Category Archives: Social Justice

I Am, Because We Are

Today, with fear and sadness I am exhaustedly witnessing the volcano of pain and oppression that has existed in our country since its inception. The devastating impact of the pandemic combined with the once again senseless police killing of a black man, on our streets, in broad daylight, not blinking an eye to the cameras that were filming them—combine for a perfect eruption that some people are having a hard time grasping. I grew up being taught the story of our country’s creation with pleasant photos of “Indians” and “Pilgrims” happily sharing a meal they prepared together. Nothing about the evolution of our country could be further from that lie. We tortured, killed and stole from Indigenous People to take ownership of their land. We OWNED human beings as if they were livestock. Sold, tortured, raped and killed, to gain control and power.

I say WE on purpose. I cannot hide from being white. Today’s generations of people of color were not alive when original slavery existed, but every day they carry the systemic, generational trauma and experience our new version of slavery wields. No, just because we do not hold public slave sales and proudly stake claim to the ownership of another human being, doesn’t mean that the intentions of slavery have disappeared. So if I am an ally in the change that is possible, I have to own what my people did. If I can’t do that, I can’t make change. I can’t begin to be an ally. We not only have to own what we did then, but we also have to acknowledge what we are doing today to ensure that people are oppressed and under-resourced.

This awareness isn’t new to me, but it has come closer to my heart and life in the work that I do with children caught in the criminal justice system and personally as I raised my biological child of color. I raised him to always feel confident in challenging any authority including me; choosing wisely his time, place and manner of disagreement and question. I want him to know he has a voice and his voice matters. If he disagreed with a grade, ask. If he disagreed with playing time in basketball, talk to your coach. If he didn’t understand my decision for denying a request, let’s talk. When he started driving I worried about him being pulled over for being black. Would he know what to do and how to do it without getting arrested or shot?

As he began to move his life journey further away from home, the worry compounded. Going to college in Indiana; would he know how to confront racism when it entered his space? A college weekend in Nashville kept me up at night praying he would understand the different environment for a black man in Tennessee than in Los Angeles. When he came home and was out later being a responsible young adult, I literally feared him driving home from a friend’s house at 2am because I didn’t want him to get pulled over on the freeway…because I didn’t want him to be killed by police.

I am an ally in the change that needs to happen in our country. Because I read books and watch films that make me uncomfortable, but help me understand what I don’t know. I’m not afraid to say, ‘Help me understand’. And most importantly, I listen… without defense, explanation or judgment, to people who have had a drastically different American experience than me. I can say ‘Black Lives Matter’. Period. End of sentence. I wouldn’t call our military personnel heroes, with a qualifier saying, “and so are police officers, firefighters, EMTs, ER doctors and nurses, coast guard, rescue workers and my mom.” If you have three children and one of them comes to you in tears saying ‘Mom, am I important?’ Is your answer, ‘Yes, and so are your brother and your sister and your dog.’ No, you acknowledge the need of your child asking to be seen and valued. You don’t need to know why they are seeking that acknowledgement before you can give it, you just give it because it is what they need. Don’t get me wrong, being able to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t make me special or insinuate that all is right now. Far from it. But if you can’t do that one simple thing, you are part of the problem.

I have nowhere near the expertise or experience to lead this change. There are people who have the platform and those in communities across the country doing that. The leadership comes from those most impacted. As allies, we need to step aside, read, watch, learn, LISTEN. We need to get proximate to people whose journey we don’t understand and see each other as valuable human beings. We need to stop saying ‘I can’t hear you when you’re yelling.’ Well, we haven’t been listening for centuries when people have been crying, begging, talking to try to change things. We have to stop saying ‘slavery is over, move on’; ‘It’s not my problem’; ‘they and those people’; ‘Irish people were lynched too’; ‘my ancestors had a hard time when they came here and they worked hard to change their lives’; ‘Michael Jordan made it out of the hood, why can’t the rest of them’; ‘athletes need to shut up and play’.

and…Black Lives Matter.


Souls on a human journey

What can I control in this situation, and what can’t I control? Am I going to spin my wheels trying to change something I cannot control; the past, someone else’s behavior or  the weather? Or am I going to focus my energy on what I can do something about; my reaction, my behavior, my decision to be content?

I have had this conversation with 11 year olds in juvenile hall; bouncing off the walls and getting into fights because they are frustrated and scared being in jail. With young men and women returning home after decades in prison, urgently seeking to get back to their life, right their wrongs and put into motion every aspiration and dream they worked hard to prepare for while incarcerated. And with my 19 year old son as he navigates the transitions of his life. Oh, and I’ve had this conversation with myself, many a time.

Some of the most challenging of times come when I am working with my “other” kids; the 250+ that I have walked with through juvenile and adult court, through lengthy prison sentences and through the myriad of unforeseen challenges they encounter upon returning home, seeking a fresh start and a chance to create the life they’ve always been worthy of. I have always said in my work that I don’t “change” anything for anyone. I don’t “save” anyone. I don’t “fix” anyone. I simply walk with people in some of the most dire of circumstances, helpless to change anything about what happened in the past, but reminding them that they are inherently good, and capable and worthy of a better future while healing their past. And I will have that conversation over and over and over again.

I remember a young man, 19 years old, walked into my office one day, shoulders drooped, eyes choosing to look at the floor instead of at me. His sense of shame was visible in his body language and in his voice. After I hugged him, grateful to be seeing his face after months of being off my radar, he seemed to garner the courage to look me in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry, Mama Cheryl.”

“For what,” I asked.

“For letting you down. I been gettin’ high and I lost my housing and quit going to school.”

He expected me to echo the sentiments he had already heard throughout his life; that he messed up, failed, that I was giving up on him. Instead I let him know that our job as mentors/parents is to create parameters in which they can make decisions, and mistakes with an appropriate risk of harm, sacrifice and loss. Within those parameters, we expect mistakes. It’s all part of learning and growing. The relief on his face and the change in his body language was heartwarming. To know that someone cares enough to walk with you during difficult times, and trust you to find your way through them is critical to each of us. “What now” is more productive and healing than “How dare you”. If we all can’t fall and fail and get back up again to give life another try, we miss the purpose of living. This journey of life is all about cycles of growth.

And then sometimes I run out of wisdom, support, guidance or tools. Sometimes I am not meant to be part of another’s journey to healing. I have to let go and trust that they will find their way; hoping that they do. It is painful, but if someone I love doesn’t see their own inherent value yet or continues to self-sabotage their own life, there is nothing for me to do except send them love from a distance. Let go and pray that they continue to see people come into their life to remind them that they are loved and valued.  But I can’t put more effort into someone’s healing and success than they do. It would be egotistical for me to think that I have the power to change them. I have no power over anyone else, none of us do. I only have love and compassion.

We are all souls on a human journey. We cross paths with one another along the way, to support and be supported. To learn and to teach. To love and be loved. It’s a beautiful journey.

Don’t Throw Away That Background Check. . .

I have spent 18 years in criminal justice reform working with children being tried as adults as well as young men and women struggling to make a successful transition from prison back into the community. And what I know to be true, is that we are all better than our worst mistake…as one of my mentors Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries continues to remind me. We have all had second, third and sometimes tenth chances throughout our lives and careers. But not everyone has. I have been working with industries and companies to change the way we see and treat people with a criminal record. Having honest conversations about what it takes to hire a potential employee to whom you offered a job…but changed your mind when you receive the results from a background check.

Chris is a perfect example. He interviewed for a job at an animation studio. His resume was solid: A.A. in Sociology, B.A. in Psychology and 3 years of solid employment history. His art portfolio impressive: graphic novel and writing samples waiting for someone to see the potential of an extremely creative, brilliant man. He was offered the position…contingent upon a background check. Three weeks later he received a phone call about a list of misdemeanor charges and an 18 year old felony conviction that came back in the report. The hiring executive was sure there must be a mistake. There was. The misdemeanor charges were not his. Looking at the dates, he was in prison at the age of 16 for the felony conviction, so they couldn’t be him. Not exactly the “clarification” they were hoping for.

Chris and I met with the HR department and hiring executives and navigating an honest conversation, we addressed mutual concerns. And then, without making Chris feel like he was at another parole board hearing, we got to the heart of the issue with one question, “What have you learned about yourself in the past 18 years that you want us know?”

Without hesitation and being brutally candid, Chris shared a bit about his childhood, how he grew up talking to heroin addicts in the back alley behind his apartment. “They were the only adults that talked to me.” Sitting alone on streets curbs making up stories about families walking by, wishing his life could be more like theirs. Raised by his grandparents by the age of 8, whom although they loved him, they couldn’t get a handle on the pain he was harboring. The streets called him. The gang attracted him. Arrested at least 8 times between the ages of 12 and 16, Chris was well on his way to prison. At 16 he was charged as an adult for a violent felony and sentenced to 20 years to life.

His first day on the yard the guards pulled him aside, recognizing he was a small 16 year old, and strongly reminded him, “If you hear us yell ‘get down’…GET DOWN. Or they’ll shoot you from the tower.” Chris went on to talk about the reading, writing and education he immersed himself in while still in prison. Finally pursuing the things he really cared about in life. Doing something good. He learned how important art was as his outlet, keeping him sane and providing income as he drew portraits of inmate’s loved ones or designed personal greeting cards for them to send home. How his love of DC comics had been his safe place. He learned that this skill is something he’s been working on most of his life, and that doing something positive not only affected his life, but may be able to affect the life of another kid with similar experiences.  The studio took a chance and hired him.

Here are some facts:

70 million people in this country have a criminal record. That’s about 1 in 4 people.

2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States…90% of them will return home.

And the biggest obstacle to their maintaining a stable environment. . .A JOB.

In California we have “banned the box”. Which is a step in the right direction. But if we’re not going to work toward hiring people…despite their worst mistake, then we are stalled in the space of veiled “diversity” and not “inclusion”. We’ll interview you, but we still won’t hire you. Companies both large and small are getting on board to help shift this dynamic, but they don’t always know how to go about it. There are federal and state tax incentives for employers and evidence demonstrating the impact giving people a chance has on community safety and the reduction in the public cost for incarceration.

This issue is a microcosm of many other divisive issues we are facing in our communities. We need to be willing to step out of our individual comfort zones, into the gray area of the unknown and make an effort to bridge the gap with people whose background or culture we don’t understand. Our unwillingness to go there limits us from being able to truly create inclusive work environments that enrich our companies with broader ideas, new approaches, a stronger community…and better outcomes.

As a founding executive of a start-up non-profit, I took a staff of 4 and successfully built it into a staff of 28 with more than half of our employees having a criminal record….on purpose. We approached our hiring practices with a few questions in mind:

  • What do we need to know about who a candidate is today, in order to feel confident in hiring them?
  • What systems do we have or can we put in place to offer an employee a fair opportunity to prove themselves and feel supported in the workplace?

Opening our doors to a new pool of potential employees opens up the possibility of discovering a uniquely gifted individual …We can’t throw that away.



Women are women…no matter where we are

The first time I walked onto the women’s prison yard in Chowchilla, California – a stark contrast to the men’s prison yards where I’d visited as a prison Chaplain for more than a decade – it struck me that although the situation of incarceration is the same – the experience from a visitor’s lens was drastically different. That first day at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)– seeing what I saw – feeling what I felt – has been influential in my drive to strengthen our community of women to support our mothers, daughters and sisters returning home.

For me, the personal preparation for entering a men’s prison or women’s prison is similar. I have “prison clothes”; black, white, gray, muted-toned extremely loose fitting clothing, comfortable shoes, no-wire bra because rumor has it that bra wires can be used to escape prison, no make-up, no jewelry, hair usually pulled back. This dress code is a combination of the prison system requirements, and because the majority of my work inside institutions has been as a Chaplain. Early on I made a personal choice to use my appearance to help set the boundaries for the spiritual relationship that I am entering into with people inside institutional settings. I have a mental/emotional process I walk myself through to set down all of the day-to-day responsibilities I hold and show up prepared to “be present” for the few hours I have with men and women inside to encapsulate everything they are feeling and experiencing, process it together, talk through some tools and opportunities for coping and healing, all while trying to just be humans together in a very inhumane setting. Then as quickly as we begin, our time together ends abruptly with no hugs allowed; just a handshake.

What I recognized that day walking into CCWF, was the palpable difference in energy from a men’s prison. When I walk onto a men’s prison yard, I recognize the emotional “suit of armor” that everyone, including me, carries. The officers are largely unpleasant and seemingly unhappy. They must wear at least 10lbs. of gear; vest, belt, pepper spray, taser, giant key rings, blunt force tools, etc. There is a sign that warns of the high voltage wires in the fencing and there are stories of birds and coyotes getting zapped by them. You know there is a “gunner” in the towers around the facility keeping an eye out and highly skilled in hitting their target at any given moment. The fear of getting caught in that moment of chaos you’re always hoping the black and white clothing will stand out to the shooter so you won’t be collateral damage if something goes down. Entering a men’s yard, every single person; guards and the people incarcerated are on high alert. Someone is doing pull-ups, 2 guys are playing handball, others are running the track over and over and over again like hamsters on a wheel. Two other guys are motivating each other to do 10 more burpees, a group of guys is hovering close together and talking. And everyone is keenly aware of what everyone else is doing. Always waiting and ready for something to go wrong. As if there is never a moment to just breathe, relax, be human. On guard 24/7, 365 days a year for decades.

Somewhere inside of me I understand all of that. I’ve learned to put on my own emotional protective gear. I’m not “a woman” when I enter a prison, I am a spiritual representative seeking to meet other spirits on a human journey in their inherent goodness…for but a moment in time. Sounds altruistic, I know, but it’s also self-protective. That day I marched onto the CCWF prison yard, protected and “armed”, I stopped in my tracks because what I was met with was not an equal amount of armor. I encountered prison officers who weren’t as anxious or angry as they were in the men’s institutions. They were people who seemed to appreciate visitors. Right away I saw a working garden off to the side with a group of women tending to it. Women were casually walking the track together, talking, occasionally laughing out loud, greeting each other with hugs. When I entered a sleeping unit, the women’s cells were decorated as best they could with family pictures and art. They “nested”. Even in prison. I wondered, briefly, “Do they know they’re in prison?” And the truth is even more eye-opening. They absolutely know they’re in prison, as much as the soldiers on the men’s yards do, but like me and my friends on the outside, they live in the world differently from the way that men do. And as a deeply oppressed population amongst deeply oppressed populations in systems of mass incarceration, they adapt to their pain and learn to disguise it behind a smile, a song, a blossoming garden.

We, as women, are communal beings. We establish the foundation of families and nurture the fibers of our communities. We internalize our pain and are more likely to harm ourselves than take our pain outward to harm others. The number of suicides in women’s prisons is painstakingly higher than in men’s prisons. Over 92% of women in prison have experienced sexual and/or physical assault in their lives. 80% of women who are incarcerated are mothers and the primary caretaker for their children and approximately 90% of women in prison who have been convicted of murdering someone close to them, were victims of abuse inflicted by their “victim”.

Women in prison create community inside because that is their/our life blood. We need to belong. We need connection and family. And when women return to their communities after incarceration, they desperately seek to re-establish their sense of family and community that they had prior to incarceration and the community that was their survival mechanism while inside. What they often come home to though, is a system of re-entry providers that mirrors the prison system: designed for and by men. Women’s reentry programming has primarily been an afterthought. Men’s re-entry programs will take funding and claim to have women’s re-entry services that are little more than taking their men’s programming guidelines, throwing in a female facilitator and claiming they support women returning home. It’s insufficient and ineffective in its approach to the unique needs of women, the sense of community we need and the sheer numbers of available opportunities for support, housing and training. Childcare? Transportation? Hygiene/medical care? Parenting/family reunification? Employment opportunities that aren’t in a warehouse or construction site? All insufficient.

We can do better. Women have had an increase of more than 700% in our prison population in California in the last 30 years. The impact on communities when women get incarcerated debilitates communities for generations. We, as women with an increasing amount of influence and power, need to step into the uncomfortable space of diversity and build bridges to re-establish and strengthen our entire community of women, where everyone belongs in the circle, and everyone knows their inherent value. Imagine the change we can create in the world, together.