There is No Restoration in Dehumanization

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A bird flies over barbed wire on top of fences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. In 2014 when this photo was taken, California was under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of its designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer, Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This past weekend, I had the honor of serving inmates a Donovan State Prison through restorative and healing work.  In the process, I connected with a Samoan brother, Utu, who’d been incarcerated for nearly two decades and, most recently, spent four years in, what the inmates and prison guards refer to as, the hole, solitary confinement.  Utu held a type of innocence that is very difficult to maintain in inmates who’ve experienced and perpetrated the most tragic and heinous acts of violence.

There was an immediate spiritual connection that occurred as he began to share pieces of himself in a place where even a little bit of vulnerability can get a man killed; one that allowed me to see we are both greater than our experiences and our choices.

In 2010, do to over crowded and under-equipped California prisons,  Utu was one of many inmates forcefully persuaded to sign a prison transfer request from California to Arizona. He was told it would be a temporary five-year arrangement.  While in Arizona, he discovered that what he had signed up for was “to live in hell,” and doubted he would make it out of Arizona alive.  Not only were tensions between prison guards and inmates more hostile, but racism and inequity were used to instigate more animosity and violence among the inmates.  Without going into details, he told me he got into a confrontation with another inmate, and beat him unconscious.  The next day, Utu was sent to the hole where he would live out the rest of his five-year incarceration sentence in Arizona.

A prisoner named Ahmad Al Aswadu wrote an essay titled “A Black View of Prison” in the April-May 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. In his essay, he describes the experience of living in the “hole” while incarcerated:

The “Hole” (called such because its locality is usually under the prison’s first floor) is solitary confinement. One could stay in the hole for a week or a lifetime depending upon his color and attitude. It is here in the hole that men are made and broken at the same time. It is here that the previous threat of getting “hurt” can realize itself all too quickly. And it is here that the seeds of Black Consciousness have been cultivated in the minds of many black men.

It is very difficult for a layman such as I to describe the atmosphere of the hole but I shall try. I believe that the very first thing that the brother notices about the hole is the desolateness and the feeling of utter aloneness. The first time that I was sent to the hole I felt as if my soul had deserted me. I don’t believe that I had ever experienced such a feeling of intense emptiness in my life before then. I had been sent to the hole to have my attitude changed, because, as they stated, it was not conducive to “good order.” 

His father died shortly after he was placed in the hole.  Samoans follow a code of living and culture called the Fa’a Samoa which means “the Samoan Way.” Central to this culture is the Fa’amatai. The family is the most significant socio-political element of Samoan society. Family responsibility and the care of family land are the keys to the culture. For Utu, not being able to be at his father’s funeral or with his family was devastating and a source of shame; and there was nowhere for him to escape this shame.  As he began to unravel into hopelessness and deep depression, a few months into his solitary confinement, he heard  a clank as someone opened the  small window of his iron cell door and asked if he wanted to find God.  God was nowhere to be found, he thought; that hole was the furthest he could be from God.

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Photo credit: Modesto Bee Newspaper/ Bloomberg via Getty Images 

A clergyman visited him once a week, on the same day, at the same time, like clock work. He learned to keep track of time by keeping track of his visits.  He’d be Utu’s only visitor for the four years he remained in the hole.  Utu was not allowed any possessions, but the clergyman somehow got the prison guards to agree to allowing him to have a bible, which he fiercely read and studied during his four years in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement strips away anything that can possibly remind a man of his existence. There is no radio, no television, no books, no pencils or paper and no hobby-facilitating materials. Inmates are provided institution-issued clothes and possibly, but not always, sheets.  Personal hygiene provisions are reduced to only toilet paper, which some inmates may not receive.  Cells frequently have no windows and inmates are housed with a vacant cell between them to reduce the possibility of communication. The 23/1 rule (23 hours in your cell and one hour outside of it) usually applies, but only if the guards get around to it. This could mean that inmates may only get one hour every five days, and often during that one hour, inmates are not allowed to go outside or anywhere with windows, but are confined to a “common area,” alone. Depending on the institution, sometimes they are provided with golf pencils and paper to write during their hour, but may only be allowed to mail out and receive one letter a week. Utu felt his mind slipping away from him while in there, and reading the bible was the only experience that helped him hold on to his humanity.

No one is ever SENTENCED to solitary confinement – the determination of that punishment is made in each institution at their own discretion and for a duration they presume to be necessary. It could be because an inmate violated a rule within the institution or merely because an inmate is presumed to be affiliated with a gang. It also could be just cruelty and sadism on the part of the institution administrators.

Utu was transferred back to California a little more than a year ago.  His mother passed away three months ago, and though he wasn’t able to attend her funeral, he was close enough for his family to come visit him and pray with him. As he shared  glimpses of his life with me, I wondered how a man who has lost so much could still hold innocence and gentleness in his soul.

utu

During the three days of restorative and healing work, we delved into discussions and activities that pushed us to think more deeply about transformative power through forgiveness, empathy and consensus building.   One of the activities in which the inmates were tasked to practice the consensus building strategies they had just learned required that each select a photo.  The objective was for each person to partner up, and through consensus building, agree on one photo to represent both.  Once the partners agreed on the photo, they looked for another set of partners and the process of consensus building began again until one photo was selected to represent the group of four, which then joined with another group of four to repeat the same process.

I partnered with Utu who had selected a photo of a blueish-turquoise ocean gently swaying against black cliffs abundant with vegetation. That morning he had spoken of going home to Samoa where his heart had always told him he belonged. His family came to the Unites States when he was a little boy, but it seemed that leaving his motherland had been more of a curse than a blessing.  His family broke apart in the United States.  Upward mobility and the accumulation of things became a priority.  Home to him means returning to a place that nurtures family and community, something Utu feels he can no longer achieve in the United States. There was a profound longing in his eyes for home as he described the aspects of his photo that reminded him of Samoa. He is homesick for a feeling, an experience he hopes to find when he returns to Samoa.  One where his heart is full, his body loved, and his soul understood.

Then came my turn to explain why I chose the photo I held in my hands.  The photo reminded me of the purest love between a child and his parents or grandparents; the bond that exists when a child is nurtured as the one who will continue the wisdom and legacy of the elders, and in turn, of the ancestors. It is this passing on of knowledge that creates strong and dignified communities.  I told Utu that the photo reminded me of the unconditionally love my grandmother poured into me. When children are raised with kind love, veneration and respect, they grow up to be the keepers of the greater community.  Finally, I explained, that most of all, the photo reminded me of the importance of knowing how to give and receive, the collaboration that manifests in a beautiful way within families and communities when everyone is working together toward a common goal.

Utu timidly asked, “which one should we pick?” I told Utu that I had the privilege to experience home, and nothing would fill my heart more than for him to experience home, even if was just symbolically.  So I told him, “You choose.”  His eyes became watery and he said he’d choose the picture I held in my hands, because more than the beach and the tropical trees and the smell of the salty mountains, he missed the love of his mother and father.

Utu is due to be released in 2021.  In a place void of humanity, where vulnerability and compassion can get one killed, where suspicion lurks in every corner, and where brick, steel, cement and barbed wire remind inmates of the total aloneness of enforced solitude and deprivation, Utu was able to maintain an innocence and gentleness rarely found behind bars.  I pray he makes it out.

Another inmate whose been on a long, arduous path of healing said, “I’m thriving in prison. For the first time in my life, I am thriving.” If these men whose hearts have been hardened and hopes shattered can transform themselves in a place meant to annihilate what little love they remember from their childhood, imagine what could be possible if we created opportunities for healing and restoration.

Restorative justice and restorative practices are ancient approaches that are being revived in modern-day systems. Aboriginals around the world have used religion or tribal leaders to peacefully resolve conflicts or crime for hundreds of years. This traditional approach to restoration is rooted in the belief that there should be social harmony, redemption and a pursuit of absolute good for the individual and the community in the handling of conflict and crime. Rather than the punitive elements connected to shame, guilt, humiliation and dehumanization, aboriginal cultures around the world have focused on restorative elements of redemption, reparation, rehabilitation, healing and forgiveness.

 We have long known that in the act of destroying the other, we are destroying ourselves.  In Mayan tradition, there is a greeting that many people working with Mayan tradition know of. In Lak’ ech Ala K’in means I am the other you and you are the other me. It is an honoring for each other, for the sacredness of our belonging.  Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning, “my humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” Bayanihan is a Filipino custom derived from the word bayan, which means nation, town or community. The term means being in bayan, which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal. In ancient Sanskrit Sarvodaya mean universal uplifting; the good of the individual within the good of the whole. So you see, we come from each other, to commune with each other, and to thrive with each other.  Even scientifically, we have discovered the presence of mirror neurons, which allow us to feel the other’s pain.  In essence, what we do onto others, we do to ourselves. This is who we were before colonization, industrialization and capitalism.  Who we were has been erased from history, but the memories remain in our DNA, and we are once again being called to rewrite our history, and re-right the injustices we have participated in.

I recently came across this:

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation.  Connection is the only thing that can save you.

Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about our struggles is the key to your liberation. 

Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life.  your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we all can be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now.  We need you. 

Remembrance and imagination are the greatest tools we have to create a world in which our children can love and be loved, fully and unconditionally.

It’s Okay If All You Did Today Was Survive

In the wake of

Non-stop violent tragedies

I ask myself,

What do we need to do

To save our world?

 

I desperately gasp

for a sense of freedom,

like air,

to alleviate

the asphyxiating

constriction

in my chest.

 

Not enough

to breathe

with ease.

 

I run my fingers

along the asperous

edges of my heart,

eroded by

constant sorrow and

disillusionment.

 

Does God make

mistakes?

Does he give

someone more than

they can handle

at times?

This is not

God’s work

to blame.

 

Am I up to

the magnitude

of this pain?

 

What do I do

with this?

 

Numb it

until I can no

longer feel

myself?

 

Stuff it

down so deep

it becomes

dense with

pressure?

 

Let it flow

through me?

Like the river, use my breath

to remove toxins,

impurities

and debris?

 

I’m afraid of

drowning under

its current, not being

able to come up,

catch my breath;

being crushed

by a cataract of

suffering.

 

Today, I allow

myself to feel

uneasy

uncomfortable

restless

tired

heavy

broken

battered

scared

 

I have enough

courage to

loosen the grip,

let go,

just a little, of

the constriction

and allow the pain

to flow.

 

With

each cry,

each tear,

each gasp,

the pain becomes

less overpowering.

I see

I’m okay.

It didn’t

break me.

It hurt, but

It didn’t

break me.

 

My first lesson

from pain:

I am whole

when I don’t

betray myself,

when I accept

my goodness,

when I don’t

need to be

perfect,

when I realize

I have everything

I need

to heal.

 

Tomorrow

I will endure

a little more.

 

Tomorrow

my next lesson awaits.

 

Tomorrow

I will have

more strength than

today.

Dedicated to my daughter and all those learning to heal, grow, and transform through their own wisdom and courage.

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I AM GOOD

feel better Yesterday, a student I’ve been mentoring was suspended for giving a xanax to another student. He was expelled earlier in the year for selling weed.   The adults all seemed to be disappointed beyond redemption, mostly angry, and intent on punishing the student. This does not mean the student should not be held accountable for restoring the harm and learning the lesson. But when a child falters, the last thing we want to do is shame and isolate him.

Stay with me on this one. . .

When we feel better, we do better. This is why a compassionate community is so important, and the greatest predictor to how well an individual will do. There’s a lot of trendy talk around restorative processes at schools, but these processes will become just another failed intervention if we don’t truly understand the incredible amount of mercy that it takes to support our children through transformation and change. It’s not only about understanding that we can hold children accountable for their behavior and give them an opportunity to restore the harm without being punitive and retaliatory; it’s also about understanding what it takes for a child to redeem himself and develop new behaviors that are positive, productive, and build their sense of worth.

Every river is born from a single drip of melted snow. The drips collect together and trickle down the mountain forming into creaks and streams that meet together and converge into a river. Moving water is a powerful force and can wear away soil and rocks through erosion. Once a path is created by erosion, because water takes the path of less resistance, water will most likely continue to flow through that path, creating further erosion and therefore, greater flow. Our thoughts and behaviors work in the same way. The more we think or behave a certain way, the more we entrench ourselves in those patterns. Our patterns are the result of the repeated behavior, like rivers are the result of repeated erosion.

Once a river is established, it takes an incredible amount of force for it to create a new pathway. In this same manner, rewiring our brain’s cognitive processes and retraining it to develop new patterns takes an incredible amount of very specific and intentional work, along with immense determination and support systems. Rewiring takes time. It’s not a consistent process. It takes an extreme amount of motivation to perform a habit. The most difficult part of changing a behavior is one’s life is to actually start the behavior. Like a river starts with a drip, a new habit starts with a small behavior change that doesn’t feel threatening or exhausting. Something that seems easy and reasonable to do consistently and constantly.

We can’t expect our children to change a negative habit from one day to the other, or as some would put it, to never fall off the wagon. They will, and we have to be compassionate, forgiving, and patient enough to support them in getting right back up; encouraging them to try again. Each time they try again, they are reaffirming their worth, their goodness, and the idea that they are deserving of better.

Here is what we can expect them to do:

We can expect them to make mistakes from which they will learn lessons, especially when given the space to process the experiences. Similar experiences will repeat over and over again until the lesson is learned. As parents, mentors, teachers, counselors, and guides, this is where we have to do better than punishment. We have to guide our children to recognize the patterns of the experiences they are living to try to understand why they continue to find themselves in those same circumstances. When we recognize that life provides countless opportunities to heal and our experiences are far more than isolated occurrences, we can begin to feel empowered and determined to take ownership of how we give meaning to our experiences. We can expect to hold them accountable by guiding them to take the necessary steps to restore the harm they have caused as a result of their actions. This not only strengthens their individual dignity, but also allows them to continue to see themselves as part of a community that is always working together for the betterment of all. We can expect to teach them problem solving skills, because when a child learns to work things out on their own, they are less likely to blame others and make excuses. Mostly we can and must expect them to be the beautiful, loving human beings they were born to be.

The following is a community process that was described online in reference to how a tribe uplifts, redirects, and restores the individuals in their community when they have lost their way: When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as good; each of us desiring safety, love, peace, and happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help. They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected.. Ultimately to have him remember. “I Am Good.”

**Some sources state this is a made up story.  Some sources cite this process from a tribe in the continent of Africa.  It’s a beautiful process that I hope does exist in some form.

De Gotita en Gotita

Why getting your dream all at once can feel like too much:

My grandma used to say, “De gotita en gotita se llena el cántaro.” (The pitcher will fill up one drop at a time.)
A dream, working toward it, and obtaining it is a process; each step like a new beautiful stone, exciting to cherish, but also heavy if one has not prepared for the weight and responsibility of carrying it.

A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to contribute as a writer and photographer in an organization I have become very passionate for. I am absolutely in love with writing, and in the most recent years, I have have also fallen in love with photography, especially how it compliments my writing. These art outlets for which I have found deep admiration have become creative tools through which I heal, expose social inequity and injustice, and explore community and vision for a new kind of world.

But this invitation scared me. I wasn’t being offered a full time position nor was I turning into a full time writer, though I write an average of 30 hours a week, still and yet, it scared me. You know that “fear of failure,” kind of feeling, or maybe “fear of success,” it came over me, like the night that slowly shades in the edges of the day. I started to obsess:
What if I’m not good enough?
What if they don’t like the next piece I write?
What if my writing isn’t what they expect?
What if I lose my creativity?

You know all the if’s, but’s, and no’s we come up with when we haven’t built up to our moment of greatness. This is part of our imperfection as human beings – not being able to believe and see our greatness all at once. So the shadow helps to filter in the light, like a buffer if you will, that protects us from the fear of our own light. In part, there are many lessons we have to learn to step fully into our gifts, our abilities, our greatness, and power. Along the way, we also have to acquire knowledge, technical aspects we have to learn about our craft.

Each drop prepares us for the next. Each step for the next level of grandeur. We want our dreams, but they also scare us, so each small opportunity is the fertilizer that prepares us to grow and bloom. As we journey through our dream, we become stronger, wiser; we learn to listen to our intuition, to discern how to stay true to our passion and purpose, and to understand which opportunities align with our dream and which distract us from it. And when we reach our dream, if we have gone through this process, we will know how to nurture it, how to be responsible for it, and how to represent it with integrity.

Art by Alex Escalante

art by alex escalante

The Alchemy of Your Presence

In my heart I carry
the memory of
when I first me you.

I asked if you were mine;
Tita pressed you closer
to my chest, assuring me.

But as I saw you grow,
I knew you were so
much bigger than my arms;
you were for the world.

The only place you could
fit would be in my heart.

I meet you there
in the silence and
whisper blessings
carried out to you by
Grandmother
Moon.

I touch the silhouette of
your essence –
search for peace and solace
as you confront the chaos
of a world parched for
benevolence.

You are here to be
greater than the imagination of man,
to stave off the conformity
that binds us to fear.

Your purpose was carved into
the consciousness of the trees
when Mother Earth
envisioned you as her daughter
and me as the guardian
who would reverently usher you
into this world.

The alchemy of your presence
is a daily awakening of love,
a prayer answered
for the restoration of the
melody of our humanity.

To contain you is to try to
hold water in the grip of my hand,
embrace eternity in a second,
or confine the sky.

The most harrowing and liberating
lesson I’ve had to learn is,
you were never mine.
You are a gift through which
I glimpse freedom.

Dance in boundless spaces,
let your hair whirl in eddies of wind.
Grow roots from your bare feet,
let them go so deep, they go to
creation; let them be so strong
they break chains. Sing your song,
serenade the goodness in you
and fall in love the way the blossom
has fallen in love with her nectar.

Happy Birthday mi chiquita. . .

Her Hair

Pelitos

Spongy little

corkscrews,

like bouncy springs

colliding in

mid air.

Fast moving

pirouettes,

untamably bold

without a care.

.

Ven pa’ca Colocha!

Le llaman a la muchacha

del pelo chinito.

Esa Negrita que

tiene tumbao’

con la boquita

de corazóncito.

.

Seen as a subversive

resistance to

colonized ideas of beauty;

patriarchal ideas

of sedated femininity

as a duty.

.

It is simply an

extension of her.

.

Like the Hazel tree,

the branches of

her hair

grow defiant.

Against

the oppression of

hot combs, hot irons,

and nappy-shaming,

it is not compliant.

.

In the summer

the ends bloom to

tiny sunflower

spinners

reaching

out toward the sun’s

golden shimmer.

.

In the winter

the ends withdraw

into tight twists

like spiral grass

embracing an

inward shift.

.

It laughs in

the breeze,

lingering notes of

honeysuckle, vanilla,

and coconut are

memory’s ease

.

She was born with

coily hair

stubborn and free

like hummingbirds

in the vault of the sky

fluttering with glee.

Self-Defense

heart

I grew spines on

my heart to protect

her from predators.

.

Creatures lurking

in the shadows of the sun

who would try to

devour her succulent flesh.

.

But my heart is

pulsating, and still

blooms in spring.

.

My flowers are the

inspiration of

those who seek

beauty.

.

They are the fruit

that nourishes the

longing of the seed.

.

The wine that quenches

the thirst

of the parched.

.

My flowers are

my determination

to survive amidst

the calloused landscape.

.

I grew spines on

my heart

and bloomed flowers

on the verge of the

monsoon rains.

saguaro23