There is a growing discussion among landlords and housing advocates for how and where to strike a balance between the liability landlords face for tenant behavior and the urgent need prison survivors have for safe housing. Even some corporate property management companies are now either avoiding asking about criminal history or are willing to consider individuals on a case by case basis for placement in traditional housing complexes.
My heart is on my sleeve today as I confront the very human costs of our country's obsession with perfection. This toxic myth of perfection permeates American society and lies at the heart of nearly all of our failed programs. Prison, welfare agencies, education. We seek the unachievable at the cost of humanity. We sacrifice everyone to satisfy that elusive "what if." If you're wondering what I am talking about, here is an example from the arena I work in (but this is EVERYWHERE): in response to a successful escape from a prison in Norway, guess what the Norwegians changed? Nothing. Why? Perfection isn't a higher priority than preserving the humanity of their prisoners. American response? Add another wall of razor wire and take more privileges away from prisoners so humanity and normality become a distant memory. This is just one example of so, so many. There is a great article about why the Scandinavian prison model won't work here, which ultimately concluded that our obsession with perfection would doom such a humanitarian model because the success of such a model demands a resilient and flexible system.
But this same concept has infected our system of education. As Shawn Achor points out, we have designed our system to make everyone average, and in doing so, in pushing both ends of the spectrum out of the arena, in relying on gross generalities instead of taking the time to invest in individual and human decisions, we lose the brilliance of so many exceptional people.
Perfectionism allows us to move through the world using black and white classifications, ignoring uncomfortable gray areas. Yes, we Americans hate to be uncomfortable. We hate to talk about issues that may call out the limitation of our personal lens, or may make us accountable and aware of our own privilege. But, these areas of discomfort and gray - these are the areas we need to embrace, for it is in these areas that humanity comes alive, in these areas that connection blooms. Nothing great has ever come from complacency, nor has it ever come from taking the easy and comfortable route.
(For more about the myth and dangers of perfectionism and also incredible approaches to vulnerability and courage, read anything by Brene Brown. She is amazing and life changing.)
In my own work, I am diving into the gray areas. I am always working to check my lens, to listen to perspectives that make me uncomfortable, to confront - or sometimes just sit with - my own contradictions. Here is a personal example: as a woman, I have been raised in rape culture. I have spent my life fearing that circumstance, learning how to curb my own behavior in order to avoid danger. In Idaho, I took Krav Maga because at the time the law required you leave marks on an attacker in order to prove you didn't consent. So, I learned how to leave marks. I have spent just as much time working to unravel that culture, boycotting companies who objectify women, working to educate people on how damaging objectification and body shaming can be. Now, in my work, both as an attorney and with ATLaS, I work with the very people I've feared. And I show them deep compassion. And I believe they should have a chance at redemption. Sitting with these two perspectives, both equally weighted within me, is really hard sometimes. But I have found greater healing in finding the humanity in a population that could easily be flamed out as a group of monsters than in subscribing to the easy generalization that they are monsters incapable of redemption. I have found greater healing in prioritizing humanity over my own fears, over my own lenses, over my privileges.
This is not easy work. And still I get called out on my own lenses, on the blinders that my very priveleged upbringing and life have afforded me, despite what those around me would call hypervigilance to root those lenses out. And instead of letting that get my hackles up, I turn toward the uncomfortable. And I learn. And I listen. And I feel. Through my work with ATLaS, I hope to see America embrace an entirely new prison system. I hope we have the courage to build something human and healing, instead of dooming ourselves to decades of trying to fix an unfixable system with untenable piecemeal solutions. But I also hope that we can return that concept of humanity to our government, to governmental agencies, to social welfare, to business, and to education.
My challenge to you: turn toward the discomfort, work in the gray areas, and let go of any generalities that allow you to otherize. And most importantly, let go of the myth of perfection. People, systems, societies - they are messy. Accepting and celebrating that is how we cultivate brilliance and broaden and deepen our humanity.
Grace Gamez, of the American Friends Service Committee, recently put on two shows featuring the stories of those who have been or are currently incarcerated. These shows harnessed the power of storytelling, spoken word, art and music to educate members of the public about mass incarceration and to give voice to those living through its grind. Jonathon had planned on participating as a storyteller, but as he began to work on his story, the weight of his trauma became too much. He realized, like many trauma survivors, that retelling your story also means reliving it. He sent a heartbroken email to Grace, withdrawing from the show. Grace, wise to the many faces of trauma, saw the story in Jonathon's email, and included it within the show. This is one of the voices that can't be lost - the voice that isn't yet strong enough to sing its own story - but a voice and story that are, nevertheless, a necessary part of the picture. Jonathon and I want to thank Grace and AFSC for so elegantly including Jonathon's story in Entre Sueños.
Click here to watch the raw footage from Entre Sueños.
Kirstin and Jonathon recently met with members of ASU's Prison Education Awareness Club to talk about ATLaS' work on reentry and reducing recidivism. We were so impressed with the verve and passion of the students who participate in PEAC. As members of PEAC, they teach classes to prisoners housed in Arizona state facilities. And now several of them want to expand their volunteer work to include working with ATLaS. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them. We will be presenting to their group again in early 2017 about the Mass Incarceration Continuum, a theory on the effects of mass incarceration published by members of the Advocacy in Action Coalition, a national working group Kirstin and Jonathon belong to. We will also be presenting at PEAC's annual conference and unveiling our plan for a correctional alternative. Stay tuned!
Grace Gamez, now working as a program associate at the American Friends Service Committee, is heading up a multi-media project featuring prison survivors and providing them with a forum to tell their stories. Reframing Justice uses photo essays, interviews, and video to tell these stories in multiple dimensions using multiple lenses.
The first video features present the story of Kini, a mother struggling with the impact of drug addiction and her criminal record and SacRac. This first installment also includes Reframing Justice's first photo essay, What No One Wants To Hear, which is the title of a poem given to the story's subject, Michele Keller, during her incarceration at Marana State Prison.
Please click the image above to experience these compelling pieces of multi-media storytelling.
Executive Director Jonathon Trethewey is concerned that Arizona now spends three times what it spends on education on incarceration. Jonathon's first arrest occurred when he was just 9 years old, and he has said many times that a teacher reaching out to him to ferret out the root cause of his behavior - rather than a detention office taking him to a cell - may well have changed the course of his life. Now, his work in trying to decrease recidivism, prevent youth incarceration, and help families touched by the criminal justice system begin to put themselves back together attempts to create that very opportunity for others - an opportunity to rewrite the narrative of their own lives and to escape the sticky web of our very unjust justice system. Placing a premium on education, on teaching skills that give students keen perspectives on who they are, who they want to be, and where they want to go in life - can go a long way in reducing incarceration. Jonathon talks to Phoenix's Channel 5 about this disturbing trend. Below is video.
Our board member, Craig Morgan, is the chair of the American Diabetes Association's regional committee. We were thrilled to attend the Father of the Year Dinner as guests of Craig's firm, Sherman and Howard, to support the work of the ADA, honor three great Phoenix dads, and support our great supporter and friend to the cause, Craig.
In the wake of this week's violence, I see folks (me included!) really struggling, struggling to reconnect with the love that will see us all through this dark place. It is so easy to blame, to diminish, to hate, to generalize, to globalize. I've seen it on both sides, and it gets us nowhere. Demons and Others is the working title of a novel I am writing. There is a poem I wrote as part of the the story that I want to share - share it because we are at a crossroads. We can decide to come together in love and find our way back to human connection. Or we can blame and otherise and be consumed by our imaginary demons. Obviously, I hope for the former. In love, Kirstin
Demons and Others
Price-tagged as the other
Humanity yields to vectors
of limited dimension and superficial value
Heads are sold and bartered as
commodities without history or feeling in
a market that shaves razor thin layers of skin
to trade a bloody currency
capitalized by difference.
In the teachings of God and Allah
market traders find a blood thirst
only assuaged when cultural hearts -
be it twin towers, a holy book, or a holy man -
lie crumbled and pulp-like, gushing
tradition to the forgotten
The limbs of women and children:
collateral: as nations mortgage their souls
to define normal and
win holy wars of various and ridiculous names
- the war on drugs, desert storm, jihad.
Longing for distance from gruesome details and destruction
nations picket and brutalize their citizens
to cement the moral certainty
that their neighbors are not the ones
throwing acid in the faces of young women,
shooting up classrooms full of children or theaters full of consumers.
No, no cause for concern. It is the
others reigning this terror down on our heads
and creating our shared suffering.
And citizens, oceans across, buy these answers
not caring that the definitions of the others
were stolen – at gunpoint, at knifepoint, at bombpoint –
The ease of erasure is sickeningly easy
And in the shadow of this ease, whole societies
condone torture in all its nameable and unnameable forms,
As citizens stand by, participate, look away.
It's the others who are the demons.
Not us, not our sons, daughters, husbands, wives.
And so it unfolds again, humanity's cyclical destruction,
under the cloak of anonymity and righteousness.
And on it goes.
(c) Kirstin Eidenbach, 2014
We met a fellow named John Wannamaker, himself a prison survivor at the 8th Annual International Prisoner's Family Conference. He works now as a motivational speaker, who uses his story to highlight the injustices brought about by mass incarceration and to incite positive change within individuals. He has written a book called The Voice From Inside that tells of his own struggles as he navigated federal prison and turns a transparent lens on the federal prison system to examine its injustices and political structure. We plan to read it as soon as we can get our hands on it (somehow we walked out of the conference without it!). We were so impressed with John and really look forward to working with him in the future. Below is the link to his book.