Is Orange the New Black?

I had the privilege of moderating a panel featuring 5 survivors of the prison system who collectively served more than 40 years. We broached issues like coerced sterilization, healthcare, family, and the rights and experiences of transgender prisoners. The prison reform and abolition movements are perhaps the most palpable and revolutionary of any movement I’ve been introduced to. Please, donate to or volunteer for Justice Now or the California Coalition for Women Prisoners to help sustain their work.

Blog post on my experience forthcoming.

Photo credit: Scott Braley Photography

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Panelists: Miss Major, Misty Rojo, Theresa Martinez, Piper Kerman, Mianta McKnight

I also wrote this piece last fall about the Netflix Series, Orange is The New Black.

Constant transition & dissatisfaction: The meaning behind my new body art

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Tattoos are sacred. I waited six years to get this one for two reasons:

1. Energy shifting is real. My tattoo artist is my nephew’s father, Kirk who owns and operates Effum Bodyworks and Effum Elite in Baton Rouge. I know and love and trust him. I’m lucky to have an artist in the family. I wanted to wait until I was in Baton Rouge and had the time to discuss the work with Kirk, process the art, and invest in the time to get it inked.

2. It is important to me that I know exactly the reasons I feel inspired to get new art. I don’t need to know what the final piece will look like — that’s up to the artist and part of the process but I need to be confident that I am ready to make the commitment – that every part of the art is meaningful to me.

What it means:

For the last ten years I’ve identified two themes by which I’ve existed: constant transition and chronic dissatisfaction. Whether the later informs the former, I am unclear but I assume they’re connected.  Being chronically dissatisfied is a privileged state of being by where I’m always in search for deeper fulfillment. It sounds a little crass, and that’s because it is. Others describe this experience as being “adventurous” or “having a free spirit” but for me that kind of language disregards the privilege that comes with being able to make an overabundance of decisions for your own life. In 12 years, I’ve moved 12 times, lived just as many lives, experienced euphoric love and devastating heartbreak and although I’ve reconciled being in constant transition, I’m always surprised by it’s seclusion. The constant search for new stimulation can sometimes become a barrier that prevents me from seeing the importance of my everyday experiences. 

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The centaur 

The centaur is a mythical being which is half beast and half immortal. This blending of a powerful yet earthbound animal with a divine being symbolizes a guiding motivation: the need to infuse a human experience with meaning and vision. 

In the physical body, Sagittarius rules the hips, thighs, and upper legs. The largest muscles of the body reside here, representing the physical and spiritual strength that is needed to support me on my long journeys of mind and body. The hips, especially, keep the body in balance during forward motion.

Everything else:

Ankh earrings: You may have seen me wear these. The Ankh was the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that read “life.”

Waist beads: I wore these for a year after a difficult separation. The earliest powder glass beads were found in present day Zimbabwe dating back to 970 – 1000 CE; but from colonial times to the present day, the main area of powder glass bead manufacture is West Africa-particularly the Yoruba tribes of Africa – a population now settled within Nigeria. Beads are said to possess the power to attract and evoke deep emotional responses. In addition, they are believed to be signs of femininity as well as spiritual well being.

Chrysanthemum petals: The chrysanthemum aka the “mum” is the November birth flower. It represents adaptability and compassion.

The arrow: The glyph that is used to represent a Sagittarius is and arrow; in fact, the name Sagittarius is derived from the Latin word for arrow, sagitta. It is important to note that the arrow is in flight, always reaching upwards, revealing and inner drive to always be on the move, always searching for new adventures to increase ones understanding of the world around you, and always hunting for deeper fulfillment.

Her raised fist: The raised fist is a symbol of solidarity and support. It is used as a salute to express unity, strength, defiance, or resistance in the face of violence. 

The quote: It isn’t happenstance that the quote is in her hair. For many people of African decent, hair is a symbol of strength. This quote comes from Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a book that I’ve found deep solace in. Here is the full quote for context:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” 

I substituted “can” for “will.” In my experience, people will try to protect you from your suffering, perhaps your family and close friends but they will fail. Not for a lack of trying but because we weren’t meant to avoid it but instead to endure it. To overcome it.

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Run this time: On being 29 and the audacity of self-realization

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“But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.”  – Cheryl Strayed

I haven’t had cable in 4 years. I haven’t missed it. With little time to watch T.V., live streaming sites suffice. When watching Netflix occasionally you have to update the software, making sure your shit shows play correctly. Earlier this year I was watching something with someone I was intimately close with. It was time for the software to be updated on their computer but instead of investing in the 2-3 minute update, they pressed the “run this time” button, which allows you to skip over the updating until the next time you want to watch something. To my surprise, and irresistible loathing, each time we watched something they never updated the software, just continued to press “run this time” over and over again.

I had so many feelings about this. Why could they not just update the software? Why not take the 2-3 minutes and be done with it? Why keep putting off the inevitable? With each show we watched, I became increasingly more annoyed. I waited for them to press the button, update the software, stop being a lazy, procrastinator, do the things you’re supposed to do. I judged hard, felt frustrated and horrified that I could be dating someone who continued to make the easy choice. Of course, comparably, my frustration was petty as hell. It was their computer, their decision, their software and really, who gives a fuck? But metaphorically it felt much bigger than that; it felt like an illustration of defining behavior, a pattern, if you will. Doesn’t one easy choice lead to the next? And they didn’t care that I saw, that was of no consequence.

A couple of weeks later, when trying to watch a shit show by myself, I was confronted with the software update on my own computer. It felt like a weird, life-altering moment. I had been so viscerally reactive to the situation when it wasn’t my decision to make, of course I would update the software, I wasn’t lazy. It was the right thing to do, both for my computer and in life because that’s what you do, you make the right decisions, even when no one is looking – especially when no one is looking.  There it was, right there in my face, a marginal chance to be the kind of person I expected others to be, to proverbially make right some wrongs, to embrace the feel good momentum that comes with choosing the “right thing.” It all happened very quickly but I’d scrolled the mouse over the “run this time” button and clicked it. Just like that, I’d made the same decision I judged with such intense strictness. I had a moment of deep regret that evaporated as soon as I remembered that I was alone and no one had seen me and I wasn’t being judged and no one would ever ever find out.

But I judged me. I thought about it the next day; and the next day. Again and again I remembered how I had made the conscious decision to make the same choice I judged so harshly when made by someone else. I was horrified at my hypocrisy. A seemingly harmless update on my electronic device jolted me like a thousand lightening bolts. Who the fuck was I and when had I become so unsympathetic and judgmental? I remembered an article I’d read in the New York Times a month or so earlier. A piece about existentialism and being seen by others not the way you want to be perceived but as you really are. And then I understood that run this time was not simply an example of my audacious hypocrisy, but it was, metaphorically, who I was.

The loathing I felt for the other person was in fact a direct reflection of how I felt about myself.  Subconsciously I knew I was the kind of person to sometimes, many times, make the easy decisions. To not do the thing that’s best for me, the people around me, my community, and sometimes my electronic devices. And apparently, to excuse my own obnoxious behavior, I’d made a habit of projecting. Realizing this cut. A thousand questionable decisions flooded back. The salt in that wound? Unlike the other person, I wasn’t the kind of person who, up until this very moment, would ever admit or let someone know I’d made/make the easy choice. I’d never let anyone see me press “run this time.”

This reflection isn’t some self-deprecating search for redemption by finally admitting what an asshole hypocrite I am. We all have our shit. It is mostly an affirmation written on my birthday that reminds me, and perhaps you, if you care, that “acceptance is a small quiet room.” That we all have to sit with our questionable decisions and that sometimes it’s the small decisions, that usually have little consequence, that are ultimately most defining. 

I haven’t updated my software yet. At this point it’s become, for me, a necessary reminder that I have work to do. Each time I want to watch a shit show, I am also reminded that no matter how much good I do in the world, I an not exempt from doing the self-work required to become my best self; that I need to be brave and audacious enough to realize my own self-actualizing patterns, and to stamp out any negativity I’ve internalized as a by product of being human. Although it may not seem like it, I’m being gentle with myself. When I click “update” it feels important to be ready to update everything, to embrace change, forgive myself, forgive others, and reconcile that sometimes being a selfish, hypocritical, jackass is a conduit to becoming a better me.

 

 

#OITNB: Entertainment or Education

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Originally posted at The Frisky

Everybody has feelings about Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black.” I have all the feelings. Since the show’s debut, we’ve tossed opinions back-and-forth about the cast of characters and the powerfully written narratives that reveal the unseen lives of American’s imprisoned women. But of the many conversations that have surfaced, the most discernible for me is of the legitimacy of Piper Kerman, the memoirist about whom the show was made.

In brief, after getting involved with an international drug dealer, Kerman (a white woman) was indicted for money laundering and spent a year in a woman’s prison – you know, the usual account of a well-to-do white woman who graduated from Smith. She subsequently wrote a best-selling memoir, which was adapted for Netflix. You can watch all of season one there now; I finished it in less than a week.

The show follows her into prison and tells the backstory of several other inmates, many of them women of color. The storyline is emotionally riveting. We’re met with race-related segregation, which mirrors the actual prison experience where racial categories and separation are often strictly enforced. Piper’s race and class privilege are checked in the first episode when it’s revealed that she “read up” on prison etiquette before she arrived. One inmate gives birth in prison and comes back to her bunk child-free, showcasing the reality thattwo-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers and busting the myth that women who labor in prison get to keep their babies. As a birth justice activist, I wished they’d shown the inhumane way in which many prisons shackle women during labor.

Mental health, recidivism, Christian fundamentalism, substance abuse death, and deep-seated prison politics are all surfaced, raising the political stakes of this well-liked Internet series and forcing some viewers, whether consciously or subconsciously, to realize (at least facially) some hard truths about the harrowing American prison system. In a spectacularly surprising twist, “OITNB” features a transgender woman: actress Laverne Cox, whose lived experience as a trans woman is authentic, not an actor playing dress-up as with many exploitative Hollywood spectacles. Trans-related reproductive health issues, family dynamics, and sexual exploits come to light. (Trans activist and blogger, Kortney Ryan Zeigler writes about ”OITNB”‘s black trans narrative wonderfully.)

Like most popular culture that deals with systemic institutions, the show has been hyper-analyzed and criticized. Some have celebrated its ability to couple prison humor with heart-wrenching anecdotes that hit close to home, while others are horrified that Kerman’s book was adapted in the first place. The crux of the criticism is how Piper’s story is one that people of color in the U.S. have experienced for centuries. This isn’t a new narrative, but by centering an affluent white woman, it has suddenly become all the rage. Additionally, Piper’s plight relies on the precarious stories of women who are facing significantly harsher sentences, whose stories are not romanticized and for whom a lucrative book deal and TV series won’t ever be offered.

Last week, racial justice activist and The Nation blogger Aura Bogado, wrote descriptively about her distaste for the show. Her aversion is layered but centers on the show’s approach, which she says bears great resemblance to 19th century slave narratives in which white people authenticate the black experience. In other words, no one gave a fuck until white folks legitimized the story. Bogado wrote:

… I reject that it’s a guilty pleasure. If we’re addicted to “Orange Is the New Black,” then we’re strung out on the drug of spectacle — jonesing for hateful, racist images created by a white imagination for profit and fame. What most bothers me about this is that so many people have told me they hated the advertising posters and the ridiculous Facebook photos, and they always repeat that they wanted to turn “Orange Is the New Black” off during the first couple of episodes but kept watching — going against inclination, and buying into the garbage that keeps our eyes glued to something we know we shouldn’t be enjoying to begin with.

Bogado and I are not in disagreement here. In fact, I was giving her story all kinds of nods and snaps when I read it. However, where we diverge (or maybe not, because her piece only inferred a difference of opinion and did not explicitly state it) is that I don’t believe that as entertainers, Jenji Kohan, Piper Kerman or the producers at Netflix have a moral obligation to educate folks about the historical significance and implications of the black experience. As a black woman whose experiences are rooted in various oppressions and racism, I’m seething that some producers and filmmakers reject the stories of people of color for fear of how they’ll be perceived or low ratings. But if I am thinking critically about it, professionally, they have no obligation to me, to people who look like me, or to our stories. Which would be less problematic if we didn’t live in a country that’s more invested in popular culture — including the exploitation, and avidity of genocidal, colonial legal institutions like slavery and prison — than education.

Because of the vacillating relationship between popular culture and education, we’ve become negligently uninformed. Unfortunately, for many of us, that is a luxury we cannot afford. As a society we put more prominence on Hollywood than on education and are consciously and unconsciously propagating an injudicious conversation among a nation of folks who have no racial analysis. In other words, because we don’t teach people shit in school about race or other social constructs, they leave receive their education via TV —which sometimes informs their behavior. This kind of edification leaves the most vulnerable people to these narratives — LGBT folks, people of color, women, immigrants, etc. —  at the center of an oblivious shitstorm.

This conversation is largely about the privilege of education and the access to it. I know that when I (and based on her writing, maybe Bogado, too) watch shows like “Orange Is The New Black,” I can choose to wear one of two hats: excited, TV-watching enthusiast who will laugh, cry and emote throughout or the social and racial justice activist who will hyper-analyze every cringe-inducing scene that appropriates the culture and experiences of marginalized people. I can watch and write some kind of analysis. Or I write nothing, yet feel completely satisfied that I know the difference between what the media teaches us and what really exists.

It is entirely possible, encouraged even, to both watch a show and be entertained and to think critically about how producers have the luxury of making money without considering the precarious social implications of their work. Pending your radicalism, you may decide altogether to avoid shows and movies whose historical complexity isn’t coupled with an authentic and comprehensible analysis. Or, like me, you may reconcile that some battles can’t be won. Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan have a lot of money to tease out their visions. They don’t have to care either way how their work informs public opinion, but I’d argue that unlike many shows, “OITNB” offers some insight to important social issues, despite the exploitative nature.

In an ideal word, we’d have a public schooling system that provides every citizen with a comprehensive global history lesson so upon watching TV or film, we are all equipped with the skill set to separate fact from fiction or to have a critical eye toward exploitation. We would all be better served with more contexts, more education and an opportunity to have more conversations about race and privilege. But for now, the onus is not on the entertainment industry but on us to start critical conversations about the importance of storytelling and how shows like “OITNB” shape culture largely depending on the privilege and point of view of the viewer.

[The Sentencing Project Fact Sheet: Incarcerated Women]

Read more from the author at ShanelleMatthews.com. Follow her on Twitter.

Feminism Is Not Black And White

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This article was originally posted at The Frisky

The Internet exploded in feminist calamity yesterday over the racist, sexist, patriarchal, abuse-laden behavior of Hugo Schwyzeran allegedly a self-described* mentally ill (former) professor of women’s studies at Pasadena City College. Schwyzer divulged information that is classically tucked away behind the buttressed walls of systemic white privilege. Anecdotally, it’s akin to the ENRON scandal, the ACORN scandal and the unprecedented shit show that was the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Thematically each of these exposed, in an exceptional way, the clandestine systemic privileges that sustain long-term oppression: economic, racial, civic or otherwise.

Schwyzer, a self-identified male feminist made his claim to Internet fame by reworking and packaging up modern male feminism and selling  it to online publications like The Atlantic and Jezebel, for whom he was a paid contributor, and Feministe, which featured an interview with him. Two of these three are notorious for their insensitivity and, on more than one occasion, outright disregard for the importance of intersectional feminism – that is the focal point where feminism and another powerful system meet, say for instance, race. These cyber tropes, which have staked claim as the premier source for all things feminist, prioritize clicks over everything else, as beautifully explained by blogger Flavia Dzodan. In matters of the heart, their feminist ideology dematerializes – often at the expense of women of color and other marginalized women.

The virtual cataclysm peaked when Feministe editor Jill Filipovic, who is white, was dismissive of one of Schwyzer’s victims, a woman of color named Mikki Kendall, and the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomenbegan to sprawl across the Twit-o-sphere. The hashtag, which in my opinion is not super succinct, called out the many reasons it is important for white women to stand in solidarity with women of color. There are light-years worth of socio-politico dialogue that resulted from this hashtag, including poignant arguments about inherent and realized privilege, but two things stood out for me: I was reminded that traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional – the liberation of women of color was an addendum to the narrowly constructed philosophy. And, that when there are “systems” involved, nobody is to blame for the continual abuse and oppression of people of color, specifically women of color. Therefore no action is necessary, no lessons are learned and we recycle this precarious vortex of shit over and over again.

Allyship (being an ally), a subjective concept that plays out differently for everyone, culminates with the act of “showing up.” Showing up means very different things in the contexts of various situations but the general idea is that if shit goes down you have my back. The devil’s is the details and in the feminist sphere we’ve long struggled with engaging privileged white feminists to show up for women of color – in policy, academia, leadership and often in the media. The operative word in yesterday’s hashtag was solidarity, which is the meat and potatoes of being an ally. While it isn’t my responsibility, nor the responsibility of women who look like me, to coach white feminists on how to show up for us, I’ll hint that negligently perpetuating the systems that oppress us and then opting to be silent about your complicities is the opposite of solidarity.

What makes this nebulous relationship even murkier is that women of color are inherently responsible for honoring the implicit sodality between women. In January of 2008, long-time feminist activist Gloria Steinemcalled for women of color to vote their gender and support Hillary’s bid for president because, according to her, “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” Melissa Harris-Perry consequently intellectually annihilated heron “Democracy Now,” but her assertion sets a piss poor example for feminists who admire her wisdom and replicate her behavior. Especially because time and again when it’s time for white women to return the love, women of color are left hanging. The insidious misunderstanding around feminist solidarity is perpetuated and sustained because of the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done; this is otherwise known as self-justification bias. And then your justification is further confirmed by using a selective filter to see a reality that matches your interpretations – none of which forces you to own your shit.

Because traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional and its principles have been known to preserve implicit biases, it is the onus of white feminists to shrug the cloak of privilege and “lean into” discomfort. That is, speak the fuck up. Even if your platform doesn’t traditionally address issues of race (except perhaps in the instance that it incentivizes clicks or benefits you monetarily) you can name the issue, acknowledge it happened and make an editorialized statement that validates the dehumanizing experience that women of color are having – like Bitch Magazine did phenomenally here.

Tangentially what feels even more egregious than complicit silence is that ultimately, at the end of all of this, no one is accountable. Schwyzer’s mental illness will be the scapegoat and T.F. Charlton brilliantly discussed the precarious nature of this: “It’s perfectly possible to both acknowledge that someone is experiencing severe mental illness and also name their behavior as abusive if that is what it is. It is in fact imperative that we name abuse and not talk around it,” she said poignantly.

This particular tragedy is deeply tangled and the Internet, in all of it’s awesomeness, can be a spectacularly bad place to have a deep-seated conversation about solidarity – chiefly because it is sometimes difficult to discern emotion.  However, no matter how Tweeters stumbled upon the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag it surfaced a nuanced conversation (trolls aside) that reminded us that we have to be honest about our willingness or unwillingness to lean into discomfort; we have to invest in thinking critically about how our silence is complicit in the oppression of others; and we have to stop self-justifying and looking for people to confirm our biases. We have to speak up. We have to use our voices and our platform to call out reckless privileged behavior. Even if you’re unsure how to address it, say that.  Say “I’m not 100 percent clear how to show up in this particular situation but I want to acknowledge that there is some fucked up shit happening.” That is 139 characters of solidarity.

For other ways to be a good ally and show solidarity I point you the always-on point, Melissa Harris-Perry.

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel

* Hugo Schwyzer emailed and asked us to remove “allegedly” when referring to his having a mental illness, offering to send along hospitalization records. As we don’t feel comfortable unequivocally describing Schwyzer as mentally ill, we’ve opted to use “self-described.”

Read more from the author at ShanelleMatthews.com.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, The Frisky had a cross-posting partnership with the Good Men Project, and some of Hugo Schwyzer’s work from that website was published on The Frisky. At one point during that time, he wrote a piece specifically for us, and was paid a small monetary sum for that piece. All of these pieces were published on The Frisky before I personally learned about Schwyzer’s egregious past actions and current behavior, and before either became widespread public knowledge. — Amelia

Standing up for transgender students

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Shanelle & Ashton at the Capitol

Originally posted on the ACLU of Northern California blog

Many of us get a little nostalgic for high school sometimes: long summers off, overnight trips for sports competitions, pep rallies, and football games. For many, it brings back fond memories of a time with fewer responsibilities and a faster metabolism. But unfortunately, for some students, the memories they make in high school aren’t so warm.

Meet Ashton

Meet Ashton, a 16-year-old who is an aspiring author. Ashton loves video games, fishing, martial arts and playing with his dog. He’s enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, which means he takes some college-level courses and is eligible to get college credit before he even graduates. But unlike other boys, Ashton’s physical education period is spent in a class full of girls, because he is transgender. This means he lives his life identifying with a different gender than the one he was born with.

Transgender students often face challenges at school like bullying and isolation. Most transgender students experience some kind of harassment in school, more even than lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students.

Ashton is a bright, young student. He’s ambitious, good-natured, and involved. Being transgender is only one part of his identity but unfortunately his schools policies are narrow and outdated and make him feel stigmatized. Ashton shouldn’t be excluded from school activities because of discriminatory policies. Every student, no matter their gender identity, deserves to feel safe and welcomed in school.

Continue reading.

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Mourning The Death Of Trayvon Martin & Reevaluating Racial Politics In America

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As I sit in my living room, the familiar sound of rotating blades of a helicopter whoosh above me. I can hear them, hovering. They’re following the Oakland protestors who have taken to the streets outraged by the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. “No justice, no peace,” they shout as they embark on a mile-long march for justice. This custom is a byproduct Oakland’s long legacy of dissent. To outsiders signs that say “Fuck The Police” seem entirely unrelated to the trial, but the relationship between the department of justice and local law enforcement is one that Oaklanders understand very well.

Like Oakland, the rest of the country is in mourning. People everywhere are trying to reconcile how no one is being held accountable for the untimely death of a teenage boy. We’ve taken to the streets, the Internet, to church and community, but one thing that social media has made apparent is that we’re mourning for very different reasons.

For many, we mourn because this case crystallizes how the legal system does not provide equal protection of the laws for everyone. Some mourn because the not guilty verdict means Martin’s parents will not be vindicated in their son’s death. Others mourn because another young boy of color was robbed of his life and it could have just as easily been their son. And of course, some don’t mourn at all — the death of a black boy is insignificant to their life.

Read more at The Frisky.

The sacrifices I was raised on: how empathy brings us closer to a radical politic of family

 

Art by Micah Bazant

Art by Micah Bazant

Originally posted at http://www.reproductivejusticeblog.org

Also cross-posted at Feministing

My biological dad was in prison when I was little. My mom, single at the time, would drive me, my brother, and sister to see him. Because I was little, I don’t have a lot of memories of this time, but I do remember one thing. At the prison, an impassable glass partition separated my dad and me. I couldn’t touch him and he couldn’t touch me. We talked on a black, scratchy phone that connected the two sides of the glass. It was brief and sad. 

During the time my dad was in prison, my mom worked several jobs. She was a single parent to my siblings and me and was forced to work around the clock to support us. Because of this, her time with us was limited. When she was away at work—which was often—Dora and Betty and another woman whose name I can’t remember cared for us. My mom was committed to making sure we had food and clothes and somewhere to live, things got to take for granted. Betty and Dora and the woman whose name I can’t remember were all undocumented immigrant women from Guatemala. They spoke little English and sometimes spent the night at our house. One of my brother’s first words was zapato (Spanish for shoe). It wasn’t until I became aware of the fight for domestic workers’ rights that I realized that these women from Guatemala were taking care of us so they could take care of their families. How maddening to recognize that the cycles of poverty that we face today are the same as those our parents experienced decades ago.

Writing this I started over two and three and four times. It wasn’t until the fifth try that I understood that my mom, my biological dad, and the women from Guatemala shared a common thread—their lives were divided by partitions, literally and figuratively. But the fight for a living wage, to end mass incarceration, and to create comprehensive policies on immigration and a pathway to citizenship, all of these threaten to topple the barriers affecting our most impacted communities: immigrants, poor people, and people of color—often one in the same.

My biological dad, my mom, and the women from Guatemala were kept away from their families by partitions, fences, glass ceilings, and social prejudices. What held these dividers in place was bureaucratic red tape; the kind that builds on outdated notions of what families look like and what they deserve. The kind of red tape that forces immigrant families to wait fifteen years for health care; the kind of red tape that keeps same-sex couples from marriage, second-parent adoption, and spousal benefits; the kind of red tape that limits access to comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, reproductive healthcare, and culturally appropriate resources for families of color; the kind of red tape that allows border patrol officers to shoot and kill families desperate for a better quality of life. This red tape is responsible for the deaths of millions. In the process, we’re becoming desensitized to empathy.

No matter how hard we fight, when we are denied fair and just opportunities to care for our families and ourselves we can’t thrive. Erosive policies don’t just punish rather than protect—they break us. They break families who travel thousands of miles, leaving their homes, everything they’ve ever known, only to be slaughtered at the border; they break the mother who sold her last possession to save her dying child because health care policies failed her; they break the black teenage boy who before he’s old enough to vote is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole; they broke my 25-year-old cousin, Candace, who died one year ago next month, her beautiful life cut drastically short, because of healthcare policies that erase the experiences and needs of poor people. Our families, my biological dad, my mom, and the women from Guatemala ask for basic human rights—healthy food, affordable healthcare, and the opportunity to make a living wage. It can’t be in good conscience that decision makers refuse us the rights, recognition, and resources we need to thrive.

As we approach mother’s day, I’m thinking about my mom and the women from Guatemala and the millions of other mothers who are undermined because of inhumane policies and practices. Our democratic processes are not enough; we must share our stories and create a culture of empathy, and we must make visible the invisible experiences of the poorest among us. By gathering and sharing our stories, we can build a culture that recognizes and respects the wide variety of strong families that build our communities.

The pathway to citizenship is not paved with chocolate. Breakfast in bed doesn’t replace affordable healthcare. Flowers won’t keep the lights on or cure hunger. This year give moms something they really need. Join strong Families in celebrating Mama’s Day Our Way, a campaign set out to reach and highlight the mothers who are often overlooked in the mainstream celebration of Mother’s Day. Send an e-card that reflects what our families really look like. Add a message that calls out policies that punish rather than protect. Take action to support comprehensive immigration reform. Families are the basic building block of our society and the support of a strong family makes it possible for people to thrive. Help us make that a reality for all families.

This post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

Soapbox: Writings from The Frisky

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Embracing the idea of writing for different kinds of online mags/spaces, I’ve started contributing to The Frisky. Check it out:

The Soapbox: Should White Women Be On The Cover Of ‘Black Magazines’?

The always-inquisitive Jada Pinkett-Smith recently posed a question that has many people scratching their heads and some folks outright upset. In short, she’s wondering if black women ask to be represented in mainstream media, on the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair, shouldn’t white women be represented on the covers of traditionally black magazines like EssenceEbony and JET?

The answer? Yes and no.

It’s not enough to have this discussion without a little bit of context. We didn’t come to this dilemma out of nowhere. There is a long, difficult history that informs our current dynamics around race that can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. This country has a long history of exclusion and the many movements for equal rights and access including the women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement (both of which black women fought in) reminds us that every person is not considered deserving and some of us had to, and still have to, fight for representation. Read more

The Soapbox: Lisa Lampanelli’s Racist Schtick Abuses The Art Of Comedy

Insult comedian Lisa Lampanelli has made headlines again – for all the wrong reasons. Last week during the Writers Guild Awards, she shamelessly tweeted a picture of she and HBO “Girls” producer and star, Lena Dunham captioned “Me with my Ni**a @LenaDunham of @HBOGirls – I love this beyotch!!”

The interwebs erupted with rage as yet another privileged white comedian made a “joke” at the expense of the Black experience. The ubiquitous nature of racism means while we see and hear it everywhere, we’re rarely given the opportunity to understand the motivation behind it. Lampanelli’s entire shtick is to exploit the sensitive nature of race and homosexuality and to make money from abusing the art of comedy, not taking responsibility for the social implications of her “work.” Read more

The Soapbox: On Getting A Black “Bachelorette”

Pediatric dentist Dr. Misee Harris of Kentucky is petitioning to become the first ever Black “Bachelorette.” This prospect means a lot is surfacing for me regarding the harmful stereotypes reinforced by women of color on reality television. How would she be received? If she did get an opportunity to be on the show and chose a non-black man, what would the social implications of that be? But more than that, I feel disheartened because I know that this reality reflects how America feels about who deserves to be happy and who doesn’t.

Author and commentator Keli Goff argued on The Huffington Post that “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”‘s collective 25 seasons with no Black people in the coveted role isn’t an act of racism. I disagree. Society tells us that marriage and the supposed happiness that is derived from it aren’t meant for everyone — hence the multi-decade struggle to legalize the right of gay folks to marry. This reality reflects how Americans feel about who deserves to be happy and who doesn’t. Whether these exclusions are purposeful are irrelevant; many of us consciously reject stereotypes yet still hold subconscious negative associations about people who are different than we are, TV execs included. It’s an implicit bias (subconscious prejudice) that informs their decisions about who they choose to be on the show. These  executives genuinely fear what putting a Black man or woman front and center might do to their ratings – and as voyeurs, we’re often not privy to those kinds of conversations. Read More