For those of us lucky enough to have enough food to eat daily, money to pay our bills, and credit to do frivolous things, like see movies, buy clothes, electronics, go on vacations, buy houses . . . poverty is easy to ignore.
We see it daily. The guy standing under the bridge. The kid with a sign on the street corner. Tent cities on skid row, small villages under bridges, crumbling housing projects. Maybe we lock our car doors and look away. Maybe we give a couple dollars. Maybe we feel a wash of something we don’t want to feel. But then we move on. We go about our day. We do not internalize it. We do not sit with it, or hold it in our lived experience. At least I have not.
Empathy is something we have to cultivate. Compassion is something that takes nurturing and a little work, and I’m beginning to believe it can’t exist without getting proximate.
Over the weeks that have become months, filming a documentary about mass incarceration across America, we have been proximate. In the projects of the South Bronx. In a little community outside Atlantic City called Pleasantville. In a Suffolk County courtroom in Boston. In Watts and Oakland and Alabama and beyond. We have stepped into the lives of folks living in marginalized spaces and grappled with some uncomfortable truths about the cycles of poverty, violence, trauma and incarceration perpetuated by our social systems.
The cycle almost always looks something like this:
You are born.
One of your parents, probably your dad, is incarcerated, or simply absent.
Your mom struggles to put food on the table.
Maybe she gives you up to your grandmother.
You are hungry and you have no supervision so you begin to get in trouble.
You don’t do that well in school. Maybe you are even told you are dumb.
You have no role models and begin to believe you have no future.
You go to school less and start getting into trouble.
Small trouble quickly turns into big trouble as cases stack up.
Maybe you get a toy gun and steal some shoes from a local shop because you have no shoes.
You’re on probation at 15 with an armed robbery charge.
You break your curfew one night and get slapped with a $25,000 bail.
You spend six months to a year to maybe even four years in juvi. The juvi is far enough away that your family can't visit.
You are socialized to the prison system.
You get out and your 19 or 20, but now you have a felony.
The only job you can get is menial and it probably only pays minimum wage, not a livable wage.
You have a kid on the way because that’s one thing you can control. You tell yourself you will give her the life you didn’t have.
Then you get picked up again, maybe for something small. But because of your record, you are incarcerated again, now your kid grows up the same way you did.
And the cycle repeats.
The cycle perpetuates fear. Feelings of powerless, anger, frustration, apathy, and it is so all pervasive that both sides, those affected and those working in justice fields, often believe that it is an inevitability, something innate to the people of these communities.
But until you get proximate, you cannot understand, and even then, that understanding takes work.
In these place we have touched, maybe for the first time, the meaning of violence in our society.
Violence, the act, is simply the outcome of the more insidious violence that is the apathy, indifference, poverty, and racism that continues to lock up and lock out entire communities from active engagement in society as a whole.
Too often I’ve heard people say, my life was hard, and look how far I got. If I can do it, you should do it to. Or point to success stories and judge everyone by that standard.
There are places in our society where almost every single odd is stacked against an average individual, places where hard work and perseverance actually don't get you ahead. It’s time we stop holding on to the myth of the lone cowboy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and concurs the west and realize, that dream has failed.
Now imagine this:
We take government stimulus money and actively invest in these communities.
We start mentor programs for kids growing up in poverty, or single parent homes.
These programs are run by people living in the community.
Mentor programs build off of the successes of programs that already exist, that already change lives, like YAP, and ROCA. Those programs have funding that allows them to operate in individuals lives for longer than three months.
We give kids opportunities, we make them believe in themselves, mentors help them do their homework, give them somewhere to go to study, make sure they are safe, make sure they are fed.
We step in where their lives are lacking. We love them. We tell them they are valuable.
Answers to the problems we face are not complicated. They are common sense. What does a kid need to grow up a well adjusted, vital member of the community – love, support, kindness, stability. These are things we know intuitively. And helping these kids not only helps them, but the entire community.
Change can happen. It won’t happen quickly, but it will happen if we take holistic approaches to the problems we face. To talk about de-incarceration without talking about poverty, without looking at the lack of opportunity for those we will release and send back to these impoverished communities, is a kind of willful ignorance that we can no longer afford if we want to talk about our society as one that is kind.
The violence can stop here, but to do that, we must address our own internal bias, and from that place come to explore policy that is truly equitable, and embodies the best in us, the best of us. Policies that reflect who we say we are.