I am sitting here listening to Dra. Grace Gamez’ words. Her words, like always, are ringing in my ears, hitting my heart, impacting my thoughts. They are flowing from students’ mouths, under the theatrical direction of Marissa Garcia.
My dear friend, Marissa, is directing the students as they prepare their roles as a Greek chorus. They are preparing to tell stories. Telling the stories of other children. Children who lost their childhoods. Reframing Justice is a courageous set of stories that center the experiences of people who were imprisoned as children, tried as adults. It is an honor for us to present this work here at the YWCA.
The following is an excerpt of an OpEd that Grace and I worked on earlier this Summer. We never finished it for publication in this form, but with Grace’s permission I have submitted it here for your consideration.
Formerly incarcerated/convicted people are systematically denied agency around the stories told about their lives—their identities are reduced to stigmatized labels such as, “inmate,” “prisoner,” “ex-con,” “offender,” “felon,” and finally “bad.” It is only by allowing ourselves to see, hear, and feel life at the margins, that we can retrieve the fullness of people’s histories and experiences. What we might name “fugitive histories” are those lost stories and silences of entire parts of our communities with the effect of dulling the collective knowledge of our national identity. Historical erasure has led to laws, practices and beliefs that constantly constrict the possibilities for the same communities. Personal stories about the human punishment system bring to life the reality of how people experience incarceration, criminalization, and penal policy/legislation in their daily lives. Truth-telling as James Kilgore asserts, is a central component in moving towards a vision of transformative justice. Human stories about topics that are silenced or stigmatized have the power to impact policy and drive practice. Everyone can radicalize the spaces they inhabit- in the way they think, the ways they choose to engage in conversation and with whom. Where you are, is where you begin.
In Ghostly Matters (2008), Avery Gordon writes, “to study life one must confront the ghostly aspect of it” (p.7). In other words, to understand life, to shift directions, perceptions, and ultimately-discourse- we must engage hauntings; we must actively listen to the silenced. The stories, experiences, and the knowledge of people who have been system-involved must be central in efforts to alter the course of our carceral system.
Shifting away from a punishment-as-justice paradigm requires diverse approaches that include
- changing the social/political discourse
- systematically attacking persistent racial disparities and penal and social policy reforms that do not expand the reach and power of the punishment system
- Statutory and paradigmatic changes will be impossible without a sustained people’s movement
Transformative shifts require an informed and empowered community that is motivated by justice. Thus, to modify the structure, power, and flow of resources we need to work toward cultivating caring communities by fostering connectedness, and (re) humanizing both the harmed AND the person who harmed- because both are our neighbors. Morally and politically we must include and address the needs of everyone impacted by the system, particularly those who face acute marginalization- including gender non-conforming people, LGBTQ, families of formerly incarcerated and convicted people, and perhaps most difficult–people with violent or sexually-based offenses.
When Frederick Douglass said, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without finding the other end fastened about his own neck” he was speaking about the interconnectedness of our communities. In other words, your oppression is my oppression, your captivity is my captivity, your brokenness is my brokenness, and your fate is my fate. Conversely, your joy is my joy, your healing is my healing, and your freedom is my freedom- your redemption, my own. No one escapes the injustices of our current system. The continued discourse of punishment-as-justice imprisons us all and reduces us all to “bad” people.
What does it mean to be human? How does the law work to make distinctions between whom is/not human? How does the law subvert humanity to intensify suffering? Is humanity borne equally by all? What is the relationship between injury and personhood? These questions are imperative to understanding the intent and impact of the criminal punishment system.
Confronting the behemoth that is our carceral system is overwhelming. However, the answer to “what can I do?” could be as simple as sharing a meal and talking about issues around incarceration with people that you care about, if you own a business–or have friends that do– you can make a commitment to hire individuals with a conviction history. These engagements are some of the ways that we create community because it is closeness that breeds compassion and change. The immediate goal is not merely accomplishing a set of reforms; it is creating a more just world that embraces complexity, redemption, compassion, love, and hope.
We hope that this compassion and hope is what Reframing Justice: Entre Sueños will generate in the hearts of audiences here in Tucson on October 15th and in Phoenix on the 19th. We hope that you will join us.
Entre Suenos – Oct 15
Entre Sueños: Voices from the Inside/Out
Oct 15, 2016 • 6:30 p.m.