls the “sinister other,” in people who look different, speak different languages and practice another religion. It’s easy to find the “sinister other” in people on the other side of the political fence.

We can, however, distinguish all the harsh political talk from what we see and hear in our  ordinary lives and in our own communities. We can find kindness and hope there. I don’t have to go any further than checking my e-mail, where friends are networking about helping a mutual friend. I can shop around town and find very friendly people everywhere. I can open my local paper and see all kinds of programs that help people who are vulnerable. I can see the outreach to the Muslim community. I can support those programs.

Right after we heard that the towers were falling in New York on 9/11, my prison students and I gathered around in a small circle. They were afraid for their families on the outside and feeling helpless. They were on their way to lunch and talking about how Muslims would be blamed. One man said, “We need to put our arms around our Muslim brothers. This will be a very hard time for them.” Other men agreed, and they reported back to me over the next days that men were asking to sit at Muslim tables and reaching out to them around the compound. I’ve never forgotten those gestures and how much they mattered.

People who are incarcerated have a distinct advantage living and working in such close quarters with many people who are different. There are many Muslims in the prison who are work-mates and classmates. They know each other from their housing units, on the job and in school. Though I live in a very diverse town, I know only a few Muslims, and it bothers me. When I told my students this in a discussion about diversity, one man said, “Mrs. Wenzel. They’re just like you.”

Though it is often a first response to awful events, fear doesn’t do good things for us. It solves nothing. It’s powerful, and it blinds us to the realities that terrorist threats are statistically very unlikely. It freezes us into inaction and makes it easier to slide into stereotyping and scapegoating. In fearful times, we need to be responsible for our own fears, examine them and learn to be cautious and restrained—about our actions and about our speech. Just as hateful speech ripples out, an openness to strangers and a willingness to treat everyone with respect and courtesty have ripple effects too.

“Our democracy,” Robinson says, is “based on the willingness that we think well of each other.”

“A democracy is fragile,” she says, “and safety is not giving up our civil order and what is best in ourselves.” We are not called to fix the whole country, but every smile to a stranger, every small kindness extended, every door held open for an elderly shopper, every attendance at a meeting, everytime we help a child, it matters. We can reach out and be-friend people who are different. We can all do it. At the eulogy for Clemente Pinckney in Charleston after the horror of the shooting there, President Obama quoted Marilynne Robinson’s idea of our “deep reservoir of goodness.” We all have it—and it gives us hope and it gives us grace as a nation. Kindness and love never fail–and they trump terror and fear.