5 Ways Allies on the Outside Can Support People in Prison

Prison

1. Become a pen pal.

Corresponding with a pen pal helps cut through the isolation of prison and keeps an incarcerated person connected to the outside world. Dozens of websites facilitate pen pal relationships between folks in prison and folks on the outside, but many charge incarcerated people as much as $100 per year just to list an ad on their website. The websites listed below meet the following criteria: a) seem to be well-maintained, b) don’t seem financially exploitative, and c) don’t seem primarily intended for seeking romantic/sexual relationships.

Once you’ve found a pen pal, Black and Pink and the Anarchist Black Cross both provide helpful guidelines on writing to a person in prison.

Black and Pink
Focus: LGBTQ
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: Free
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18

Christian Pen Pals
Focus: Christian
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: $24 annual membership
Cost to pen pal on the outside: $24 annual membership
Minimum age: None
Notes: Christian Pen Pals is a general pen pal website with a small subset of users who are incarcerated. Membership is not required to read the pen pal ad listings or post an ad; membership is only required to gain access to other users’ email addresses. Because many incarcerated users have published their mailing addresses in their ads, a membership may not be necessary to access that information. It is not required that users be Christian.

Jewish Pen Pals
Focus: Jewish
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: Free
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18
Notes: All of the incarcerated individuals in the registry are Jewish, but it is not required that pen pals on the outside be Jewish.

Lost Vault
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: $5 annually
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18

Prison Inmates Online
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: $50 for a lifetime membership
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18
Notes: Prison Inmates Online also hosts an online community of family, friends, and pen pals of incarcerated individuals to share knowledge, experiences, and support.

Prisoner Correspondence Project
Focus: LGBTQ
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: Free
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18

2. Send books.

Reading doesn’t just help keep boredom at bay; it’s an important opportunity for personal and educational development. In fact, the National Institute of Justice has found that prison-based education is the single most effective tool in reducing recidivism. As an ally, you can donate books or volunteer for an organization that sends books to people in prison who request them. The organizations listed below meet the following criteria: a) serve prisons in at least six states, b) send books to incarcerated folks free of charge, and c) accept book donations by mail as well as in person.

Appalachian Prison Book Project
Location: Morgantown, West Virginia
Serving: Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia
Notes: Also accepts donations of office or packaging supplies.

Books to Prisoners
Location: Seattle, Washington
Serving: All states except California
Notes: Due to financial limitations BTP does not send to male prisoners in California. BTP only accepts requests by snail mail. Book donors should check the BTP website before sending books. BTP’s books are all donated, so they do not always have books on every subject or genre. BTP is always in need of financial donations, which can be made online or by mail.

Books Through Bars
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Serving: Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia
Notes: Also accepts donations of office or packaging supplies.

Chicago Books to Women in Prison
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Serving: Women’s correctional facilities in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio
Notes: Also accepts donations of packing tape.

Prison Book Program
Location: Quincy, Massachusetts
Serving: All states except California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas
Notes: Other items that can be donated include: packing materials, especially Tyvek envelopes; brown paper bags; packing tape; laptop computers; shipping tape dispensers; Sharpies; photocopying services; office chairs; and gift certificates to OfficeMax, Staples, and other office supply stores.

Some organizations were omitted from this list because they serve only a couple states. You can find a more complete list of book donation programs here.

3. Listen.

Whether you’re a veteran advocate for criminal justice reform, a new friend to someone behind bars, or just a well-meaning citizen of the world, don’t assume that you understand the daily struggles of being in prison if you have not been incarcerated. Despite our best intentions, cultural narratives and stereotypes about prison life and the people who live it will seep into our consciousness and manifest as assumptions unless we make every effort to educate ourselves.

Remember that those with lived experience are the truest experts and our best teachers. It’s never the responsibility of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks to educate us, but when someone is willing to share their story, treasure the opportunity. Ask questions and take the time to really listen. Learn what it means to be a person with a number and without a name. Listening with an open mind and heart is critical to becoming a responsible, effective advocate—and friend.

4. Help them be heard by others.

Like an ally in any other context, one of the most important things someone on the outside can do is elevate the voices and experiences of people who are currently in prison or were formerly incarcerated. If you’re someone who frequently shares articles about criminal justice issues on Facebook or Twitter, this can be as simple as making a special effort to highlight pieces written by people with firsthand experience of the criminal justice system.

You can also volunteer with Incarcerated Voices, a radio project based in Florida and Illinois that offers individuals in prison a platform to express their perspectives on a variety of issues relating to their experiences in the criminal justice system. Incarcerated folks respond to interview questions by mail (for example, “What is it like parenting from prison?”) and Incarcerated Voices broadcasts the submissions over the radio. Volunteering can be done remotely and opportunities include transcribing handwritten letters to a digital format, giving voice to the submissions as a voiceover artist, and responding to contributors with feedback. For more information on how to get involved, go here.

5. Demand criminal justice reform.

Participate in democracy! Ask policymakers to support fairer and more effective criminal justice policies. For example, you can:

Urge your Senators and Representatives to pass two important sentencing reform bills facing Congress right now:

  • Introduced in the Senate, The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce overly harsh penalties for drug offenses, allow judges greater flexibility in sentencing, and allow individuals sentenced before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to have their sentences adjusted according to the new, more equitable guidelines.
  • Introduced in the House and the Senate, The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the option of imposing sentences below the “one size fits all” minimum sentences mandated by federal law.

Call California Governor Jerry Brown and tell him you support the California prison hunger strike that began on July 8. Among other demands, the hunger strikers are calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement, where people are locked in their cells for over 22 hours per day. Learn more about the hunger strike and other ways to take action here.

Phone: (916) 445-2841, (510) 289-0336, (510) 628-0202

Suggested script: I’m calling in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. The governor has the power to stop the torture of solitary confinement. I urge the governor to compel the CDCR to enter into negotiations to end the strike. Right now is their chance to enter into clear, honest negotiations with the strikers to end the torture.

Tell your state legislators to adopt racial impact statement [pdf] laws to address the racial disparities in your state prison population. Earlier this year, Oregon passed legislation requiring that a state agency provide a statement evaluating how proposed legislation would affect the racial composition of the state prison population at the request of legislators from both major political parties. Iowa and Connecticut have also passed racial impact statement legislation. Your state could be next!


What’s beyond step six?

In general, I don’t know what I’m talking about, so I appreciated all the love and support from my first post about steps toward allyship.  Rereading through that post, I continued to pat myself on the back for articulating myself clearly and for inserting humor (treating yourself to compliments from yourself is encouraged – so I ask you give yourself a compliment right now).

I left a cliffhanger more cliffhangery than the Lost Season 1 Finale, so I’m back a whole eight months later with not four, but TWO additional steps to being an ally. You heard me, I cut my promise in half because this self-identifying dude is still trying to figure his s*** out.  If this stuff was this easy, they’d be teaching it as an elective in middle school. In all fairness, I loved middle school and had a hard time in math class learning PEMDAS, so props to middle schoolers for being legit and super smart.

TO THE GOOD STUFF

So a quick recap of 1-4:

Step 1: This step is unrecognized privilege.

Step 2: you’ve gotta do some self-work realizing your privileges and its affects on your relationships.

Step 3: beaming yourself down from some holy social justice pedestal.

Step 4: listen, support, and understand you still are clueless.

A bit of a reflection on steps 1-4, if I may.  I still like these steps because they don’t really give you an answer besides checking yourself. Based on my interactions, people still need to check themselves.  I still check myself every day.  A fun/sad activity I indulge in every day is to write down one way that my privilege showed itself that day.  It’s a good reminder to myself that just because I consider myself a social justice gladiator (thanks, SCANDAL), doesn’t mean that I’m perfect (steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 are reminders of that). So try that out and let me know how you do.

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**refer to the photo above for suggest facial expressions to each step**

Step five: Stay updated on the news front. Being an ally isn’t some party trick that impresses people and it’s not a way for you to feel closer to an oppressed group.  Being an ally is about understanding your privilege and dismantling that privilege.  Did you read about the SCOTUS decisions on DOMA, Voting Rights Act, or the Indian Child Welfare Act? Following the Trayvon Martin trial? Did you follow the Wendy Davis filibuster (so badass)? How about the Paula Deen situation? For me, reading this stuff isn’t on the checklist for being an ally, reading the news about social equality/equity/justice is my sports section. Luckily, I’ve created a network of friends who also love “sports” and send me articles/news.  You should develop that network! 

Step six: Start having conversations with your fellows privileged people. I know 1-5 are very internal steps, but what I have learned in the past few months is that working with other people in your privilege group to talk about your identity and its effect on others is enlightening. It’s funny how when I first started this whole ally journey that I found myself only talking about race with people of color or only talking about gender/sex with women.  This has to stop if you want to be an ally.  It’s not a person of color’s responsibility to hear you babble about your struggles with being white or explain to you what it means to be a person of color.  Go have those conversations with other privileged people and try to gain some understanding about yourself/your group.  That’s not saying you can’t have those conversations with people of color, just ask yourself why you want to talk to them about race.  

Beware, step three (standing on the pedestal) will bite you in the ass in this step. For some reason, people wanna dance around in their sashes of tolerance, acceptance, and knowledge when talking to others.  All conversations should be equal, even if the person does not have as much training or experience as you.  You’re trying to get people on the bad ass side, not scare people from your turf. So when you have conversations with people, have the courtesy to respect their opinions and thoughts and realize that you were both/all born into this world with whatever privilege and it takes people shorter/longer times to understand the scope and needs to dismantling their privilege.  It’s not a race, y’all, and the more people we support in becoming more tolerant, the faster equality is going to get here.

In closing, we’re starting to get more into the action-oriented steps, but I never believe that you should be leaving steps 1-5 behind.  Never get ahead of yourself and always be checking yourself – because that’s the most important step of all.  I also ask that you remember that people are individuals first and are not defined by the identities they hold.  Love them, support them, and dance with them. Dance with them to Robyn.

I have a good idea about steps 7, 8 (omg, this is getting excessive) – but I need to think on them a little bit more.

Give yourself some self-love. You deserve it.


Paula Deen, SCOTUS, and a Colorbound U.S.

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I’ll tell you one thing, people: we are not “post-racial.” If the Queen of Butter’s recently leaked deposition is any indicator, we are, in fact, in quite a bind. Here’s a taste of what we’re working with if you’re not keen on exploring the depths of Paula Deen’s mind (the Prosecutor’s questions in bold):

And could you give me an example of how you have demonstrated for them a nice way to use the N-word?
[Objection]
What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —
It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.
Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?
[Objection] That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.

To be honest, I almost feel bad for her. Paula clearly feels uncomfortable talking about race, you guys. And I don’t totally blame her. I feel bad for her because she lives in a culture that promotes “Colorblindness” as a glossy term for equality rather than dealing with some of the social, economic, and political mainstays of a racist country. We all know that slavery was racist, but what about jokes told covertly in a private home or kitchen? We reject conversations about race as irrelevant for modern times and instead navigate race in more insidious ways, like through jokes or through the proliferation and acceptance of narratives that narrowly define people’s identities (think Welfare Queens, Pocahontas, or hey, this “Asian” Disney truck).

On the other side of these conversations, or perhaps underpinning them all, is an intricate webbing of media, political, and social norms that consistently imply that white is normal, beautiful, and almost always right. So, yes, I almost feel bad for Paula because, like she said, she didn’t make up the joke, she’s just TELLIN’ IT. And she doesn’t know better because who’s saying it’s wrong? I’ll tell you who’s not (spoiler alert!)…

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a provision that Chief Justice John Roberts has been eager to gut for a few years. Representing the majority opinion today, Roberts stated:

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem. Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting…This was strong medicine, but Congress determined it was needed to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting…There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”

Roberts goes on to say that people of color are now active voters at American polls and no longer need the federal protections put in place by Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law, he says, must evolve with the changing demographics of U.S. voters.

Sure, Roberts. But, did you sleep through the entire 2012 election? Revisions to early voting procedures and voter suppression initiatives across the country bottle-necked polling stations and deterred an estimated hundreds of thousands of people. Research shows that black and Hispanic voters had to wait nearly twice as long as white voters in 2012 elections.

We can create voting policies without talking about race, but they still have a racially-stratified impact. We can destroy equal protection laws by saying race is no longer a factor, but you would have to be willfully ignorant to do so.

Well, I would like to propose a redo: Let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about race and the way that it impacts our day-to-day lives. For white folks, that often means a litany of things that you DON’T have to think about:  you probably don’t have to think about whether you’ll be the only white person at the party (or meeting, or in the office, etc.), you probably won’t have to worry about driving at night, and you probably don’t have to think about whether a change in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will limit your ability to walk to your polling station, wait in line for a minimal amount of time, and cast a ballot for your desired comptroller/city council member/president. You probably also don’t have to think about why you don’t have to think about all of those things and, HERE MY FRIENDS, is where people of color come in.

We people of color are constantly thinking about those things because all of the non-thoughts that most white folks have about their presence in the world equate to a pretty tumultuous world for people of color. When white folks continue to not-think and not-talk about the ways in which their decisions, their actions, their movement, and their jokes impact others, we persist into what I will call a Colorbound America. In this America, people of color’s place is constantly reinforced, reinvented, and retold by people in power, and white folks in general, through the invisibilization of — or reluctance to acknowledge — the different social and political contexts that people live within. The common phrase “Oh, I don’t even see race when I look at someone” only implies that you don’t have to because you’re not impacted by it and that you have yet to understand your impact on others. 

Colorblindness is real but its effect is not the great equalizer of people. Colorblindness has real, tangible impacts that many of us not only have to think about but also have to live out on a day-to-day basis. I say this all not to vilify white people–because, in reality, it’s much more complicated that just white people subjugating people of color–but rather to open a door to a more honest discussion about who we are as individuals and the impact that we have on each other. Our intention can be to love each other fully, without having to consider the archaic confines of race, and those intentions are beautiful. However, to gloss over another person’s experience by claiming that we are all the same, is a backwards step that will not only lead us to more politically and historically inappropriate decisions like the one SCOTUS carried out today, it will also lead us away from knowing and valuing each other in deeper and more accountable ways.


Farm Bill Amendment Imposing Lifetime Ban on Food Stamps Hits People of Color Hardest

On Wednesday, the Senate accepted a devastating farm bill amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). The amendment would bar anyone who’s ever been convicted of certain violent crimes from receiving food stamps—forever.

It doesn’t matter that it’s been decades since you served your sentence in prison and completed your terms of probation and parole. It doesn’t matter that you were a teenager at the time of conviction and haven’t received so much as a parking ticket since. It doesn’t even matter that you care for dependent children or grandchildren who rely on your benefits to eat. You are banned for life.

Let’s get a couple things straight about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): 4 out of 5 families receiving benefits have gross incomes below the poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four in 2013), and the majority of those families actually earn below half of the poverty line—that’s $9,765 for a family of three. Furthermore, 87% of households receiving benefits include a child, senior citizen, or disabled person.

4.5-SNAP

The approved amendment would deliver a crushing blow to communities of color, which have disproportionately high rates of poverty and food insecurity as well as greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. One in four black or Latino households is food insecure, compared to one in 10 white households. One in three black men and one in six Latino men can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in 17 white men. As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, under Vitter’s amendment, “Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.”

It’s hard enough for folks with former convictions to secure housing or find jobs; discriminatory policies and practices often leave those with criminal records bereft of options. In many states, federal welfare law already bans anyone who has ever been convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving SNAP benefits or cash assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF). SNAP helps the most vulnerable members of our communities put food on their tables, and a lifetime ban based on a prior conviction only makes it harder for returning citizens trying to make a fresh start. Households that rely on food stamps frequently have to make tough choices between paying for food, rent, medicine, and other critical expenses; what happens when their benefits are cut? It certainly won’t make our communities any safer. In fact, when people struggling to feed themselves and their families feel like they’re out of options, it may very well contribute to recidivism.

We need to let our Senators know that the farm bill cannot pass with this amendment intact. There are 11 Democrats and 9 Republicans on the Senate agriculture committee; their contact information is below. You can also use the Senate’s online directory to find your Senators’ contact information by state. Not a single Senator objected to the amendment. Contact your Senators and tell them that cutting SNAP benefits for people who have already served their time is a low blow. Tell them that it will likely prove counter-productive to public safety. Tell them that amendment #1056 needs to go.

Members of the Senate agriculture committee:

Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman (D-MI)
(202) 224-4822
@StabenowPress
Email her here.

Thad Cochran, Ranking Member (R-MS)
(202) 224-5054
@SenThadCochran
Email him here.

Max Baucus (D-MT)
(202) 224-2651
Email him here.

Michael Bennet (D-CO)
(202) 224-5852
@SenBennetCO
Email him here.

John Boozman (R-AR)
(202) 224-4843
@JohnBoozman
Email him here.

Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
(202) 224-2315
@SenSherrodBrown
Email him here.

Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
(202) 224-3521
@SaxbyChambliss
Email him here.

William Cowan (D-MA)
(202) 224-2742
@SenMoCowan
Email him here.

Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
(202) 224-4814
@SenDonnelly
Email him here.

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
(202) 224-4451
@SenGillibrand
Email her here.

Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
(202) 224-3744
Email him here.

Tom Harkin (D-IA)
(202) 224-3254
@SenatorHarkin
Email him here.

Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
(202) 224-2043
@SenatorHeitkamp
Email her here.

John Hoeven (R-ND)
(202) 224-2551
@SenJohnHoeven
Email him here.

Mike Johanns (R-NE)
(202) 224-4224
@Mike_Johanns
Email him here.

Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
(202) 224-3244
@amyklobuchar
Email her here.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
(202) 224-4242
@SenatorLeahy
Email him here.

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
(202) 224-2541
@McConnellPress
Email him here.

Pat Roberts (R-KS)
(202) 224-4774
@SenPatRoberts
Email him here.

John Thune (R-SD)
(202) 224-2321
@SenJohnThune
Email him here.


Creating a National Conversation About Surviving on Food Stamps

This post was originally featured on the blog of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank.

Yesterday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker finished his widely publicized “SNAP Challenge,” during which he subsisted solely on meals he could prepare on an average week’s worth of SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits – which works out to about $1.40 a meal. While certainly difficult, the SNAP Challenge cannot mimic the actual experience of receiving and surviving on SNAP benefits; as others have pointed out, the exercise cannot simulate the “psychic costs” or cumulative effects of living in poverty: hunger, insecure housing, and inadequate healthcare. Moreover, participants in the challenge are neither subject to the often taxing application and recertification processes nor the burden of actually using an EBT card. Ensuring that a given store accepts SNAP; separating eligible food items from ineligible purchases; and enduring the perceived stigma of using an EBT card in the checkout line are all aspects of participating in the program that the SNAP Challenge cannot encapsulate.

Nevertheless, the challenge can play an important role in bringing attention to SNAP’s low benefit levels, as recently documented in a new report by the Food Research and Action Center. Furthermore, efforts like Booker’s can stimulate national conversation about the experience of using SNAP, with the voices of families that have participated in the program often the strongest in revealing both its crucial importance and its structural shortcomings.

The average SNAP benefit per person is $133.42 a month. Benefits are calculated based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which originated in the 1930s and is the lowest of four estimates devised by the USDA for a family’s average monthly food costs. As of October 2012, the TFP estimates that an average family of four needs $627 a month to maintain a nutritionally adequate diet. This number, which is used to determine the maximum SNAP benefit, is calculated by reference to the cost of a “market basket” of groceries from a range of food groups; the items included in the TFP market basket are limited in variety compared to the other three food plans.

A new report from FRAC points to an array of weaknesses of the TFP, and calls instead for the institution of the slightly higher “Low-Cost Food Plan” as the basis for SNAP benefit allotments. Among TFP’s shortcomings are its underestimation of food costs and unrealistic expectations for food availability, reliable transportation and time for meal preparation among SNAP participants. Indeed, FRAC describes the TFP as “an artificially constructed model that obscures the reality of the impossible struggles of low-income people” – which in some ways parallels criticism of the SNAP Challenge itself. While the challenge disaggregates food expenditures from all other aspects of surviving on a low income, the TFP sets a budget for food based on ideal conditions and access to resources. Neither reflects or anticipates the complex reality of living in poverty – the difference is, the TFP’s incomplete picture has extensive practical consequences for how much food families are able to put on the table.

Thus, some of the difficulties that Mayor Booker encountered affording adequate food during the SNAP Challenge—and that actual SNAP participants struggle with every day—are largely attributable to an outdated policy choice. Booker’s experience also brought renewed attention to other opportunities for policy reform—including my favorite topic, the asset test. In response to Booker’s challenge, the Huffington Post solicited stories from current and former SNAP participants. One of the letters it published was from Margo, a woman in Kentucky whose family turned to benefits for the first time as they struggled to find employment in wake of the Recession. Kentucky is one of fifteen states that still maintain an asset limit for all SNAP participants. Furthermore, while some states that have retained limits have raised them to $5000 or more, Kentucky has kept the low federal limit of $2000. As Margo recounted:

“We needed to provide information about all our assets, including everything we had in the bank… By trying to establish a small emergency fund from our tax refund and putting some of our baby gifts into a bank account for our son, simply having a month’s worth of rent in the checking account was enough to put us over the limit. We could’ve spent down, of course, ensured we had no assets, but we made the choice to try and build some savings and simply tighten our belts even further.”

Congress is poised to make some key decisions about SNAP funding as part of ongoing Farm Bill and fiscal cliff negotiations—with a new five-year bill possible within the next month. The House version of the bill would cut SNAP by over $16 billion dollars, resulting in the loss of benefits to two to three million families. One of the bill’s chief provisions is the elimination of broad-based categorical eligibility, which would require all states to reinstate their $2000 asset limits. Should this happen, families like Margo’s, along with millions of other households that turned to public benefits for the first time to cope with Recession layoffs, will be compelled to face a true challenge: choosing between maintaining their hard-earned savings or continuing to receive assistance to put food on the table until they get back on their feet.

To read more about how asset limits burden both families’ resiliency and states’ administrative efficiency, check out our recent policy paper.


Hair and Today’s Presidential Election

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(Reblogged from here) In her response to my email request, my friend Jean sent me (among many other lovely things to be featured later) this photo and response:

“Even though I’d seen it many times before, when we got to this photo in the White House West Wing tour, I started crying. My tour guide told me that although most of the photos hanging around the White House get changed out every couple weeks, this one has been there ever since it was first taken and put up because the President loves it so much. I really can’t even put into words what I feel when I look at this photo, but I think you understand without my having to.”

When I see this photo — and I’ve returned to it many times since the first time I came across it — I’m reminded of why Obama’s “Hope” slogan struck such a chord with me four years ago. And for those people who think his promises have gone unfulfilled, I challenge you to look at this photo and ignore the myriad opportunities and dreams that have sprung from the mere presence of Barack Obama and his family living in the White House. While I’m critical of many of Obama’s policies, his election represented a larger shift for me that is most viscerally reflected in this photo. For many people of color who grow up thinking that their place among the social hierarchy is relegated to a silent/invisible intellectual (at best) or a rapper (at best), Obama’s election cracked open a whole other world of possibilities as he became the mirror for children of color’s ambition.

Though I believe in the freedom of choice, I also believe that a person’s degree of “choice” is readily dictated by the people elected to represent them. Living in Washington D.C. this year, I regularly watched old, White, potentially well-meaning congressmen talk about the useless and ineffective nature of social welfare programs like food stamps (despite the program having the lowest error rate of any Federal program). Perhaps these men read a pamphlet on poverty? Perhaps they’d been briefed on recent poverty statistics? Maybe they’d even at one point been a child in a struggling family.

My point being, I don’t want someone representing me that’s fed talking points by a 22 year old intern whose summer is being bankrolled by her parents, or that’s simply trying to realign the economy by slashing spending in an attempt to buttress their Republican fortitude. I want someone representing me that knows what it’s like to identify with the texture of their own hair because they’ve simply been stripped of everything else; or someone that relies on intellect and sheer force of values and courage to lead and not pander; or someone that stops to let a child touch their head because they understand the gesture of relating in an honest way. It may sound silly or oversimplified to some of you but, as Jean said, I think many of you will understand without me really having to explain.

Please go vote tomorrow. If for nothing else than to practice what it feels like to assert yourself in the world.


What’s beyond step four?

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In general, I do not believe there is a manual to human condition and relationships.  Because of this, I have a hard time mapping how I interact with others based on manuals, step-by-step guides, etc.

With that being said, obviously I’m going to give a guide to being an ally, however unconventional and non-defining it may be.

**Refer to the photo above for suggested facial expressions to each step**

Step One:  Most everyone is already a bad-ass at step one.  It’s the clueless, unaware, we’re all equal, not-spending-a-second-on-it step.  It’s the step that causes a lot of people NOT to be an ally.  This step is unrecognized privilege.  If you’re white, you don’t recognize your benefits of being white. If you’re able-bodied, you don’t appreciate your privileges of being able-bodied. If you’re rich, then you’re not thinking about what it means for those who are low-income not to have the same luxuries.  If you’re male, you’re not taking time out of your day to think about what you did today that gave you privilege.  If you’re straight, same story. If you did not experience abuse, same story. If you are documented, same story. If you have an identity that’s not marginalized, same story.

Step Two:  WHHHHAAAAAATTTT? I’m privileged and just because I’ve accepted that doesn’t mean that I can move on to being an ally? Fuck no.  Before you can call yourself an ally, you’ve gotta do some self-work realizing your privileges and its affects on your relationships.  Personally, I just spent a year talking about power, privilege, and oppression and I still haven’t totally realized what it means to be privileged. Constantly checking yourself takes time and is a constant process that no one can ever say they’ve aced.  To start to be a good ally is to start doing self-work. Then doing more self-work.  Then doing some more self-work.

Step Three:  Honestly, I believe I’m still in step three a bit.  I’ve had some discourse, I have a stronger hold on what it means to be white, to be male, to be able-bodied, to be privileged, etc.  I find myself getting excited to talk about these issues with others. Anti-oppression work isn’t about a badge that you get to put on your sash.  It’s about understanding and working toward equality. Step three is beaming yourself down from some holy social justice pedestal.  Yes, do most people of a privileged identity not know what the hell is going on?  Probably, but that doesn’t mean that you get to vomit knowledge on them constantly.  That doesn’t mean that just because you have mastered the jargon (obviously I’m still on this step because I’m throwing out privilege, oppression, and ally more than I’m breathing air) you get to be angry at your fellow white/straight/able-bodied/male/etc. folks.  Take a look back at step one, friend.  It’s not an intentional step to be in all the time.  Relax, continue your journey, and don’t preach.

Step four:  This has to be my favorite step so far.  It’s simple.  Listen, support, and understand you still are clueless.  Step four is kind of a step one in my book.  Step one is one of ignorance, step two is one of self-understanding, and step three is one of calm-the-fuck-down.  Step four is one of effective action.   You should never be all, “oh, I’m an ally, spill your heart” or “oh, I understand that you don’t get equal rights, let’s be besties.” That’s kinda arrogant…and sometimes more offensive.  Step four is being supportive however you can without being abrasive.  To me, this step is one that I’m currently in and I think I’ll be in for awhile because I’m learning so much from not being abrasive with my new-found allyships or having expectations.  You’re still clueless, but at least you’re aware that you’re clueless, you are taking steps toward becoming more educated on things you didn’t even consider before now, and you are showing support by not being a lack of support.

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Step four is kinda a medium-level step two.  and step one is always going to be happening.  I went through step three, so that’s probably not across the board.  These steps are just my own steps.  There are many more steps that are coming and I’ve probably went through more than four steps.  Steps, steps, steps. steps. steps.

In closing, allyship is way more than meets the eye. People need support in different ways, people give support in different ways.  Allyship is a trail that you must blaze on your own with guided support.

Should I say privilege, step, or ally one more time? PRIVILEGE, STEP, ALLY.

Look for another post when I realize  and can articulate steps 5,6,7,8.