Why Ex-Offenders Are Vital In Mass Incarceration Discussions

Last month I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival and attended a panel discussion on mass incarceration.  The panel included many important voices on the topic, including Central Park Five’s Yusef Salaam, attorney James Forman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Heather Thompson and Soros Justice Fellow Marlon Peterson.

Peterson spoke about his experience with incarceration in New York prisons and the lack of respect and rehabilitation incarcerated men and women receive by correctional officers and the larger criminal justice system.

“In prison, you don’t deserve dignity,” he said.  “They [correctional officers] do things to embarrass you.”

It is always important to include the voices of ex-offenders in this highly contested subject.  Much of the time, the discussion is dominated by lawyers, judges, academics, and correctional officials with very limited input from those who suffer the most from an unequal criminal justice system.

I want to bring your attention to Peterson’s awesome and insightful podcast called Decarcerated, where he gives real talk about the struggles of being an ex-offender in America.

Why Banned Books Matter in 2017

Because Trump is president and our civil liberties are under threat!

The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) promotes awareness of challenges to library materials and celebrates freedom of speech during Banned Books Week, which took place this year September 24 – September 30.  Here are the top ten most challenged books as reported in the media and submitted to ALA by librarians and teachers across the country in 2016.

Top Ten for 2016

Out of 323 challenges recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom

  1. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
    Reasons: challenged because it includes LGBT characters, drug use, and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes
  2. Drama by Raina Telgemeier
    Reasons: challenged because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint
  3. George by Alex Gino
    Reasons: challenged because it includes a transgender child, and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels”
  4. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings by Shelagh McNicholas
    Reasons: challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints
  5. Two Boys Kissing  by David Levithan
    Reasons: challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content
  6. Looking for Alaska  by John Green
    Reasons: challenged for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to “sexual experimentation”
  7. Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
    Reason: challenged because it was considered sexually explicit
  8. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk
    Reasons: challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive”
  9. Little Bill (series) written by Bill Cosby by Varnette P. Honeywood
    Reason: challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author
  10. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
    Reason: challenged for offensive language

A People Speak in 2017

I just started re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for a book discussion series happening at my local library soon.  This is one of those types of books everyone has in their personal library but never gets around to reading because it is so long – nearly 800 pages!  This book discussion series is meant to get people to not only read but really think about how the book relates to issues going on in America today.  According to Zinn, American history is to a large extent the exploitation of the majority by an elite minority.

Zinn has left a great literary masterpiece behind for the rest of us to enjoy!

Bodegas, Gentrification, and Social Experiences

The recent controversy around “Bodega” is just the latest example of what is wrong with our society today.  Two Google Bros came up with the idea of “disrupting” the convenience store industry by strategically placing gentrified vending machines in apartment lobbies, gyms and other places when humans can have limited face-to-face interaction.  All you need is an app to unlock the machine and an inside camera will automatically snap a picture of what you are taking and charge your credit card. There are currently 50 Bodegas in the West Coast and the Bros hope to expand it to New York City in the near future.

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” Bodega founder Paul McDonald says. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

It’s funny because I didn’t know there was a pressing need to get rid of real bodegas and make convenience stores more convenient.  But when you read more into this story, it seems like this service has a more sinister backstory that would actually hurt, not help society.

Mind you; I don’t have anything against technology and innovation. As a matter of fact, I make a living off of it as a web designer, content strategist, and multimedia journalist. I also use Amazon Prime and Uber regularly. However, I do appreciate traditional social experiences, and I think we are losing them little by little every day.

I like going to my nearby convenience store or supermarket not just because it has my favorite type of candy, popcorn, and other necessities, but I like chatting it up with the owner about the weather or other local gossips. Like bodegas, supermarkets, malls, restaurants, and other gathering spaces, social experiences are an important part of community building. I work from home most days so I feel like it is important for me to get out the house at least once a day to interact face to face with others in stores and other places.  I also do a lot of volunteer work in my community because it is a great way to connect with my neighbors on shared interests.  You can not do that with a gentrified vending machine!

Unfortunately, I think this Bodega service will take off because it is catering the two specific groups who for better or worse are changing our society.

  1. Upper-middle class white people moving into gentrified areas who don’t want to interact with the lower income people of color who already live in the areas.
  2. Socially inept millennials who don’t know how to communicate with other human beings without a smartphone.

Both of these groups are moving into many urban areas around the country, including my neighborhood in Boston.  I live in a mixed-income, racially diverse community, where you can see some of this tension between races, class, and age.

I remember going to a community meeting a few years ago and the audience was broken up into smaller groups to discuss the future of our neighborhood.  This 20-something white woman who just moved to Boston began to speak to my group that just so happen to be comprised of women only and I was the only person of color about the “troubles” she has had with obtaining basic necessities in the neighborhood like feminine products.  She went on to say that she once had her menstrual period start early unexpectedly while she was at home and realized she had run out of tampons.

“I had to get into my car and drive all the way to Target to buy tampons, which is 20 minutes away,” she said in a Valley Girl Becky tone.  “Isn’t that crazy.”

Yeah, I would say so myself.  This woman lived one block away from a Dominican-owned convenience store that I know for sure sells feminine products.  She could have walked there, purchased her tampons, and got back home within five minutes!  When I told her this, she said, “Oh, I didn’t know what they sold there and I’ve never been in there,” Valley Girl Becky replied. “I thought they only sold, like, ethnic things.”

“Tampons aren’t ethnic and it says convenience store on top of the front door, so I am sure you can go in there the next time you are in need,” I said.

Another white person in the group, noticing the tension from this exchange, quickly changed the subject.   While they continued their conversation, I was thinking to myself, even if she didn’t want to go into that particular convenience store, Valley Girl Becky could have gone into the local Family Dollar or the small supermarket a few blocks away, or even any CVS or Walgreens between her house and Target to get her tampons.  But, no, I guess there are too many ethnics in those establishments for her.  Luckily for her (if she still lives in the neighborhood) a Target is actually coming to the neighborhood next year.  Hopefully, it won’t employ any ethnics there so she can shop for her tampons in peace because she will have to continue driving across town to avoid those people.

Just last week I was in New York for UN Week, and I happen to be up in Harlem for African-American Day parade.  Harlem has seen a lot of changes because of gentrification in recent years, including the opening of the new Whole Foods on 125th Street.  I thought it was really cool to watch the parade on 7th Avenue, the food vendors selling West Indian and African foods and the celebration of the community’s rich, black culture.  As I walked towards the Whole Foods, I saw tons of white folks walking fast, as if they didn’t want any part of the parade.  I also saw white patrons in the outdoor seating for many of the new restaurants on Lenox Avenue who looked completely oblivious to what was happening and just kept looking at their phones. That was kind of sad actually that none of these new white residents had any interest in learning more about the community they live in.

I guess the new Bodegas will be coming to Harlem and my neighborhood next!