At dusk, I’m thinking

Feminist Thought, Politics, News & Notable

It’s Wednesday and the sun is setting. I’m enduring a rare headache. It has not drowned in water nor drifted away in sleep, despite my best efforts. I guess it’s here to stay a bit. I’m due to stay up this evening and watch American Horror Story. I’m not normally a night owl, but I’m doing it this one time in solidarity with Sojo and Ms. Smart so we can do one of these. Just this one time though…

I’m thinking about compassionate capitalism. I imagine such a thing exists. I want you to imagine it, too. I aim to find it, and write about it, as to expand our understanding about what’s possible in a loving society. 

I’m thinking about practitioners of restorative justice, especially those in Georgia or in the south. I want to know more about what they do and what impact it has in their respective communities. I want to interview them and document their stories. 

I’m thinking about abolitionists. Those who would abolish the death penalty as well as those who would dismantle the prison-industrial complex. Although some states still murder prisoners, others are slowing and/or stopping the practice.  Meanwhile, budget cuts are forcing states to question caging as the default response to nonconforming behavior. In many states it costs more per year than college tuition. With no restoration and no education. Just revenge. I want less revenge. More evolution. More solutions. More healing. More love.

I’m pondering the ways these elements are interwoven. And the fact that any discussion of these ideas must eventually include public schooling… from the zero tolerance policies leading to the school to prison pipeline, to the capitalist ideals underpinning school policy and curriculum.

Things I’m thinking about this Wednesday evening. What’s on your mind?

What are you up to this week?

Personal Narrative

I’m excited to be in North Carolina this morning. I’m attending the 10th Annual Qualitative Research Summer Intensive. I’m here for a two-day workshop on grounded theory with Kathy Charmaz. Very awesome. I brought my survivor story as my sample data, so this should be interesting.

In other news, I’ve launched a book project (unrelated) and once that’s more fully established, I’ll share a bit in this space. It’s a good entry point into thinking and learning more about mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex.

There are a couple of other projects I’m mulling that are just about ready to shift into the doing stage. That’s something I’m working on this year – taking action on ideas instead of letting them live (and sometimes eventually, die) in my head.

Speaking of other projects – I’m the program committee chair of the 3rd Annual National Black Women’s Life Balance and Wellness Conference. This week we’re sending out decision notes to women who submitted proposals. There were quite a few excellent ones, so it’s definitely a labor of love to select the presenters.

And since we’re on the topic of wellness, I’ve started back running. I ran this morning (on a treadmill. Ack!), and I’ve almost completed my first running goal of the year.

Keeping busy!

So… enough about me. What are you up to this week? Goals? Milestones? Challenges? Chime in!

Ask questions

Abolition & Justice, Education, Text Talk

As a graduate student, one of my favorite topics of discussion and research was inquiry. Asking questions, conducting investigations, and building knowledge through exploration are powerful tools for thinking and learning. As I continued in my studies, I learned of critical inquiry, which expands the idea of questioning to include a political or sociocultural lens. Developing conscientização, or critical awareness/awakening, is akin to taking the red pill. You start to ask sociopolitical questions and suddenly  you are hard-pressed to see anything as flat, uncomplicated or devoid of nuance. This isn’t a negative thing, but it makes for interesting conversations.

The Meaning of FreedomI mention all of this to introduce a quote by Angela Davis. I’m currently reading The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues,  a compilation of speeches she delivered between 1994 and 2009. One thing I appreciate about Dr. Davis’ work is her constant admonition to reflect upon, reconsider, and rethink long-held ideas about “normalcy.” In her speech titled Race, Power and Prisons Since 9/11, she discusses the embodiment of evil and its requisite opposite good, xenophobia, militarism and the ever-expanding punishment industry. Although this is the context for the excerpt below, it’s a salient word, and useful for all serious thinkers reflecting on the world.

Things are never as simple as they appear to be. It is incumbent on us to think, to question, to be critical, and to recognize that if we do not interrogate that which we most take for granted, if we are not willing to question the anchoring ground of our ideas, opinions and attitudes, then we will never move forward.
~Angela Davis

Dereliction and Fire

Text Talk

Narrative of Frederick DouglassI debated the merits of crafting a preamble to this excerpt, and as I begin typing, I honestly haven’t decided what to say about it. So we’ll see…

I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Early on in my reading, I became angry. I graduated from a high school named after this man. We did not read his words. At various points, teachers or administrators recited quotes of his, or summarized the “highlights” of his life. Our mascot, school paper and yearbook were all symbolic of him. But we did not read his words.

We did not spend time in an English class, nor a history class, nor an extracurricular making sense of his life. Glaring omission seems too quiet, too meek, too gray to describe it. Dereliction of duty is how I framed it in a brief note of complaint to a friend. And perhaps it was our fault, incurious teenagers that we were, we didn’t seek him out on our own accord.

I don’t know why it was not mandatory for incoming freshmen at the very least. Not just to find out more about Douglass as a historical figure, but also to help us begin to understand his fire to free both his mind and body. For him, the two were interconnected in ways that may not seem as obvious now. But we needed that. We need that.

I don’t know whether its apathy or rebellion, but it seems the fire has gone out in many quarters. Whether we blame government mandates, institutionalized oppressions, our families, ourselves, somehow we must at least acknowledge that smoldering embers and cooling ashes are often found where fires once roared.

I have more to say on the matter, but for now let us read his words:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ʺIf you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master‐‐to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,ʺ said he, ʺif you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty‐‐to wit, the white manʹs power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

~Frederick Douglass

Justice, conflicted. | #vaw #abolition

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice, Feminist Thought, Sexual Violence

The defendants in the Steubenville rape trial were found guilty yesterday. My initial reaction was elation. Jane Doe was sexually assaulted, then publicly humiliated, and despite the attempt to cast her as consenting to the abuse, her violators did not get away it.

Only that’s not exactly true. The chain of complicity in this case is long and tightly woven with bystanders who refused to intervene, friends and acquaintances who felt the ongoing assault of another human was worthy of laughter and sport, and still others who felt the need to rally against Jane, for the sake of young men who ostensibly had the rest of their lives ahead of them.

These complicated factors aside, two people were found guilty, and for that I was glad.

But I was also conflicted.

They were going to jail. That was the solution, you see. The end of the road. You do the crime, you do the time, and all that. But I felt, in a word, unsatisfied with that outcome. I tweeted:

I shared my earlier musings on alternatives to prison and restorative justice. Then I tweeted this:

I sat with my thoughts and feelings on the matter as others began to engage. For instance:

I am glad there was a trial and guilty parties were found to be so. But I felt the resolution was not a good solution; it solves nothing at all except to remove the offenders from the community. And then what? How does healing begin? Is this truly justice? Does a punitive approach really challenge rape culture? What else can be done?

Prison Culture held these same reservations and offered a thoughtful response. A poignant excerpt:

Do we believe that these two young men are going to unlearn rape culture in prison? How about all of their friends who seem to believe that the young men were unjustly convicted? Who will intervene with them to help them unlearn rape culture? The vast majority of our resources have been diverted to criminal legal approaches while rape crisis centers are being defunded and don’t have the capacity to do any prevention work with young people. Some will say that it isn’t either/or; That we can focus on criminal legal remedies while also doing community-based intervention/prevention work to eradicate rape culture. Yet it’s been decades and we still haven’t found the proper balance. Our primary focus on a criminal legal approach has in fact seemed to crowd out other interventions. More importantly, it has let community members off the hook from taking responsibility to interrupt or intervene in preventing or calling out rape. The social problem becomes the criminal legal system’s responsibility to solve and not ours as community members.

I am a proponent of restorative and transformative justice because I believe that they offer the best prospects to eradicate violence. I believe that survivors of violence should be centered in all interventions. Let’s focus on listening to survivors and on really engaging their claims. I want spaces for authentic and survivor-directed healing. I believe that our communities often enable harm and that therefore they must be engaged in addressing these harms. I believe that prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools. I believe that perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. Let’s create a context within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm. Let’s provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it. Finally, perpetrators should be expected to actively participate in repairing the harm that they have caused to their victims and by extension to our communities.

Yes.

Read the whole piece here.

More on Restorative Justice

Abolition & Justice

Today a girlfriend said, people are never going to operate from a place of love 100% of the time. I agree. But societally and individually, we could strive for it more often, yes? We can choose compassion over fear and closure. We can choose restoration and transformation over revenge.

If there’s a reaction to every action, what happens when every choice is a punitive, vengeful one? How can we break the chain of spite? I think about this quite a bit, but it’s pretty theoretical. What does it look like to make such choices? This is where the idea of restorative justice comes into play.

“Restorative justice recognizes that crime hurts everyone – victims, offenders and community. It creates an obligation to make things right.”

For many, the righting of things involves a violent response – be it in word, thought or deed. Imagining more ways of righting things becomes the work of restoration.

Restorative justice does not privilege one voice (survivors) at the expense of the others (community members, offenders). It encourages a union or exchange of voices, and action steps that encourage healing.

“Three hallmarks of restorative justice are encounters between victims and offenders, the obligation to repair harm, and the expectation that transformation may take place.”

All parts are critical, and are well-suited as a way of building the caring community required to make decarceration and excarceration viable options. It’s a great example of praxis: engaged theory and practice. It’s not just a way of thinking about things, but also a way of doing things.

Importantly for me, it’s a theory grounded in the transformative potential of people and circumstances. It assumes that people have agency. People can make choices that result in hurt, but that those same people have the capacity to make choices that move toward healing. Similarly, survivors may have been wounded by offenders, but survivors have the opportunity to move toward wholeness. In both cases, people are viewed as fully human, endowed with the ability to grow and evolve.

This sort of primary belief – in the ability of people to change – seems absent from criminal justice discourse. The focus is on punishment: round them up! Get those {insert derogatory word} off the streets. But where is the healing in that? For the survivors? For the offenders? For the community?

It bears repeating: we have to start from a place of love. Believing that all people are indeed fully human is a radical act. But it’s an act grounded in love.

Restorative Justice and the Caring Community | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

I’m at a conference, so I’m on and off the grid this weekend. While traveling, I had a short, but productive bout of writing-as-thinking. I decided not to push myself to finish either of the two pieces I started, but they are definitely seeds, firmly planted.

One of the pieces was a follow-up to my post on a caring community. Even now, I’m still thinking about it. It all goes back to love, methinks. I sometimes wonder why love is such a revolutionary act. But why wouldn’t it be? We are submerged in a world of violence. We see violent images on our televisions. We use violent language with people we love. Sing songs with violent lyrics. Think violent thoughts. Send violent energy with looks and gestures.

And then we are surprised when violence appears in more tangible forms. We demonize the perpetrators for choosing violence. For succumbing to violence. For mirroring it.

My statement is not meant to absolve aggressors of their responsibility. I simply would like us, as a community, to acknowledge our complicity.

I believe much begins with a theory and practice of love. I wonder if we can ponder such a thing, rather than dismiss it out of hand. After all, where have hardened hearts and an appetite for revenge gotten us?

That brings us again to the caring community. How to we go about creating it? Or how do we enlarge the caring spaces that exist? Mikhail posed a question this afternoon:

Do abolitionists have an alternative vision for how to respond to harmful behavior? That’s what restorative justice does.

As a newbie, I cannot speak for the community of abolitionists. I’m still investigating at this point. But the idea of restorative justice holds promise:

I will continue to share as I continue to learn.

The Caring Community | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

As a new abolitionist, I often imagine the reasons people might oppose abolition. I hear all the why nots they silently levy. I compose responses to these imaginary rebukes, and in so doing, I look to established abolitionists for guidance.

In Instead of Prisons, the authors note several questions abolitionists confront. Two stand out:

  • What do we do about those who pose “a danger” to society? Don’t we have to solve that problem before we can advocate the abolition of prisons?
  • How can we work for needed prison reforms which require structural change within the society, before a new social order comes about?

Two assumptions seem to underlie these questions. Firstly, we can only work on one thing at a time, and after the attainment of a perfect solution, can we attempt something else. Secondly, abolitionists advocate a thoughtless and rash process by which prisons are torn down and people run, pell-mell, to freedom.

Both of these ideas are false. As explained in the attrition model, abolition is a long-term goal with several allied processes:

  • gradually reduce the current inmate population beginning with extreme sentences,
  • reconsider criminality and decriminalize certain behaviors, and
  • develop alternatives to imprisonment (mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, etc.).

There is little in this explanation about the human rights issues prisoners face. This is purposeful. The abolitionist’s goal is not simply to make prison more humane, but to stop caging except when there is absolutely no viable alternative. I want to state clearly, 2.3 million people behind bars should not suffer cruel and unusual punishment. And I do not see a conflict between supporting human rights and working to abolish prisons. However:

Our goal is to replace prison, not improve it.

But one does not dismantle a prison system without a corresponding change in the societal status quo. Society is as sick as the individuals who often wind up exiled from it. That brings us to a topic of personal import: creating a caring community. Drawing from my Buddhist leanings, I believe this to be the most difficult and simultaneously most important part of a successful abolition strategy.

From the handbook:

Abolitionists advocate maximum amounts of caring for all people (including the victims of crime) and minimum intervention in the lives of all people, including lawbreakers. In the minds of some, this may pose a paradox, but not for us, because we examine the underlying causes of crime and seek new responses to build a safer community. The abolitionist ideology is based on economic and social justice for all, concern for all victims, and reconciliation within a caring community.

How do we begin to create a caring community? Is such a utopia possible?

Decarceration and Excarceration. | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

Well, I would like to see, as Fay Honey Knopp, who was an abolitionist during the ’70s and the ’80s and one of the co-authors of a wonderful book called Instead of Prisons: An Abolitionist Handbook, you know, I would like to see an emphasis on decarceration, an emphasis on excarceration.
             Angela Davis on Democracy Now, October, 2010

I’m back in school. Quite honestly, as a lifelong learner, I’ve never left. As soon as I graduated, I created a syllabus of resources on black feminist thought, narrative inquiry and transformative learning and began reading. Studying these topics was nurturing and in many ways, freeing.

Love and curiosity have led me to study mass incarceration and abolition. My new syllabus is growing. A recurring name on it? Angela Davis. I’ve been listening to her speeches, taking notes on terms, people, events I should add to my resource list.

Decarceration and excarceration are each one point of a five-point model of attrition, elaborated in Instead of Prisons (1976). The attrition model is part of a long-range strategy for abolition. The overarching goal: to dismantle the prison system. Attrition, employed as a purposeful, intentional strategy, would “diminish the function and power of prisons in our society.”

The Attrition Model

  • Moratorium on new prison construction
  • Decarcerate
  • Excarcerate
  • Restraint of the few, via the “least restrictive and most humane option for the shortest period of time.”
  • Build a caring community in which support services are privileged over punitive options

Incarcerate means to confine or imprison. In contrast, decarcerate means to release. How can we begin to free some of the 2.3 million people behind bars? The authors suggest a realistic approach to the decarceration of inmates, including reduction in sentences, expanded opportunities for parole, creative restitution to victims, and decriminalization of some behaviors (applied retroactively).

Excarceration simply means avoid incarceration. In other words, what if prison ceased to be the first/ only/ mandatory response to certain behaviors? After all, what gets labeled crime is fluid. And the placement of various criminal behaviors along a continuum is somewhat arbitrary (more on that to come). What, other than jail, might be a response to undesirable behavior?

Thought Experiment
Are you open to decarceration? Would you be okay with nonviolent criminals being released before the end of their sentences? Why or why not?  If you say maybe, under what circumstances might you agree?

On Behalf of Justice. | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

Reading in preparation for a lecture on Buddhist writings, I came across this quote:

What is the noblest way of life? My unhesitating answer to that question is: a life dedicated to truth and justice.

Only in a world where truth and justice flourish can people freely bring forth their innate goodness. If, in contrast, philosophies or belief systems that deny the possibility of infinite human improvement prevail, misery and suffering will abound.

~Daisaku Ikeda, Lecture on Nichiren’s Letter from Teradomari

This resonated today. As some of you know, I’m becoming an activist and advocate for modern abolition – the end of mass incarceration. These days I’m mulling a series of essays. I want to help us imagine a world in which imprisonment is no longer the strategy of first resort. My premise begins with the innate potential, dare I say, the innate goodness, present in all people, and the options we can design when this potential, or goodness, is foregrounded rather than summarily discounted.

I’m thinking about our continued reliance on the mantra of personal responsibility in the face of structural inequities; the fallibility of lawmakers; the dynamic way we criminalize behaviors; the hierarchy of crime.

And if we study the fallout from mass incarceration on the incarcerated, on their families, and on society at large, I believe we’ll find we’re not “better off” with a swelling population of bodies in cages. There are too many minds in cages already, and we certainly aren’t any better off for that.

I digress.

This quote encourages me because speaking up against mass incarceration is a matter of justice. In 2010, 1 out of every 137 people was behind bars. (How many friends have you on social media?) Now, over 2.3 million people are jailed and imprisoned, and the number continues to grow. Mandatory sentencing guidelines cage people for decades with no consideration of their individual circumstances. While inside, prisoners are routinely denied reading materials that could be a pathway to growth and transformation. Where is the justice in that?

Corporations profit from an increasing prison population. Who might be criminalized next to feed the bottom line? And once you’re freed, good luck. In many places, ex felons are summarily barred from reentry into society. No money. No housing. No opportunity for work. No voice.

No justice.

Each of these things is but a strand in the knotty mess that is mass incarceration. This mess strangles the very possibility of individual human improvement, and by extension, societal improvement as well. Our disposal and disregard of people we view as “other” or “less than” does not move us forward. Fighting on behalf of justice? Maybe that does.