Monday, December 16, 2013

A Moment of Reflection and Advice

A Moment of Reflection and Advice

As our program moves closer to its start date, I have found myself reflecting more on the past two years of its development. Now more than ever, there is no question that such work is necessary.
This initiative hopes to begin reversing the trends of our punishing society. There is an urgent need to stern the tide of violence and mass incarceration. For those inside and out it is imperative to move beyond lives of crimes, desperation, fear, and misconceptions. Relying on words, effective communication to solve problems, seek restoration rather than retribution, to try to build community rather than rely on incarceration. In working with prisoners in prisons and our communities, educators and activists will lay foundational groundwork for critical thinking, questioning and engaged citizenship through the empowerment of education.  
My list for “motivation for engagement” is working on being endless, but one of the greatest driving factors for me to keep recharging the energy to act is the painful desperation and isolation those incarcerated feel on a daily basis. The feeling that there is no safe space, let alone love, support, and comfort. The question of alienation is therefore crucial to understanding the prison context, for the people who fall into the system almost universally feel abandoned, removed from the normal patterns of work and love that keep the rest of us focused and driven.  For so many incarcerated, the world not only feels strange, foreign, and unwelcoming but sometimes like an imminent death sentence.  Being inside prisons and engaging in dialogue with those incarcerated puts this alienation into perspective, but while everyone I have met housed in these metal cages have every reason to give up on life, to quit trying, to retreat into a world of hurt and anger, they become energized, hopeful when given the opportunity through avenues of education to generate their hidden and forgotten potential into reality; excited and hungry to participate in meaningful connection.
Now, I recognize that the men we will be working with in prison have left behind them trails of wreckage. When pressed into gang life, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, many of our potential students were threats to themselves, their families, and their communities. They harmed others and caused immeasurable pain.  As a survivor of violent crimes in my own life, I can attest to how terrifying violence can be when it erupts into daily life, unsettling one’s faith in humanity and leaving the most banal interpersonal exchanges haunted by the threat of violation. I cannot speak to others’ journeys of healing but I have found through mine that the only way to end the cycle of violence is by moving past our anger and fear.
It is also important to recognize that “victim” and “offender” are not mutually exclusive categories. Many of those incarcerated, while have caused great harm in their lives, they have also been the recipients of great harm; unimaginable neglect and hardship, childhood abandonment and adolescent violence, educational failure, and job placement difficulties. I urge that if we are to approach a view that seeks to end the psychological, emotional, physical, societal and economical cycles of violence, we must acknowledge their pain, as well; we must admit that our incarcerated students have fallen through the cracks of society that sees them as disposable and treats them less than human.
This initiative is not merely Guilford College  granting course credits to those incarcerated. It is so much more. It is an opportunity to create a safe space, inside a prison classroom that can become a place for each participant to acknowledge and confront their past, to create physical and psychic sanctuaries for examining the present, and to imagine and co-create alternative futures; embracing a pedagogy of hope and empowerment, and an educational opportunity to work and share with others. To inspire one another; A place to eliminate division and shame, replacing it with pride, mutual respect and community building.
This initiative does not seek or intends to solely offer classes to occupy time or to provide escape from the monotonous daily life of prison (although it will in some regards). Planning for this initiative is greater than that.  The mission found in every aspect of this program will teach participants, inside and out, that our development as human beings is a lifelong process of personal growth, where over time we integrate more and more of our human potential with our own unique histories, capacities, and circumstances, agreeing to respect one another’s dignity and privacy, committing to a process of personal growth that is driven by the support and challenge we offer one another. The ULTIMATE strategic goal is to more fully develop our capacities as human beings with an emphasis on accountability, responsibility, and service to others. 
Each time I reflect, I am deeply grateful to those men and women who labor for justice and reconciliation in our communities. Those who are disciplined to do the grunt work day in and out without the accolades of publicity or glamour. I am deeply grateful for knowing ordinary people doing extraordinary heartwork and individuals and families, who have inspired and humbled me with the courage of their struggle and the tenacity of their hope.
If I could offer  any advice to  others about what I have learned through the development of this program and from people who have and continue to inspire and empower this work, it would be as follows:

1.       Start where you are. You don’t need to know everything, and you certainly don’t need to be perfect.

 2.       Make lists ---be creative, be simple, ambitious—however the list is constructed—seeing the ideas –written in words, living in language—is an invigorating and liberating step toward your goal.

 3.       Try to recognize the good in every person and speak to that, while maintaining your own values and goals. There is more to the world than the good guys and bad guys, friends and enemies; there is also empathy, empowering us to connect with one another.

 4.       Listen. Quiet the obsession to respond and/or respond correctly. Truly listen. Absorb and be present in each moment authentically.

 5.       Be ok with being wrong—because it will happen.   Here is where some of the greatest lessons and learning take place. Being wrong; failing on occasion might expose our insecurities and vulnerabilities but it will also expose us to elements of growth and strength.
6.       Take things step by step. It can be easy to become overwhelmed or frustrated. If you feel this begin to happen. Take a step back. Breath. Go for a walk and let the sun touch your face.  Don’t let stressors swallow you up. By taking things step by step, you allow yourself to make time for you; self-health….to refocus and re-energize.

7.       Build supportive community. You can accomplish far more with even a small group of dedicated, inspired people than you can alone.

8.       Be strategic. Ask what you’re trying to accomplish, where you can find allies, and how to best communicate the urgencies you feel.

9.       Enlist the uninvolved. They have their own fears and doubts, so they won’t participate automatically; you have to work actively to engage them. If you do, there’s no telling what they’ll go on to achieve.

10.   Seek out unlikely allies. This can be scary, but essential. The more you widen the circle, the more you’ll have a chance of breaking through the entrenched barriers to change.

11.   Persevere. Change often takes time. The longer you continue working, the more you’ll accomplish.  Life, along with your goal is not played out in a 90 minute movie. Goals, relationships, expectations are not met, developed, or nurtured in rushed timeframes. These all take constant development, reflection, and patience. Remember… It’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process….

12.   Savor the journey. Change shouldn’t be grim work. Take time to enjoy nature, good music, and whatever else lifts your soul. Never underestimate the power of good conversation. Savor the company of people working in solidarity.

13.   Think large. Don’t be afraid to tackle the deepest rooted injustices, and to tackle them not only at a smaller community level, but even at larger state or national levels, don’t be intimidated. Remember that many small actions can shift the course of traditions, policy, and sometimes…history.

14.   Be ok with you. Some people will not like you. Or understand you. Some people will disagree with you, question what you do, or simple just not understand why. Be strong in your integrity, vision, and mission.  Regardless of others’ opinions, be your own kind of beautiful.

15.   Listen to your heart. It’s why you’re involved to begin with. It’s what keeps us all going….