Do you think I’m black?

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

When I was in high school, black boys and white boys both called me names.  “Oreo” and “high yellow” came from the black boys, “grape ape” and “jolly green giant” came from white boys.  The message was clear:  I was too light-skinned and too big.  Even then, I understood the issue of size.  Real girls, attractive girls, girls the boys wanted, were small – petite and dainty and slim – not tall and broad-shouldered, with big hands.  Their disdain was clear and the message made sense.  I knew I was a girl, those boys defined what it meant to be a “real” girl – if they said I was too big, then I wasn’t a “real” girl.

The other message, that I wasn’t black enough, didn’t sink in because it didn’t make sense.  I was raised by white people, in a white family and in every way that I’m aware of, I identify as white.  Most white people rarely think about race, and I’m no different.  Even living in the South, I never deeply considered race because I didn’t have to.  It never occurred to me that people’s perceptions of me might be different than my own; that based on my racially ambiguous appearance, people might assume I wasn’t white.

For years, people have asked about my ethnicity, my “heritage”, as it were.  I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the question, and tried to answer vaguely or avoid answering altogether.  Once I started dancing salsa, and found myself dancing with dozens of men from black and brown countries, the question shifted to “where are you from?” which covered the “what race/linguistic group do you identify with?” question.  They wanted to know what country I hailed from, to discover if we had that in common.  I was asked that question by men from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Italy, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Eritrea, Somalia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic.  They all wondered if I came from their country.

I used to say “white people always assume I’m white, black/brown people always assume I’m mixed.” Now, I realize that’s a throwaway phrase – a casual way to separate and label interactions that were irritating and sometimes confusing.  The reality is more complex, and my toss-off answer doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

I can think of no better example than my fear of law enforcement.  No other white person I’ve spoken with fears the police the way I do – none of them describe having had the same type of interactions.  I’ve been bullied, harassed, and intimidated the handful of times I’ve interacted with law enforcement on my own. I had some “good” interactions when I and my upper-middle class white partner were living in an expensive home, in a white upper-middle class neighborhood. My racial ambiguity was eclipsed by evidence of money and whiteness, and I was treated respectfully.

My most unpleasant experiences have been through traffic stops. The few times I’ve been stopped, there have been reasons – a careless maneuver, or cell phone at my ear.  Only recently did it occur to me that I might be getting treated the way black people are usually treated – a confusing and terrifying thought.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but there’s a part of me that wants to go back in time and say “wait, are you treating me like this because you think I’m black?  I’m not black, I’m white! I know my appearance can be confusing, but I assure you, I’m white.  Please treat me like you’d treat a white person.”

And that’s where things fall apart.  I start to question whether I’m being treated as I expect to be treated  because I KNOW I’m white – don’t they?.  It is the most ‘in your face’ way to experience white privilege I can imagine – to think that, perhaps some people see me as black or mixed, and they’re not treating me as well as I should be treated because – hey, I’m WHITE!  What’s the solution?  Maybe I should ask?  “Hey – you were mean to me, don’t you know I’m white?” or “Ummm…why are you yelling at me for a traffic stop?  Don’t you know I’m white?”

As I’ve gotten older, the negative messages about my size have become irrelevant.  I’ve grown enough in my confidence and self-esteem to feel comfortable in my body – my tall, broad-shouldered, big-handed body.  But questions of how my skin color and the shape of my features affects people’s perception of me have only now started to surface.  Do people see me as black or white?  Am I being treated this way because of a mistake?  How do I deal with the embarrassment of asking that question – even if it’s only to myself?  Do I wanted to be treated differently?
No – I just want the privileges all the other white people get.

Privilege

The Eleanor Club

Change/Transformation, Feminism, Leadership, Life, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Wins

My friend Dennise and I were talking a few months back about women and power.  We’re both mid-career professionals, were both unemployed, and having weekly conversations about our job search, and what it means to be older women looking for positions of responsibility and influence.  Those conversations birthed The Eleanor Club, a place where women can speak directly about their areas of influence, personal ambition, and what it means to be a woman with power.

Our first meeting was last week and it was extraordinary.  Dennise and I had NO idea there was such a craving for this conversation!  Woman after woman came up to each of us and said “I’ve been wanting to talk about this, ask questions, explore what it would mean to expand my influence and own the influence I have.”

We had no idea, but we should have.

The current power paradigm we live in – authoritarian, hierarchical, individualistic – is becoming more and more problematic.  While it is not clear whether women and men are biologically inclined to use power differently, my personal experience is that women are often more interested in power as a way to connect, not dominate. While this offers its own set of challenges, it also opens the door to an multitude of new directions we could grow as a race and individually.

Women are actively seeking ways to exert power, to leverage their existing influence, and grow their circles.  We are learning to own our ambition, to state loudly and clearly that our agendas are critical to the health and well-being of our families and the planet.  At our first meeting, when we opened the floor for women to speak about the issues closest to their hearts, we heard about

  • community development on the micro level,
  • the importance of civil discourse in theory and practice,
  • amplifying the voices of women in the music industry
  • building a conversation around an all-year school schedule
  • the criticality of local and state elections,
  • finding ways for working mothers to serve as elected officials,
  • and how to protect and heal our environment.

Even though the conversation was entirely unscripted and unexpected, we can clearly see the seeds for robust discussion and action on a wide-ranging and deeply connected group of concerns.  In those moments, I realized that all the women in that room had tapped into something revolutionary – our mutual commitment to actively  and directly influence change through OUR decisions, our ideas, and our actions. It was an unforgettable moment.

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Another Brick in the Wall

Hard Stuff, Power/Privilege, Rants, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

Despite all the tensions between the police and so many citizens of Portland,  The Portland Police Foundation decided it would be cool to host an invite-only, $1000 per head play date with whomever they deem desirable. It is impossible to comprehend how an organization that supports a police bureau and union that publicly wail about how badly we (the citizenry) misunderstand and misinterpret its motives could think this type of event is appropriate, or even useful.

Am I on board with PPB offering a look into their training and operations?  Sure!  It would be great for them to host regular tours and visits for people who want to understand how officers are trained, how policy is determined, what resources are available, and build relationships with the Bureau.  It would provide more transparency, humanize both police officers and civilians, and maybe start to ease some of the tensions we’ve seen building over the last decade.

But an invite-only, $1000 per person ticket to exclusive police access?

The price alone is prohibitive for most people, and who knows how they’re going to select their “special” playdate invitees.  Regardless, the event seems designed to give a select group of people privileged access, thereby removing even the facade of police neutrality in dealing with citizens.  The fact that it’s hosted by the Foundation (and not the Bureau) is almost irrelevant, special access is special access.  Wanting to re-open the community academy is an admirable goal, but they honestly couldn’t come up with a different fundraising idea?

In many organizations, the recent DOJ investigation (which found significant problems with a variety of bureau practices and policies) would have spurred initiatives designed to start rebuilding trust with the communities who have been most affected by police violence and brutality.  Even when individual officers do good work, their efforts are undermined or overshadowed by a system of racist practices, excessive use of force, and seeming disregard for the welfare of black and brown communities.

An event that caters to the wealthy and offers privileged access not only deepens the divide and corrodes what little trust may remain, it feels like a giant “fuck you” to the rest of us.  Oh, and before I forget, who’s paying for this exclusive fundraising romp through publicly-funded police time and equipment?  Yes!  Us – the taxpayers!  I wonder how many other private foundations get the same benefit – a fully functioning public entity available for its personal fundraising use?  That the Foundation would do something that seems so contrary to the best interests of PPB (and its public image) and the people who live in this city makes the dig even deeper.

police public comment-wqs

White Discomfort

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a post for white people everywhere, myself included. Any time you find yourself uncomfortable or unhappy in a conversation about race, don’t say anything until you consider this : For hundreds of years, black people died or were tortured for saying anything beyond “yes” or “no” and possibly even for that.

There is no way to ever justify or right that wrong. None.

The legacy of those hundreds of years has brought us to the point that black people today not only need and want to discuss their thoughts and feelings about this terrifying past, they have the platforms to do so, in ways they never have before.

Because so many black and brown voices have been brutally punished or silenced, we are given a great honor when these same voices continue to speak, continue to demand justice. They give us the chance to be better than we are, to make the right choices, and be our best selves.

Given that history, when I consider that black and brown people call themselves my friend and are kind to me, it seems the least I can do is deal with a bit of discomfort. I may feel defensive or ashamed or guilty, but those feelings are normal, if unwanted. It is MY job to hold them, not my friends’ job to make me feel better.

I don’t like making shaming comparisons, but my feelings of discomfort and guilt are minor next to the massive system of racial oppression that has existed in the US for centuries. Those feelings are almost nothing compared to the pain, degradation, and deaths of millions of dark-skinned folk. Next time we’re feeling antsy, remember that black people have felt like this for hundreds of years, but have kept silent for fear of their lives.

How many times have my black and brown friends and fellow humans felt uncomfortable or afraid because of the color of their skin? How often have I? How many times have they wanted to speak about their discomfort but were afraid of significant retaliation? How often have I?

For most of us white folk, if we are being truly honest, the answers are rarely and even more rarely. Our skin color has given us the right to openly discuss our discomfort and not fear retaliation based on our race.

This message isnt directed at people who are passively enjoying their privilege as beneficiaries of a racist system. Those people don’t care and probably won’t feel uncomfortable anyway. But for those of us who are trying, part of our work is to find the courage to own our discomfort, and not look to our black and brown friends for comfort.

It really is the very least we can do.

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Change the Talk, Change the Walk

Change/Transformation, Leadership, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

My friend Britt said many of the things I’ve been thinking about the Bernie/Hillary “split,” and many are identical to the Hillary/Barak split of 2008, although the stakes didn’t feel as high then. I’m going to vote for whoever is the Democratic candidate. Having total Republican control of this country is unthinkable for me given the current state of the Republican party. It’s not clear to me that the rank and file Dems of this country understand how critical it is that Bernie and Hillary NOT annihilate each other during the primaries, women especially.

The Republicans are positioned to have control over not only our federal branches, but our state and local governments also. They’ve spent years and billions getting governors and state legislators elected, city and county officials, and large numbers of conservatives judges at the state and federal levels. THIS IS WHERE WE LOSE.  If we continue spraying vitriol at each other, we lose the power we need in order to stabilize the leakage of civil and personal rights at the state and local level.

We don’t lose because we have a Republican president, we lose because we’ve lost the states, and that means we’re losing to people who have been hornswaggled and bamboozled into thinking big money interests are their interests. It’s been happening for a long time (and here), and the tide shows no hint of turning back – our country is becoming more and more divided between those who can accept the forces of change and those who simply can’t tolerate the thought. You can figure out who is on which side – the people in power want to stay in power and that’s human nature.

But if we spend our energy fighting each other – which is what we’re setting ourselves up for – then we have nothing left to win the bigger battle. I hate using a war metaphor, but that’s the system we’ve got to work with – whether or not we agree.  We have set up a system that not only pits the parties against each other, it pits the candidates from the same party into almost as brutal a battle!  That’s insanity, and its symptomatic of the black/white, either/or thinking that is now polarizing our citizens.

I don’t write all this because I hate Republicans, tradition, or conservative values. I believe we have much more in common than we allow ourselves to realize. I believe the Republican party – the people who could help us keep a close eye on government reach, help us make and enforce moderate fiscal policies, discuss the importance of reasonable immigration policy that is sensitive to the needs of our nation and suffering people coming here and bring insight to all those other crucial issues – has been hijacked and destroyed by the greed and corruption of a few with limitless coffers.

Bernie and Hillary are going to duke it out – there’s nothing we can do to stop that fight. But the supporters of each candidate DO have a choice – we can choose to limit our involvement in name-calling, bullying, hateful rhetoric, and general nastiness that we’re throwing at each other.  We have the choice to stop all of that behavior.  Not redirect it toward other candidates, but STOP IT COMPLETELY.  When we choose to maintain more civility and kindness, we have more energy to take the work where it needs to happen – at the state, local, and individual level.

It’s fine to disagree, but the level of hateful, vile speech happening within the Democratic party is reprehensible.  If we’re going to walk our talk, then our talk needs to change.

kindess

Is it time

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Uncategorized

to give up yet?  Why not?  Why shouldn’t I give up in a world so full of hatred and cruelty that three heavily armed men would go to a place where developmentally disabled people go for help and support?   Why didn’t I give up after Sandy Hook?  After the close to 1000 mass shootings since 20 kindergarten children and six adults were murdered?

I don’t know.

Other than committing suicide, I don’t know what giving up would mean.  Should I cash in whatever I have, get a little money and move to some small island that will probably be below sea level in another dozen years?  Move to a small village in northern Canada or Alaska, knowing it’ll warm up in the next dozen years?  Move somewhere in the US that’s off the grid, knowing that there will likely be condos and a Starbucks next door in the next dozen years?

I don’t know what I expected, but I know living in a country where anyone can arm themselves for combat and take off on a killing spree in a social services building wasn’t it.  I hear all the time that people are infinitely complex, that life is hard, and that simply getting up each day is a triumph.  Days like today don’t feel like triumphs.  They feel like massive, horrific failures.

We have failed, as a nation, to provide any sort of reasonable example of what it means to be human.  I realize this is a blanket condemnation but our track record on gun violence and mass shootings, unacknowledged, unaddressed domestic terrorism, and the growing list of other acts of physical aggression and violence leave little doubt.

I don’t know if I have hope for this world, or for humanity as a species.  I’m not sure we deserve the gift of hope.

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Emphatically ambiguous

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

ethnically_ambiguous_grey

As I wrote in a previous post, my sexual orientation has been the subject of confusion and speculation from time to time.  After writing that post, I began thinking about my racial ambiguity, something that has worked in my favor in more than one way.  I’ve been asked about my racial makeup more times than I can count or remember.  It started when I was in high school, although I didn’t realize it at the time.  I was called “oreo,” “high yellow,” or “pug nose” by black boys and girls.  I didn’t know those were considered insults because I, like most white people, had no concept of race when I was younger.  White boys and girls insulted a different aspect of my appearance, my large size, with charming names such as “grape ape” and “jolly green giant,” while their fathers commented on the size of “the bumps on my chest” when I was as young as 11.

I found out about ten years ago that my mother’s mother’s family escaped eastern Europe during the Russian pograms in the early 1900s, coming to the US in the late teens, early 20s.  Her maternal grandfather took the name “Lapp” when he came through Ellis Island, and thoroughly buried the family’s Jewish heritage once he was settled.  The story of the immigration is unclear, but we know the younger children, including my mother’s mother, knew nothing of their family’s history.  They became staunchly Lutheran, I think, even though the rumor is that my great-grandfather and his family had been practicing Jews before they immigrated.

The history of my biological paternity is one of our family skeletons, and not entirely my story to tell.  I’ll leave it in the closet except to say that he would not be considered “white” as western Europeans define “white.”  Between these two racial streams, I’ve inherited an emphatically ambiguous appearance.  I could be from almost any dark-haired, dark-eyed group of people.  Not all of them, but many, and I’ve been asked, mainly by white people, about my ethnicity for years and years.  I hate being asked because while it isn’t a *secret*, the story behind it is a personal and painful family story and one I don’t often share.

In the last few years, when asked, my answer is always that I’m white.  I was raised white, I pass for white, I reap the benefits of passing for white, and I think like a white person.  So I identify as white.  I ignore the implied “What’s your racial makeup?” question, because it’s none of their goddamm business. People of color, on the other hand, seem to assume I’m mixed and rarely ask. If I’m out dancing, brown and black men tend to ask “where are you from?” which I interpret as curiosity about my ethnic/racial makeup, or maybe just my country of origin.  I’m always kind of stumped (and irritated) because saying “North Carolina” or “Portland” doesn’t seem quite right.  Sometimes I answer “the US,” but all those answers feel awkward, like I’m not really answering the question.  Should I tell them “I’m a white girl, I just look like a POC?”

It is a strange feeling to be asked about my background, and experience that piece of racism, when I’ve so obviously benefited from my white speech and privilege otherwise.  I remember being invited to go to a dinner party with a black friend of mine.  There were black and brown people there, but the hostess was white.  We were all settled, served, and enjoying the food when she started quizzing me about my ethnicity.  She was a total stranger to me, and I was speechless that she thought it was okay to ask me about such a personal thing, publicly, in front of other strangers.  I tried to politely redirect her, and avoid her question, but she was persistent.  I don’t remember what I finally said, but I remember my friend was incensed on my behalf, he may have been the one who stopped the conversation.

I didn’t know until much later that her assumption that it was okay to ask about my “background” was a display of white privilege.  There’s a lot of ignorance packed into what seems like an innocent question, a question white people almost never ask other people they assume are white.  I have been asked so many times in my life that I have always accepted it was normal and okay for people to ask.  I realized only recently that people ask because they make assumptions about me based  on my ethnically ambiguous physical appearance.  I talk like a middle class white person, but my appearance triggers some “she’s not white” radar, so they attempt to uncover something they can use to label me, something that will provide a clue, or a quicker understanding of who I am.

To clarify – I have not been the recipient of racism in the same way a person who can’t pass for white has been.  The encounters I’ve had were more irritating than degrading or dangerous, and for that I’m grateful.  I’m writing this because I’ve been thinking a lot about the shortcuts we take in trying to get to know each other.  I understand that we have to label in order to somehow organize the massive amounts of information we absorb.  Humans have labeled as a way of making meaning for as long as we’ve been conscious – it’s instinctive and helpful in many ways.

But we are starting to see and hear and experience the damage that comes from slapping labels onto everything and everyone.  We are also starting to resist being labeled by others – we want more and more to define ourselves, to explore our uniqueness and the elements that have combined to create our own individual selves.  Being labeled becomes burdensome and irritating, even when we know there is no ill intent, just someone trying to wade through a pile of data.

My ethnic ambiguity is part of the richer, deeper story of me, and there are no shortcuts to learning that tale.

Conversations with Life, #3

Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

It’s M again and today, I want to kill someone, or die.  No. Neither of those is true, but I’m consumed, eaten with rage at another round of mass murders, this time impacting people I know and care about.  All these mass gun murders deeply touch my soul, but this was in my home state, in my college community, and it punched me in the heart.

I consider myself a reasonable person, compassionate, and willing to see all sides of an issue, but I’m done.  I’m done trying to understand the perspective of people who seem to not care that guns are used daily to murder and terrorize hundreds and thousands of innocent people in this country.  I’m done with the bullying and threatening and open-carry intimidation when legislators and citizens try to get even minimal gun control laws on the books.

There is no reason here.  There is no attempt to meet in the middle, no attempt to understand suffering, or even agreement that sometimes, sometimes, an individual’s right to carry a weapon is trumped by another individual’s right to simply live.

How do I move forward so gorged with hatred and fear?  All I feel capable of doing is violence.

Dear M,

There is no reasoning with fear.  And there is no way to understand another person’s particular, personal terror.  There is also nothing that says you have to try.  It is your choice to try or not, and there are consequences either way. Your ability to move through this time may feel compromised and it is up to you to take the necessary steps to help yourself cope in a way that aligns with who you are.

You are not hatred. You are not rage or fear or abject, gibbering terror.  None of you are but many of you don’t remember that.  Many of you live in that profound, unconscious state of terror every day.  It is exhausting for every single one of you living on that planet, but that is the nature of the human condition, and your greatest individual challenge.

Remembering that you are NOT a being made of fear, cowering in a darkened cave is the hardest act and the greatest.

Always,

Life

When things get worse

Corrections, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a long post.  It is a recap of a situation that arose with a student and its unexpected resolution.  It is long because some of the nuances are unusual and specific to corrections. In order to convey the importance of the more seemingly mundane details, I have offered more explanation than I normally would.

——————————————————————————————————-

One of the worst things about working in a prison is that I see the direct, immediate impact of systemic limitations on real, living people all the time.  I had a student (I’ll call her Martha) who, like most of them, had a terrible history of abuse and trauma. But Martha’s was worse, I think, because it involved child abuse from a family member, multiple court appearances and testifying, all concluding only a short time before her incarceration.  She had another family member pass from a drug overdose around the time she started my class, no mother or father, and two other siblings still using.

When Martha started my class, she had no history of counseling for any of these issues, no treatment or programming, no cognitive or emotional management training, nothing.  She was somehow getting through her days, although I couldn’t say how.  Martha had incredibly high levels of anxiety around academics and testing, as most of my students do, and it took her a while to settle.  About the time she started to relax, I realized she would be eligible for treatment and grew concerned.

Treatment is hard inside the razor wire.  It’s hard outside, but it’s a different type of hard in here.  There is no safety, no privacy, the “peer leadership” model means that the sick are tasked with trying to lead the sick, and there is no option to escape or leave that doesn’t come with significant consequences. There is little therapeutic support, which is highly problematic for people who have such desperate need for therapy.

Add to those fundamental problems that most of these women have suffered trauma and abuse, and that predators and prey are expected to physically co-exist and support each other, and we have a recipe for a toxic, potentially dangerous environment.  The cherry on the sundae is that the women are all expected to behave as if this is a safe, supportive community where they’re all working to help each other, even though the opposite is more often true.  The women compete, sabotage, act out their extensive range of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, and prey on each other mercilessly. That some women are able to learn from the experience and deal with some of their thinking and behavior is miraculous.

Knowing this and knowing a bit of Martha’s history, I contacted two colleagues and expressed my concern.  It was during that conversation that I learned that our therapists are tasked (almost exclusively) with crisis management (using DBT), and almost, but not quite, forbidden from engaging in clinical therapeutic practice.  It may be different in the Medium, but that’s what happens in the Minimum.  The end result of the conversation was that there was little we could do except know that putting Martha in treatment could backfire and that it would be risky for her.  She still wanted to try, so we accepted her decision.

I need to clarify that I believe that this lack of clinical therapeutic practice is a simple function of resources, i.e. money.  Even on the Medium side, they have limited spots in the more intensive mental health treatment programs, and those spots are saved for those with the worst of the worst mental health issues – regardless of whether the treatment could help them be okay outside prison or not.  Taxpayers simply don’t want to fork over more money to deal with people who are incarcerated.  Or maybe the money is there and legislators don’t want to give it to DOC for the same reasons.

Corrections is a giant sinkhole for cash, in part because the population has giant, overwhelming, seemingly endless needs.  DOC is tasked with using not enough money to deal with a bottomless well of need, and clinical therapy is one of the areas that never has enough of anything.  It’s possible there are regulatory or legislative mandates preventing more intensive therapeutic practice, but I don’t know.  In any case, the upshot was that Martha would receive no additional counseling if her past trauma started coming up in treatment – she’d have to figure out how to get through it with peer support and what little staff support we could provide.

Her treatment experience had a rough start.  Her start date wasn’t clarified so we had to juggle for a few weeks so she could continue in my class and, as we found out later, she was shifted from one counselor’s caseload to another.  She and I spoke several times because I could see that she was having a hard time, but she was sort of managing, and there was nothing else I could do.  It’s a delicate issue to even appear to question treatment staff, especially based on the word of an inmate.

Even if I’m trying to clarify something I was told, it can be easily misinterpreted as a critique of staff, allowing an inmate to triangulate staff against each other, or believing an inmate over staff.  Whether real or imagined, those are all serious breaches of etiquette and, if true, can be a problem for any staff person found “guilty.”  So I do the same thing that the counselors do – help students manage crisis and look for ways to navigate a fraught, toxic, confusing, and often frightening environment.

I’m also not a mental health professional and, even though I know them fairly well, I only know them through one aspect of their daily lives.  One of the hardest things about my job is realizing that what they show me – no matter how positive – is only one face and maybe not their primary face.  I try to believe that the people running the treatment programs do have a plan and know what’s best, but it’s rarely easy. I spend so much time with my students, and I have to actively work to stop myself from believing that I know what’s best because I’m the expert on them.

In Martha’s case, it all came to a head over the course of a few days.

On a Monday, Martha decided she wanted to sign out of treatment.  That has a variety of consequences, all of them punitive, regardless of whether the decision is best for her or whether her reasons are valid.  Unless she’s so bad she can rate an administrative removal (i.e. she needs to be put in the mental heath unit in Medium), she’ll lose good time, lose any privileges, won’t be able to get a decent job for months, and have to go back to living in General Population and try to deal with her stress there.  It’s a shitty, shitty system and doesn’t support (at all) people who have valid reasons for not being able to stay healthy in that treatment environment.

Martha couldn’t be in that environment and maintain her stability.  When I was asked to speak with her that Monday night, she was still able to hold herself together, and we came up with a plan to help her get through until Friday.  She agreed she could wait until then to sign out, and that it would be good for her to have more time to make sure she was making the best decision.  She did admit to suicidal thoughts, and that she had a history of physical aggression, but felt confident she didn’t want to act on them.

Tuesday brought a series of update emails, and me asking why she wasn’t being considered for an administrative removal.  The answer I got wasn’t very satisfying as it amounted to “she’s not bad enough yet” but, again, nothing I can do.  There is almost no room for true proactivity in here.  Even the most proactive responses can only happen *after* things have gotten bad.  I’m suspicious that one of the reasons treatment allows so few administrative removals and such harsh punishment for signing out has to do with keeping the beds filled, but I have no proof of that and suspicion means nothing in an atmosphere of mistrust and clouded motives.

Martha degenerated rapidly over Tuesday and Wednesday and we were looking at a possible worst-case scenario:  She’d be booted out of the program and sent to segregation, a move almost guaranteed to cause her to try to hurt herself.  Even though she’d been trying to get out of the program and avoid this very thing, having to stay in that environment was making her much, much worse.  After 15 months of working with her and seeing her thrive and stabilize, this was like a fist in the gut.

I felt helpless.  Although I was being included in the decision-making, I felt much more like part of the problem than the solution.  I knew going to treatment was going to be risky, I’d voiced my concerns early, but no one followed up, and now Martha was being dragged under by her internal demons – unleashed by programming that was supposed to help her.  I felt culpable, somehow, as if I’d failed to protect her, or sound the alarm early enough.  Now, in addition to trying to beat back her personal nightmares, she was also in danger of being subject to undeserved punishment for actions brought about by our inability to offer the support she needed.

Wednesday afternoon was jammed with the usual stuff, on top of a series of meetings to discuss what needed to happen with Martha.  By great good fortune, there were several of us advocating for her – that she’d been stable and cooperative, eager to participate and wanting help, until recently.  Although none of us knew exactly what had set off the recent chain of events, it was obvious that her current state was much much worse and she was acting out of fear and desperation.

After much staff discussion, checking with other inmates (some of whom were accusing Martha of aggressive behavior and statements), and consideration of her history, we settled on an administrative removal.  She may also have gotten a conduct order (based on her reported aggression and, in my mind, unnecessarily punitive) but I’m not sure.  That our normally reactive security staff would come to this decision and take time to understand what was happening was a goddamn miracle.  Even if they did hand out a punishment slip, I didn’t care.

Administrative removal meant she was going to go to Medium for at least a few days, to get help de-escalating and calming down, maybe a bit more support in the process.  Given the alternative, there wasn’t a better solution in sight and I’m quite grateful this was the result.  Once I heard this solution was on the table, I left. Martha was waiting in the common area and I sat down to talk with her a bit before going back to the classroom.

Her fear and panic were palpable.  She was barely able to keep from crying as we sat there, and she had obviously lost whatever composure I’d seen earlier in the week.  She knew she was in a bad place, she felt trapped, and even though she didn’t want to lash out, she couldn’t envision anything else.  I couldn’t relieve any of her fears at that moment, but simply sat with my hand on her back, trying to help her feel better for a few minutes.  Even the best-case solution had its consequences, because that’s how the prison system works.

There is almost no room for complexity or nuance.  What people need can be considered, but the solution almost always has to come from a predefined set of offerings – regardless of how well they fit the person as an individual.  We can almost never create something tailored to an individual person, but have to try and fit them into the same solution as everyone else.  DOC does this because it can’t be seen to be favoring one person over another, accommodating some needs and not others, to do something for X without doing the same for Y.

It’s why this system is a failure, and hurts everyone involved.  We’re forced into using tools that don’t fit the job – over and over and over.  We make our best efforts and the fact that some are helped is a credit to our determination and commitment. That more people are damaged and made worse by their time in prison is an ongoing statement about our desperate need for an alternative.

On Guns

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

I have refrained from writing about guns because it’s hard for me to think about the topic without intense emotion.  Intense emotion can be helpful in writing, but it can also be alienating, resulting in people shutting down and disengaging.  But I need to say these things because I cannot continue sit by and say nothing.

Yesterday, I posted a facetious meme about gun control.  The meme was more about the fallacy of the “ban it” argument than gun control, but someone close to me took to the FB to respond with the “ban cars because drunk people drive them” argument.  I have thought long and hard about that argument, but I couldn’t think of any way to respond productively because it’s an argument based on so much denial and willful blindness that it’s hard to find a common path to discussion.

Let me be clear:  I despise guns.  I hate them, I’m afraid of them, and I wish they had never been invented.  That said, the reality is that they exist, people own them, and there’s nothing I can do about that.  In the interest of a free society, and free will, I understand that there are freedoms we protect even when we don’t agree.  So I won’t make the argument that we need a blanket gun ban, or that individuals shouldn’t be allowed to have them.  It’s not reasonable to expect and impossible to enforce.

But something has to change and using the analogy “ban cars because drunk people drive them and kill people” to argue against the problem of gun violence is ignorant and dismissive of a serious, deadly problem in our country.  Consider the following:

  • A man did not take 26 nooses into an elementary school and hang 20 children and six adults.
  • A man did not drive a car into a theatre and run over people sitting inside.
  • Another man did not drive a car into another theatre and run over more people sitting inside.
  • A man did not take a knife into a church and stab nine people to death.
  • A man did not build a pyre on a military base and tie people to the stake.
  • Another man did not take poison and put it in the water at another military base.
  • A man did not take a baseball bat and beat people to death in a Sikh temple

One of the reasons we have made no progress in coming to a reasonable solution on this issue is because federal funding for research into the causes and impacts of gun violence has been blocked by Congress for the last 20 years.  Even though funding was restored two years ago, the CDC is still tentative and Congress refuses to budget funding.  If we had more information on the causes and impacts of gun violence, maybe we could start to work on solutions, but that isn’t happening.

For me, the comparison between cars and guns isn’t legitimate because cars, and all the other possible weapons listed above, serve a variety of purposes.  That they are temporarily repurposed as weapons isn’t an argument in favor of getting rid of them.  That people get drunk and drive is an argument for people exercising better judgment, more treatment options for people with serious problems, and so on.  It’s not an argument about cars because people who get in a car usually don’t think about it as a weapon, or intentionally set out to harm or kill others.

But all the men who murdered people in the horrific acts mentioned above DID pick up a weapon.  They picked it up, they did it with intention, and they knew exactly what they were doing.  There was no possibility they made a mistake because guns serve no other purpose.  They are designed for killing or harming – it is their sole function and reason for existence on this earth.  When someone picks up a gun with intention to use it, there is no mistake – their intention is to harm or kill.

Their reasoning or motivation for that action may justify their choice and that’s something we must always consider.  But the gun itself may hasten that choice, simply by its nature.  Without having more information on why people decide to pick up a gun, we are presented with the false choice that’s dividing our country.  Responsible individuals are angry and afraid that their rights are being taken away, and other responsible individuals are afraid to go see a movie, go to temple, or simply walk into a church and pray.

The first step in moving toward resolution is acknowledging there is a problem. Guns are a problem in our society, and we need to find a way to work together for our collective health and safety.