Valentine's Day came and went again this year, along with its usual...challenges
. You know I'm all about the self-love
when it comes to these kinds of holidays, because if nothing else, it can be a good time to remind ourselves that we're worth loving even if we don't have the types of relationships or lives deemed perfect by the mainstream media's standards. But one of the great things that came out of this year's Valentine's Day was more about coming together than being alone. It was One Billion Rising,
a global campaign to end violence against women. People all around the world united in the most wonderful way – by dancing. Anti-violence action and
dance? You know I love it! Taking a stand to say we all deserve to live without violence – in the end, that comes down to self-love, too, doesn't it? For me, one of the most inspiring results of the One Billion Rising campaign comes out of the San Francisco jails, with those who participated there. Maybe I love it so much because I'm connected to these folks through my life and work, but I think this action also spreads a moving message that's important for all of us to hear. Watch "Inmates Rising" below, to see why the inmates danced, and why it was such a special experience for them. This video reminds me of the work of the formerly incarcerated poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. If you're not familiar with his work, I'd recommend getting to know him. Here's a taste, one love-centric poem of his:
"For you: anthophilous, lover of flowers"by Reginald Dwayne Betts
For you: anthophilous, lover of flowers,
green roses, chrysanthemums, lilies: retrophilia,
philocaly, philomath, sarcophilous—all this love,
of the past, of beauty, of knowledge, of flesh; this is
counter: philalethist, negrophile, neophile.
A negro man walks down the street, taps Newport
out against a brick wall &
stares at you. Love
that: lygophilia, lithophilous. Be amongst stones,
amongst darkness. We are glass house. Philopornist,
philotechnical. Why not worship the demimonde?
Love that—a corner room, whatever is not there,
all the clutter you keep secret. Palaeophile,
ornithophilous: you, antiquarian, pollinated by birds.
All this a way to dream green rose petals on the bed you love;
petrophilous, stigmatophilia: live near rocks, tattoo hurt;
for you topophilia: what place do you love? All these words
for love (for you), all these ways to say believe
in symphily, to say let us live near each other.
Women prisoners have been on my mind all week.
Maybe it's because it's now October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
. And there's a tragic connection
between violence against women and the incarceration of women. The vast majority of incarcerated women have experienced violence throughout their lives, and many of them are serving time in prison for the very acts of self-defense that they had to use to stay alive. So when I think of raising awareness about domestic violence, I have to consider the ways we might shatter the myth that women's prisons are full of villains who deserve to be locked up – No. Women's prisons are full of survivors, who deserve freedom from the violence in their lives. So today, my Friday Friends are the fierce women of Fired Up! Fired Up! is
"a grassroots network of people who have been or are currently, behind the walls of SF County Jail building community with others who are committed to breaking down the barriers those walls produce." Every week, the Fired Up! women gather to grow together, heal together, and share the strength it takes to survive the system that continues to traumatize and dehumanize them.
I know from personal experience that the vibrant energy of this community of women can add a dash of hope to a dreary place. A few weeks ago, they invited a co-worker and I to visit the group as guests from CUAV, and even within the jail's cold, concrete walls, we found laughter, joy, and the undeniable spirit of resiliency. Visit the Fired Up! blog
to read more about what happened when CUAV and Fired Up! joined forces. You can also help celebrate the one-year anniversary of Fired Up! at a screening of the film Still Time, which tells the story of
LaKeisha Burton as she rebuilds her life after twenty years in prison. That screening will take place on October 20, and it will include snacks, a raffle, and a discussion with the filmmaker and with LaKeisha. You can find details about the event on the Fired Up! blog
as well. Fired Up! meetings began
with members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). To learn more about incarcerated women and how you can support the vision of liberation and healing from violence, visit the CCWP website
And if you have twenty minutes to spare, watch "Strength of a Woman" below. It's a documentary "created by the Violence Against Women Committee of the Coalition For Women Prisoners and filmmaker Allison Caviness about the experiences, resilience, and strength of formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors and the devastating impact that the criminal justice system can have on women's lives." These are heartbreaking stories, but the fact that someone is telling them offers some hope for change.
As I've written before, around Christmas time
and Valentine's Day
, holidays can be complicated. And today, Mother's Day, is no different. Today I'm celebrating my mom, the strong woman whose love and support helped me become the woman I am today. I'm also reserving part of the day for thoughts and prayers for those who might be struggling. Those who have lost mothers, and children.
And mothers separated from their kids - like those whose children are imprisoned
, or who are imprisoned themselves
.I'm thinking, of course, about my own reasons for having complicated feelings about this day. On Mother's Day a few years ago, I sat in a park with my mom and told her that she would soon be a grandmother. That day never came. I had a miscarriage, instead, a couple of months later. Today I'm thinking about
all the moms who've lost their children before they were born.In a way, I feel guilty for spending time on such thoughts today. I see all of the celebratory hearts and flowers and I think, today's supposed to be a joyful day. There's nothing wrong with leaving it at that. But I have a feeling that, historically speaking, M
other's Day is actually meant to hold all of these complications. Did you know about the radical roots of Mother's Day?
I've been reading up on it. First there was Julia Ward Howe, a poet and anti-war activist who began promoting Mother's Day for Peace
in 1872. Then came Anna Jarvis, a childless woman who persuaded Congress to recognize the holiday in 1914, and who grew to resent the commercialism
of the day. So, this day isn't only for Hallmark. Mother's Day is for everyone, including those who may be unable to get through it without shedding a few tears.
Today I'm holding it all, sending my mom one of these fierce Mama's Day cards
from Strong Families, and also recognizing those working for a better world
for all mothers. Thank you for reading, and for your solidarity in holding the complexity of this day.
These prisoners are people, people with lonely hearts, and just like those of us who are out in the free world, they deserve love. There's a great event happening in San Francisco tonight, to show imprisoned people some of the love that they deserve. The Valentine's Day Card-Making Party for Prisoners is taking place at the Mission SRO Collective from 6-9 pm. Participants will include folks from
SF Pride at Work, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Artists of the 99%, and TransGender Intersex Justice Project, and it's open for anyone who can be there. What would you write to a survivor in lock-up, if you could? Even if you can't make it to the event tonight, there are ways to help prisoners find hope by reminding them that they're not alone in the world. The organization Black and Pink, one of the sponsors of tonight's event, runs a pen pal program to help LGBTQ prisoners communicate with folks in the free world. Visit their website to learn more about this program and others like it.
They also have great information on the prison industrial complex and how we can help build a movement against it. Here's an excerpt from their brilliant analysis
: "Our organizing efforts are guided by a larger goal of collective liberation. We hold strong to a feminist, anti-racist, queer liberationist, anti-capitalist, radical analysis of social, ecological, and economic struggles. We understand the prison industrial complex to be part of a larger system that utilizes systems of oppression to divide people and exploit our individual and collective power. Through movement building and sustained direct action against these systems of violence we will create the world we dream of. We also celebrate in the beauty of what exists now including our love for each other, the strength of our planet, incredible human resiliency, and all of the power we have to continue existing. While dreaming and struggling for a better world we embody a deep commitment to living in the present."Find out details about tonight's card-making party on Facebook or on the Black and Pink website. Here's a great video on resisting gender violence without cops or prisons, featuring author Victoria Law.
With Valentine's Day less than a week away, this time of year can make anyone feel the lonely blues. But life's especially lonely for those who are in prisons, separated from their communities and families, often experiencing and recovering from violence, while taking in messages that oppressive violence is the kind of treatment they deserve.
Last Thursday's Generation FIVE fundraiser
Tonight at InsideStorytime
, I'm reading a piece set in Trinidad. It's a piece that feels deeply personal, in a strange way. I guess I can wait until after I've read it to elaborate on that. But it makes sense that the idea of writing as an act of discovery
applies to reading and sharing work, too. Each reading brings surprises. Sometimes, discoveries come through self-reflection on my work and its relationship with the audience. And always, I find something new by sharing the experience of that work with the audience.At last Thursday's Generation FIVE fundraiser,
for example, I gained more insight on how my poetry fits into the framework of Transformative Justice
. It really felt right to be part of an event that included the brilliant voices of Vanessa Huang and Janee Smith, as well as a moment to join a stand for human rights by making phone calls to support the Pelican Bay Prisoner Hunger Strike
. I'm still in the process of taking in everything that evening offered. For tonight's reading, I'm already making new discoveries, as I think about this piece and what it means to me. I'm also looking forward to readings by Michael David Lukas
, Angie Chau
, Heather Fowler
and Andrew Dugas
. With Ransom Stephens
as the MC. Come by if you're in the Bay Area tonight. Our art engages us in conversation, and the more people join, the more we can all discover.
800 Post Street
San Francisco, California
Today in Oakland, we have a chance to speak out against dangerous profiling and support programs that create real safety and change in our communities. Oakland's City Council is considering an end to the city's gang injunctions. Many people and organizations, including CUAV
and the ACLU
, have offered statements detailing the negative impacts of gang injunctions on communities of color, youth, LGBT people and other folks most in need of our efforts to build safer communities. Learn more about the arguments on both sides here
. Here's what you can do if you're in the Bay Area: Come out to City Hall to show your support for an end to the gang injunctions, and to lend your voice if you can.
If you can't make it out, you can call or e-mail
to voice your support.
Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it out there, because I'll be with The Beat Within
tonight, writing with the young people of San Francisco's Youth Guidance Center, the juvenile hall where so many of the city's youth of color end up as a result of San Francisco's gang injunctions. These youth write regularly about the experience of being profiled, of how hopeless it seems to "do right" when police will always treat them as if they've done wrong, simply because of their appearance. Their stories show that these injunctions oppress young people of color, and tear families apart, contributing more to the cycles of violence that plague low-income communities. So, what do you think of the injunctions? Are they working
Today’s Friday Friends follow this week’s continuing theme
of the transformative power of art
. Roaddawgz drop-in center
is even more than a place for San Francisco’s homeless youth to come for shelter and rest. At Roaddawgz, young people can find alternatives to the risks of living on the streets, such as incarceration
, drug addiction and death.
The best part is that they find that these alternatives are possible through their own power. Roaddawgz help youth develop job and life skills through literary and artistic activities, including recording music, creating art and writing. The youth are compensated for their work, which is published online and in zines. The program also provides mental health support, education enhancement,
and employment and technological training.
And the truth is that the Roaddawgz participants aren’t the only ones who benefit. For those of us who aren’t homeless youth, the project offers a glimpse of the triumphs and struggles of the people who are, so that we may transform our world in ways that support those who are most in need.
Visit the Roaddawgz website
for more information.
Naturally, after my fantastically action-packed weekend
, my body has fallen ill and is demanding rest. After all of the self-care and healing, I decided it was best to answer to it. So I'm sorry blog posts have been spare this week. I'll be fully back in action next week!
Today, this is what I'm thinking about as I recover: In my neighborhood, there are signs posted, letting me and my neighbors know that there will soon be a "special school" open around the corner. What makes this school so special, that it calls for neighborhood signs and meetings? Its goal will be to educate youth from the criminal justice system. And while my first thought is of the positive impact this will have on youth, the signs go on to let me know how I can voice my concerns.
No specifics about what these concerns should be. Just the implication that I should be worried that criminal youth will be in my neighborhood, doing their criminal youth things... like, you know, learning. Hmm.I have an idea. How about instead of criminalizing,
stigmatizing and isolating underprivileged youth who have made mistakes, we educate ourselves
about how providing these young folks with the opportunities they lack can help reduce their chances of repeating their mistakes, and help heal our broken, violent world in multiple ways
?Here's a great start. The Ella Baker Center
has put together an award-winning
film that shows concrete examples of how to shift from endless cycles of detention and violence to new stories of change and hope. Here's the trailer for Learning from Our Mistakes: Transforming Juvenile Justice in California
. Visit the Ella Baker Center website
to watch to film online, or to order a DVD copy with a viewer and action guide. Let's give all young people a chance at life.
What makes him so sure?
I wondered. The young man was expressing himself in a place where self-expression is the forgotten option. In Juvenile Hall, where the belief that shame and isolation prevents crime shackles youth under restricted movement. He seemed completely aware of the barriers against him -- not just the physical barriers of bolted doors and authoritative figures, but also the larger concepts of how young people of color like himself often hardly stand a chance in
a world that offers more opportunities for prison than progress. I've been returning to the Hall with The Beat Within for weekly
writing workshops with incarcerated youth, and it's been enlightening. This was one experience from last night's workshops.The young man had just finished writing his piece, which concluded with the declaration that, in spite of the obstacles in his way, he is "a young black revolutionist."
As the others finished their writing, he drew the attention of me and my co-facilitator to share some of his thoughts. What makes a young man still so bold, that he can call himself a young black revolutionist from within a jail cell? How is it possible that, while trapped inside of an institution that tries to break everyone who walks through its doors, he still had so much spirit in his eyes, so much hope in his voice? If he knew one thing for certain, it was this: knowledge is key. His body may have been claimed by his oppressors, but he knew that his mind is his own. And holding this knowledge, he was sure, would be enough to change the world. He has plans for when he is released, but his impact on social change has already begun. The NAACP has recently released a report that confirms this young man's suspicions about what stands against him. Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate
reveals data that shows the negative impact of overspending on prison systems while cutting funding for education. The good news is that, while releasing such reports and advocating for policy changes can be helpful, we don't have to wait for somebody else to come along and help our communities. We can, as this young man knows, help ourselves. This idea is on my mind especially because Safetyfest begins tomorrow, which means that the weekend will be filled with powerful events in which folks from communities that are continually oppressed will express themselves, gain knowledge and come together in ways that pacify violent systems
through the power of our own minds.The incarcerated body still has the freedom of thought.
And there's no way to disempower the thoughtful mind.
It can feel pretty hopeless sometimes, fighting against such forces as the prison industrial complex
. Facing a system that brings more and more people
every year, particularly young people of color, into the prisons that call for their return as soon as they leave. So yesterday I was glad for the opportunity to tag along with The Beat Within on a trip to San Francisco's Juvenile Justice Center. What is The Beat Within?
It's a an organization that helps incarcerated youth find hope through writing. Every week, facilitators go into youth detention facilities all over the Bay Area, where the group began, and now throughout California, Washington, D.C., Arizona and Miami. In guided writing workshops, the youth get a chance to reflect on their lives and express themselves in healthy ways. Their pieces are then printed in a publication that reaches folks from all over. And suddenly, these young people, who often feel as if nobody in the world listens to or cares about what they have to say, discover that each of them has a voice. It's a powerful process, and I was glad to play a small part in it yesterday. Listening to everyone from the girl who couldn't wait to escape the uniforms and feel feminine again to the boy who would give anything for his parents' forgiveness to the detention center employees who expressed their thanks for this important work gave me a glimpse of what The Beat means, to so many people. I'll stop rambling about it though, and let you watch this video, "The Story of The Beat Within," by Kayla Hilton of San Francisco State University. But you should know that they're seeking volunteers for typing, editing, fundraising and facilitating.
So if these stories inspire you to be a part of The Beat Within, contact Inga Buchbinder at firstname.lastname@example.orgAnd check back here for more from me about these experiences, as well as an interview with founder David Inocencio.