Immigration jails and the pretense of social justice

It’s great to learn that some Haitian earthquake survivors have now been released from jail, but why were they there in the first place, and why did it take so long to release them?

This leads to some larger questions: If there had been a similar disaster in Toronto, can you imagine that the Marines would have rounded up White survivors and stuck them in a jail in New York for two months? Why did it take so long to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to people from Haiti, following a series of hurricanes and the latest earthquake? Why is that even now TPS is stringently restricted to those in very recent continuous residence (CR) and continuous physical presence (CPP)?

More than three dozen Haitian earthquake survivors were released from Florida immigration jails on Thursday after more than two months in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

via Quake Survivors Freed From Immigration Jails –

International Violence Against Women Act

The International Violence Against Women Act was re-introduced in Congress on February 4. It’s one step in the effort to end violence against women and girls across the globe, supported by organizations such as Amnesty International USA,  Women Thrive Worldwide, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, and the International Rescue Committee.

This violence is a global human rights, health, and economic problem. It’s a barrier to addressing poverty, HIV/AIDS, and conflict. One out of every three women worldwide has been physically or sexually abused during her lifetime, with rates much higher in some countries. The abuse ranges from rape to domestic violence and acid burnings to dowry deaths and “honor” killings.

A small, but useful action is to urge Members of Congress to co-sponsor the Act.

The New Jim Crow

Writing in Mother Jones, Michelle Alexander  has an excellent article on The New Jim Crow. It’s about how the War on Drugs has led to a permanent American undercaste. Similar ideas came up in my class yesterday as we discussed equity and excellence in education. As with many other topics we saw how making progress within education cannot be separated from addressing the same problems beyond the walls of academia.

Here’s an excerpt from her article:

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

She offers some important information that should make us all question how America deals with race today, starting with:

There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

The article addresses the obvious questions that some readers may have, such as “well, shouldn’t we be locking up criminals?” or “aren’t we at least improving in the ways we deal with racism and poverty?”

It’s worth noting that Alexander’s just saying that the absolute number of African Americans under correctional control today is greater than the number enslaved in 1850. In a sense that makes it less horrific. One might also qualify the claim by pointing out that being on parole is very different from being a slave.

Nevertheless, some aspects of the modern system are even worse and less justifiable. Many people would be surprised to learn that the absolute scale of the institution is now greater. Unlike slavery, it’s now pervasive in every state, and stands out as inconsistent with other contemporary practices. And the current prison system doesn’t even produce goods; it simply drains scarce resources to destroy lives.

Civil rights for the LGBT community, and for all

In his ‘Letter from the Birmingham jail‘, Martin Luther King placed the struggle against injustice in Birmingham in a larger context:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

While those lines are often quoted, they’re more often ignored. For many people, injustice means what happens to them directly, not what happens to others.

Countering that passivity, and calling on progressives allies to stand up, is a video made by one of my students, Phil Reese. It’s an excellent message about civil rights for all, including the LGBT community. In addition to conveying an important message, it’s done in a creative way, reminding us of the many silenced voices around us.

Progressives can’t sit by while Civil Rights are taken away from Americans–help us and become a true ally in the fight for Equality! -HEY #p2 We’re talking to you! AFTER THE VID VISIT for more!

Moving the world: A celebration of writing and community

Parc de la Tête d'Or, Lyon, Sergio Canobbio

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to attend a significant literary event, called Moving the World: A Celebration of Writing and Community.

Over a three-hour period, I heard essays, letters, poems, and collaborative writing, but also saw drawings and paintings. I got to meet with the artists and to ask them questions about their work. The intellectual and artistic quality as well as the variety of the works were outstanding. The program was beautifully organized by Patrick Berry and Cory Holding.

An event such as this one is not uncommon; what made this one special was that it was held in the chapel of the Danville Correctional Center, and the artists were all inmates. They showed off the work they’ve done through courses offered by the Education Justice Project (EJP), led by Rebecca Ginsburg. EJP is a response to the abundant evidence showing that

College-in-prison programs reduce arrest, conviction, and reincarceration rates among released prisoners. Evidence has also linked the presence of college-in-prison programs to fewer disciplinary incidents within prison, finding that such programs produce safer environments for prisoners and staff alike. College-prison programs also have benefits for inmates’ families and, hence, their communities.

Captured Potential, Larry Brent

The EJP is an outstanding effort to help young men who want to become better family and community members. If you had experienced Moving the World, you’d at least have seen inmate-students focusing their energies on reading and writing, on reflecting about their lives, families, and communities, and perhaps most significantly, engaged in how they can make positive contributions to the world both inside and outside the prison.

As I said, the quality of the writing and the oral performances was superb. I was impressed with nearly all of the works. One, entitled “Progressive tears: A prisoner’s retrospective cry for Dewey’s help,” asked the philosopher John Dewey whether his progressive vision was still relevant today. Do we as a people still believe in equality and justice? Do we still see education as a means for building a better society? One may wonder, since the use of Pell Grants for prisoners was eliminated in 1994, and most prison college programs have closed.

Another essay asserts “We all want the same things.” It shows that both prisoners and ordinary people on the outside want prisoners to turn from crime to productive citizenship. Other works included letters to family members, poems, reflections on life. The painting, “Captured potential,” and its accompanying text, express well both the tragedy of prison and the possibilities. I doubt whether anyone made it through the event with dry eyes.

You can see some of the writing itself in the National Gallery of Writing.

An event like Moving the World makes the drudgery and nonsense of many other parts of life much more bearable. I not only enjoyed it in the sense of savoring, rather than counting, the moments, I was also impressed by the obvious thoughtfulness, organization, and high standards that went into it. I now understand why one instructor said that her participation has raised the standards back at the university.


Rethinking schools

Rethinking Schools began in 1986 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as an effort to address problems such as “basal readers, standardized testing, and textbook-dominated curriculum.”

It’s since become an international publisher of educational materials, with a magazine and books on classroom practice and educational theory, social justice, anti-racism, vouchers and marketplace-oriented reforms, funding equity, and school-to-work. The publications are written by and for teachers, but speaks to students, parents, administrators, researchers, and community members as well.

I like their vision of the common school:

Schools are about more than producing efficient workers or future winners of the Nobel Prize for science. They are the place in this society where children from a variety of backgrounds come together and, at least in theory, learn to talk, play, and work together.

Schools are integral not only to preparing all children to be full participants in society, but also to be full participants in this country’s ever-tenuous experiment in democracy. That this vision has yet to be fully realized does not mean it should be abandoned.

I highly recommend their publications, including the classic, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which was my introduction. I’ve used several of the books or magazine issues in my own teaching and can say that I’ve learned important things from every one of them.

John Dewey and Daisaku Ikeda

ikeda-headshotI attended the 6th Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue yesterday at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge. The topic was John Dewey, Daisaku Ikeda, and the Quest for a New Humanism. The occasion was the 150th Anniversary of John Dewey’s birth.

Although Ikeda’s Nichiren Buddhism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism, may at first seem far removed from Dewey’s American pragmatism, the speakers found many areas of consonance between the work of the two. I was pleased to see that Jane Addams was brought into the conversation, too.

Ikeda CenterNichiren was a 13th century Buddhist reformer, who based his teachings on the Lotus Sutra and its  message of the dignity of all life. Like Dewey’s pragmatism, Nichiren Buddhism is grounded in the realities of daily life. It promotes “human revolution,” in which individuals take responsibility for their lives and help to build a world in which diverse peoples can live in peace.

Ikeda is the founder of the Soka Gakkai International, a movement characterized by its emphasis on value creation (soka). This implies that each individual needs the opportunity to find value in their unique path while contributing value to humanity. Soka schools have much in common with the kinds of schools Dewey envisaged (but rarely saw enacted).

At the Ikeda Forum discussions focused on connections and divergences between Dewey’s naturalistic humanism and Ikeda’s Buddhist humanism. Presentations examined how their work can be used as resources for individual and social change.

White privilege

Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack” (1990) provides a very accessible discussion of race/racism, in particular, how whites have trouble even seeing it. She identifies 50 daily effects of white privilege, “conditions that…attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location” per se.

McIntosh predicts that if you’re White you’ll answer “yes'” to most of these, and if you’re Black, you’ll say “no” to many of them. Try it yourself. For example,

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

John Berry (2004) adapts these for the library profession. I like both of these articles, and can imagine ways to use such lists to spark a discussion.

I would have to answer yes to most of the statements myself. Then I imagined it for my time in Ireland (thinking more about nationality, than about race per se). Still mostly yes, but some no’s and some harder to answer. When I thought about my stay in Turkey, there were fewer yes’s. For Haiti, fewer still.

But what was most interesting to me is that even for Haiti, I could still say yes to most of the statements, even though I’m the outsider there in terms of race, nationality, language, culture, and above all, economic class. The fact that I can take myself mentally to Haiti, and still possess White Privilege shows even more to me why it’s such a powerful social construct. It also reveals why it’s so hard to understand and accept that one possesses that unfair privilege.

In a Harvard Law Review article, Cheryl Harris (1993), takes this concept further, arguing that racial identity and property are deeply intertwined. She examines “how whiteness, initially constructed as a form of racial identity, evolved into a form of property, historically and presently acknowledged and protected in American law.”


The Soloist (2009)

The Soloist (2009) is an excellent film based on the true-life book, The Soloist by Steve Lopez. Lopez is a Los Angeles Times columnist who discovers Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard School dropout, who becomes schizophrenic and homeless, living on the streets of LA.

Ayers is a classically-trained cellist, who now has only a two string violin to play and instead of a concert stage, an urban tunnel or street corner. Lopez wonders how Ayers can stand to play in those conditions, but Ayers tells him that “the only thing that I hear is the music and the applause of the doves and the pigeons.” Ayers is hooked and decides to write a series of feature articles in the Times.

Robert Downey Jr. portrays  Lopez in the movie, and Jamie Foxx portrays Ayers. The two main characters give terrific performances, as do the actual homeless extras from the Lamp Community.

Ayers’s story makes us wonder about the many other homeless people in LA and elsewhere. As Lamp says,

Close to 74,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles–more than in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco combined. Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a 52-block area east of the downtown business district, has the highest concentration of homelessness in the United States. More than half of the homeless men and women in this area are chronically homeless, meaning they struggle with a mental or physical disability and have been living on the street for years.

That relatively greater challenge in LA doesn’t of course diminish the shameful job we do across the US in dealing with homelessness. The book, Ayers’s music, and the movie all reinforce Jane Addams’s view that art and cultural activities can reduce our isolation form one another, and reinforce essential human: “Social Life and art have always seemed to go best at Hull-House.”

The DVD includes features with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers, and also, Beth’s Story, an animated short telling another story of homelessness:


Addams, Jane (1930). The second twenty years at Hull-House: September 1909 to September 1929. New York, Macmillan.

Governor’s Home Town Award for UC Books To Prisoners!

UC Books To Prisoners – a project of the UCIMC (B2P) is based in Urbana, Illinois. B2P mails books to Illinois inmates at no cost to them and operates lending libraries in the two local county jails.

guv_mansionB2P has just been awarded a Governor’s Home Town Award (for volunteerism).  The award makes B2P eligible for the Governor’s Cup, a traveling silver trophy signifying the project deemed most representative of the spirit of Illinois volunteerism. The award will be presented at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield on October 29. At that time, we’ll learn what level of award B2P has received.

Books to Prisoners has also received a Social Justice grant from the Illinois Disciples Foundation, with a press conference on October 1, and an honorable mention from the McKinley Foundation Social Justice Awards.