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Thursday, September 13, 2018

When you visit a stranger in prison...



How do you begin to tell the stories of the people you met when you visit a deportation prison? The official name of the place is Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The imprisoned are either undocumented immigrants or asylum-seekers. And while it's officially called a "detention center," the words "deportation prison" align much more closely with my experience. I went as part of a visiting program through Faith Action International in Greensboro and El refugio at Stewart Detention Center that's based out of Atlanta but is physically in Lumpkin. El refugio provides a free place for family members to stay in order to visit their loved ones.

I went to visit a stranger. To hold space for someone in their suffering. My goal was to bring empathy and compassion into a place where there's very little. My country is doing this to people. I need to own it. I need to see it. And I need to share the story.

How do I share the oppressiveness of the place? Do I tell you about the miles and miles of barbed wire? The multiple iron gates I had to be escorted through in order to visit? The fact that we were locked in during our visit; that there is no real bathroom for visitors but the one I was allowed to use had a lock on the outside only? Do I tell you about how I couldn't even wear an underwire bra because the metal detector is so cranked up it would have set it off and I would be denied the visit? How do I explain that the only thing I could bring in was my government ID? No pen or paper, no comfort items for kids (and I saw many kids).

Do I tell you about the woman who, upon hearing on Thursday that her family members had been detained there, drove nonstop with her husband and 9 month-old from Houston, Texas (over 11 hours, she told me) to arrive on Saturday morning? And how, on arrival, she learns (from another visitor since the guards only speak English) that she can't come in because there's a hole in her jeans? I happened to throw in an extra pair of pants and was able to give them to her and let her change in our van. But only because I speak Spanish and overheard the conversation. I talked with her husband after - they were visiting his brother. He said his brother cried through their whole visit, absolutely crushed "because he isn't free."

How can I explain the tears in the eyes of the woman I spoke to who was there to visit her nephew? This wasn't her first time here. Her husband has already been deported from this very same detention center. It's the last place she saw him. And she told me how their 4 year-old son didn't understand the glass between them in the visiting room and he bonked his head trying to hug his daddy. And here she is again, back in the same place. This time to see her nephew, bringing his brother with her to visit. Her husband's "crime"? Driving without a license TO HIS JOB. The nephew? A boy in his 20's who has lived here since he was 8 years-old. He knows nothing of his home country yet is likely to be deported back there.

Do I tell you about the woman who shared with me that her husband has told her the food has bugs in it?

Do I tell you about the young man I visited who is Sikh and THEY MADE HIM CUT HIS HAIR AND BEARD? The whole experience has left me walking around in a rage... but this in particular is something I can't shake. He told me he talks to his parents in his home country regularly but he can't bring himself to tell his mom what they've done to him.

What about the man who was on hunger strike that we were hoping to visit? He needed a check-in because he's not doing well. But we were told by the guards that we would only be allowed to visit him last since now he's a "medical case" and they only let those folks have visits at the end when they can be by themselves (visits happen in groups of 5). So that meant we would wait 4-6 hours before being allowed the 1 hour visit. We had a 9 hour drive back to Greensboro ahead of us so we couldn't wait that long to see him. My friend who was supposed to visit him was particularly shaken by this.

These are the stories I'm holding today. I'll be honest, I'm not entirely sure I'm done processing this. I'm outraged, disgusted, and ashamed that our government is doing this to our fellow human beings. They are in detention because they are "flight risks" but they all want to be citizens here... undocumented immigrants have been showing up for immigration check-ins for years. We have no evidence that they need to be locked up like this. They are not violent. How is an asylum-seeker a "flight risk"??? They are actively asking for our help - not running away.

And where's the justice in this? The court system in Lumpkin, GA has about a 2% relief rate for asylum-seekers. Yet the judges at the NY detention center have about a 60% rate. That's not equal justice. Just by landing at Stewart (which is one of the largest detention centers in the country), a person is quite possibly sentenced to death... people DIE when they are deported back to their countries. The young kid I visited (he's 21) told me he's not safe at home. He's been detained in that place for 20 months. At home, he's been attacked. I asked him if he felt safe inside the detention center and his response was that it's safer than back home. But he also shared that he is "sad every day" in there.  I didn't tell him I knew about the 2% rate at the prison he's in. I don't even know if he knows.

Stewart Detention Center has 1900 men in it. 1900 people who have either been ripped from their communities or are here seeking help. And we've imprisoned them. The water is green, the food is often bad or has bugs in it. This center has the worst reports of human rights violations of all the detention centers (why do we even have multiple detention centers for this?!?!?)

I was really struck by how the company logo was larger than the name of the facility.

And we are paying for it. This is our tax dollars at work. My state is facing a hurricane right now and our current president moved money away from FEMA and put it toward immigration detention. And Stewart Detention Center is a FOR PROFIT COMPANY. CoreCivic runs it. Their logo is all over the place there. Folks are getting rich with our tax dollars while incarcerating innocent people.

So how do I tell you all this in a way that makes you care? Not care. You probably care just by reading this and most likely you cared before. But how do I share those stories in ways that move you to action?

Do you want to visit someone? We need more folks to have primary experiences with the detention centers & detainees so that they can share their stories. Can you be a pen-pal? Getting mail really brings some hope to the folks there and it provides welcome relief from the monotony of being in prison with no news from the outside. Would you be willing to buy a book to send to an inmate? There's no programming in detention centers... not like prisons. No classes, no real libraries, support groups, or 12-step programs. And, as always, talk to your representatives. Tell them we don't want detention centers - there is NO NEED to hold folks in a medium-security prison.




You can connect with some good organizations and learn more here:
El Refugio at Stewart Detention Center - https://www.facebook.com/elrefugiostewart   or their website at http://elrefugiostewart.org
Detention Watch  -http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/resources
Read about Southern Poverty Law Center's lawsuit against CoreCivic: https://www.splcenter.org/news/2018/04/17/splc-sues-private-prison-company-uses-forced-labor-detained-immigrants-georgia-boost

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Antiracist Guide to watching the Greatest Showman



I didn't want to watch Greatest Showman 'cause I'd read about how PT Barnum actually exploited the folks he had for his sideshow acts. But my kids' friends kept telling them what a great movie it is so we decided to watch it last night. The kids knew some of the historical truth about Barnum prior to watching.


You can learn more about PT Barnum's real life in these articles:  

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-pt-barnum-greatest-humbug-them-all-180967634/
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-greatest-showman-and-the-far-more-fascinating-real-life-of-p-t-barnum

It's all the whitewashing & white saviorism you might expect. There was a part in it that made me so angry I had to leave the room. We keep making heroes out of white men who don't deserve it. And where are the movies celebrating People of Color who have actually made a difference in our society? Blech.


But we turned it into a good conversation. So here's a little Antiracist Conversation guide if you do decide to watch this movie.


1. PT Barnum did some terrible things in real life but is a hero in this movie. In contrast, The Black Panther Party began the School Breakfast program that continues today and even created a school to make sure impoverished kids were fed and educated. But today they are often characterized as violent, dangerous criminals. In real life, PT Barnum bought a slave woman and treated her cruelly as well as exploiting his other side-show workers. Why do you think he gets a movie in which he's shown as a hero to the very people he exploited but there's no movie like this for Malcom X, Huey Newton, or Bobby Seale? What might happen if there was a movie making those folks heroes?


2. Lots of folks seem to have no problem dismissing history because they loved the movie. Why do you think that is? PT Barnum exploited lots of marginalized people, but a lot of his abuse of individuals was based on race. How do you think it would feel to be a Person of Color watching this movie? What does it mean to People of Color when we dismiss history that harmed people who looked like them?


3. Who are the "heroes" in this movie? Since we know that marginalized groups don't need someone from the dominant group to come in and "fix" everything, how would you re-write this movie in a way that respects the leadership of the oppressed group? Who were the leaders within the circus? How would it have been different if Barnum uplifted them instead of being in charge himself? Note who Barnum chose as the next leader when he stepped down. What does that say about who he really respects?


4. The movie talks about some important points: people being respected for who they are, finding dignity for every person, no matter what they look like. However, Barnum doesn't share his power and keeps profiting off of their labor. Do his actions line up with the values the movie is trying to portray? This is a great opportunity to talk about white saviorism and how we white folks want to be the heroes when we really need to share power, uplift & respect local leadership instead.


5. Who makes all the money in the movie? Contrast the house Barnum buys for just his little family with the museum where apparently ALL the sideshow actors were living. Was this fair? Who had the actual talent versus who reaped the profits?


6. What role do women play in this movie? Do you get the sense that they can be more than love-interests?


What other questions would you add?


Friday, April 6, 2018

Why does it always have to be about race?




Whenever I meet someone new or get a FB friend request from a white person I've met recently, I hesitate. I worry. Will they think I talk about race too much? Will they still want to be my friend when they learn that I have a Black child and I talk about it? I've lost friends before over this. 

But here's the problem: it is about race. Because right now, one of my three children has significantly different outcomes in front of him because of his race.

  • At school, he's less likely to do well on the "standardized" tests that allow him access to higher-levels of learning. He's also more likely to get into trouble in the classroom, resulting in loss of learning time plus damage to his self-worth.  He’s only 7, but we’ve already experienced this.
  • In healthcare, he's less likely to get the care he needs, particularly if he is in pain. When I saw those studies, I remembered the breakthrough pain he suffered during after of his surgeries. We've already experienced this.
  • In our justice system, should he survive an interaction with police, he's more likely to face jail time for the same crimes for which his siblings would be given probation. Jesus, let us never experience this.
  • When he goes to get a job, his beautiful Ethiopian name makes it less likely someone will hold onto his resume. We have both income gaps and wealth gaps in our country based on race.
  • When he wants to buy a house, he's more likely to be offered a higher rate mortgage for a house in a "lesser" part of town.

It's like I'm living the worst kind of social experiment. Am I supposed to not talk about it?  I don't worry at all that two of my children might be shot and killed by police once they start driving. But my baby? I don't know how much therapy I'm going to need in order to let him go off by himself in a car. 

We were driving recently with one of my close friends who just returned from living in Africa for several years. She can't get her registration sticker on her license plate without having to take off the frame and she just doesn't want to fool with it. My husband shared that he went an entire year without putting the sticker on because first he forgot and then he misplaced it until about a week before he needed to put a new one. And he was pulled over during that time. The officer didn't even mention it.

Want to know what I was thinking during that entire conversation? We better get our act together. There's no way in hell I'll let my Black child drive out of our driveway in a car that has ANYTHING remotely wrong with it. No expired tags, no broken taillight, no stickers missing. 

White friends, do you share these fears for your white children? I know I don't. Or maybe you're thinking, "This can't be true. There can't be worse outcomes for Black people in every area of life?" Take a moment to look at the data, read this article using data from “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective” by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter; the Equality of Opportunity Project.


So….yes, friends. It is always about race. And to be honest, it's really hard for me to understand why we all aren't talking about it every chance we get. 💔 

Monday, February 26, 2018

My boys need better than "Boys will be Boys."

Image result for boys will be boys kind humans
from www.redbubble.com/

I'm not a true "boy mom" because I have a daughter. But I have two boys. And as much as I empower my daughter and teach her how to use her voice and protect herself, I also know I need to teach my boys how to navigate the power our culture will hand to them over the women in their lives. In short, I know I need to teach my boys not to become rapists.

My oldest is only 11. He has no romantic interest in girls or boys whatsoever. I didn't realize I would be given the opportunity to teach him not to be a rapist so soon.

We were invited to go watch a movie with some friends. His younger sister's friends, actually. He and his buddy were the only older boys there. And after the movie, the boys hid behind a wall to try to scare some of the girls when they came out. Okay, whatever. I didn't think anything of it.

A few minutes later one of the girls was crying hard. I assumed the boys had scared her too much and went out to talk to them.

I was wrong.

It turns out, she had seen them hiding and they asked her not to tell her friends. In true girl-solidarity, she immediately turned to go tell the rest of the girls (go girl power!). But then the boys tried to block her from going back. My sweet child, the one I raise so carefully, used his bigger body to try to try to stop her, to control what she could and could not do. And he scared her.

Before you think I'm reading too much into it or I'm villainizing the boys... hold on. These are two good kids. They are sweet boys. But good kids make bad choices sometimes and that's when we have the chance to help them learn how to stay good kids.

If we put as much effort into teaching our boys how not to be come rapists as we do into telling our girls to be safe, I think we'd have some changes in society.

I took him home that night and we had a long, serious talk. He cried as he realized how scared he had made her feel. I told him "no means no" and "when she's not having fun, you stop." He has no idea that I'm thinking about possible future sexual partners (should he be straight). But he doesn't need to know that yet. We can start teaching our boys not to rape before they ever express any interest in sex.

What worried me most was the murmurs I heard in the room as the girl was crying. I heard "oh these boys" and "boys are like that sometimes." I imagine most of that comes from the knowledge that these boys really are good kids and that they really didn't mean to cause harm.

But here's the thing: my boys deserve better than "boys will be boys." I need our culture to not make excuses for them when they do stuff like this. Yes, he made a childhood mistake. But I need him to learn that boys are kind and gentle and empathetic. I need him to learn that boys DON'T use their strength or size to get what they want, especially not from girls.

So please do me and other "boy moms" a favor: hold our boys to a standard that's higher than our current rape culture. They need that as much as our girls do.