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.
The life lessons we are being offered are endless. The memes from mother nature reminding us of our place in the larger balance of the world. The endless zoom meetings, happy hours and virtual connecting because we need to be connected. The reminder that the world has taken a collective pause so it’s ok that we take a moment to breathe and take stock of what truly matters in our lives.
My son and I have navigated two weeks of quarantine after he abruptly came home from a semester abroad in London and one week of ‘stay home’ orders in California. We are not without food or toilet paper and have enough room for both of us to find private space when we need it and break out the board games and puzzles as part of our new life rhythm. I am blessed to still have work, settling in to my guest-room-turned-home-office in pajama pants and a fresh shirt every day that I have a zoom meeting video conference. Together we wrestle with the helplessness of not being able to do more for the millions of people who are having a different experience during this crisis.
And as the walls can feel like they’re sometimes closing in around me, the degrees of separation in losing someone I care about to this pandemic inching closer to my front door step, and the miles between me and my family feeling farther and farther away, I take stock. At different periods of upheaval, chaos and transition, I find myself seeking space and time to slow life down, have the capacity to reflect and assess and plan, wanting to make sure that I am always aligned with my purpose in life. Or finding purpose in what life has thrown my way.
What I know to be true is that with all the rollercoaster twists, turns and loops of life, I could not have survived them if I didn’t know one critical fact…that I am loved.
My mom and dad had five children in seven years, raised us on both coasts, sent each of us to college (which was not an option) some of us on to doctorate, legal and medical degrees. Even when we were helping our mom count food stamps for groceries in the 70s, we didn’t know we were poor. We knew we were loved. When we fought with each other our parents made certain we fixed it together, reminding us that we are the most important people in each other’s lives.
What I am being reminded of as the sun sets on each day of crisis and uncertainty, is that this too I will navigate. I will find my will. I will find my motivation. I will find laughter and joy in the chaos, craziness and uncertainty of this new normal. What strikes me as my connection to the world shifts through the lens of exchanging pleasantries with new faces passing by from the confines of my front yard, reckoning with the quiet pace of the streets during the occasional drive protected in my car or the three times I have ventured out to the store maintaining 6 feet of distance at all times from every one, all of us donning gloves and masks and wiping hand sanitizer on every surface we touch, is that I have what I need. I have what I need to climb one more of life’s mountains. I have what I need to get back to shore adrift in a riptide. I have what I need because I know I am loved. My family has given me everything I need. I know I belong, that there are people who care about me no matter time or space.
We all need to belong. We all need to know we matter. Now more than ever. Let’s see each other. Let’s make sure our neighbor knows they matter. Let’s make sure the family 5 miles away but an ocean of privilege apart has what they need. When our instinct may be to go insular and protect what we feel is “ours”, let’s open our hearts a little bit wider, virtually grasp each other’s hand and know that what happens to one of us happens to all.
Supporting our children during the vulnerable years of middle school can leave us as unsure as they are. The only thing I could think to say to my son is “Middle school is funky”. What else is there to explain all of the confusion during the complex changes happening during the transition from childhood to the teenage years. Every child has a different process. A different duration of transition. A different culmination of that transition. None of it is easy. “Funky” during this time isn’t about stinking or being bad. It’s about most everything feeling uncomfortable, awkward and incomprehensible.
Girls are funky because their bodies change before boys’. They’re towering over most boys and becoming women while boys are still boys. Girls don’t know what to do with the hormones and womanly bodies they are developing, which can make their behavior funky. Our sweet girls are testing their maturity and growth. Trying out new ways of standing and communicating; eye rolls and smart mouthed quips at the top of their list while stuffed animals and dolls still dominate their bedroom decor. Boys are funky because the girls are often times more mature and have physical characteristics that give them a perceived power over boys. Some boys are experiencing secondary muscle development, the majority are still uncomfortable taking their shirts off in public. One day they want to hang out at the mall like they see older teenagers doing, the next they want to bring out the pokemon cards or watch Yu Gi-oh. Academics in middle school challenge students’ capacity for time management and digging deeper in their tool box for advanced study habits, focus and intellectual potential. Even though they had been exposed to Math, Science, History and English, the middle school curriculum deepens their understanding of subjects and increases the amount of work needed to succeed, in a way that makes their heads want to explode.
Middle school is called middle school because they’re in the middle of nowhere. They’re not little kids any more and yet they’re not fully rooted in their teenage-hood either. One of the best things I felt I could do for my son was to let him swim around in the middle. I let him try out his teenage persona when he was feelin’ it, and I honored his decision to take a break from the exhausting work of trying to be cooler and more secure than he really was, to play in the comfort of his more youthful world…with sufficient expectations and no judgment.
Everyone take a breath. Mom, Dad, kids. Middle school is funky. Accept that notion and it all becomes a tad bit more manageable.
I ponder never having brought someone “new” into my son’s life because I was afraid of navigating the conversation around, “You’re not my dad!” Truth be told, there are many reasons why I made a conscious decision to not date until my son left for college, but navigating a new man in our lives was just something I chose to avoid. I had enough on my plate.
As we have become a world beautifully filled with blended families and men and women stepping in to be an additional blessing to a child’s life, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about how to navigate this. Mostly I can speak to it from my experience of embracing another woman in my son’s life with his dad. I stand firm with one belief…you love my child, and you don’t have to because he is not “yours”. He deserves to be loved. So, as challenging as it may be, I am grateful for your loving him and I would never take love away from him.
That comes from the perspective of what a child needs, but what do partners need in navigating those relationships? How do we support a new partner in developing their relationship with our children and their own concern about hearing, “You’re not my dad!” It’s not easy. Depending on the circumstances and age of the child(ren), the process is different. Any partner we bring in to our family needs to be able to develop their own relationship with the kids. We need to be able to step aside, trust in the person we love enough to bring them into our kids’ lives and allow them space to work it out together…without our constant interference rooted in a need to prevent something “bad” from happening.
There are conversations as partners that we can have about how to support one another in the evolution of these relationships, and there are conversations to have together with our children. Include them in the gray area of what this all is. Allow them a voice in how to navigate it. As the biological parent, we have an innate sense of trust and connection with our children, but people coming into our lives, loving us and loving them don’t come with the same intuitive skill. What is normal, natural for us, is a learned partnership for them. If our partner is concerned about stepping on toes or trying to figure out what their role is and can be, talk about it with the kids.
“I love your mom and I love you. I am excited about being an important part of your lives. And I also know that I’m not your dad. So I want us to be able to talk about all of this if/when it gets uncomfortable. I want you to feel safe in respectfully letting me know if the way I am approaching a situation doesn’t feel right or sit right.”
There is a way to include our children in the evolution of the “plus” relationships of new people in our lives without giving them unbalanced power or unintentional opportunity to manipulate us.
I’m still not certain I did the right thing (a question I ask myself with regard to many, many decisions I made as a parent), but I made it. I also filled his life with incredible men who have loved him and guided him and supported him, and never once had to tread near the notion of threatening his dad’s place in his life. I am blessed with 3 brothers who have had my back my entire life, and picked up that mantle with my son. The husbands of my girlfriends have always seamlessly included us, and him when it mattered most. So whether or not my son witnessed me loved and respected as I should be in a partnership or having a male figure in our home, that absence was mitigated by the male role models he has had.
“Bonus” adult people in our children’s lives are a gift worth embracing.
Ninja parenting is a phrase I coined as my approach evolved to meet the needs of my son in every phase of his life. He grew up hearing me say over and over again, “I will always have more patience than you have attitude and more tools in my toolbox than you have challenges to give me.” The poor kid never had a chance against my ninja parenting expertise.
From the day I found out I was pregnant, I knew in my soul that my responsibility was to guide him throughout his life in the ways in which he needed, not the ways I wanted him to need. So I did my best to be present and really think about what he was looking for from me in every situation, every challenge, every phase of growth. When he was an infant, he needed to know he was safe. Not in a bubble to where nothing ever went wrong, safe, but that he could trust himself and trust me. He needed to “feel” safe, not just hear me say the words. I wanted him to know the world is full of hope and promise knowing full well that the reality of mistakes and hurt and the ugliness of the world would reveal itself to him in time, but if he held the belief in his heart that better things are possible, then when he faced pain or challenges, he would be able to tap into his courage and potential to overcome them.
When he learned the art of communication and began asking “Why?” every waking hour of every day, I recognized that he was looking for affirmation to be curious about the world, to question when things don’t make sense, to never be satisfied with the status quo. So even though it was at times inconvenient to have to be thoughtful and intentional in my response, I did my best to feed the hunger he had for learning and understanding and thinking for himself.
He reflects now and says I “made him” make his own decisions from the time he was eight. Actually, what I was doing was offering him safe parameters in which to have input in his own life. Have thoughts and opinions. The easy way out for both of us would have been to give him all the answers, tell him what he was supposed to do and have him follow my direction. But that doesn’t help him when I’m not around or when he got older and was in the world on his own. Of course I wasn’t going to let him have sole power over when he went to bed or whether or not he endangered his life or someone else’s, but if he thought it was a good idea to only study for a 5th grade Science test on the 15 minute drive to school, the best way for him to figure out if that was a good study habit was to give it a try.
It looks different for every child and every parent. There is no one way to be a parent. No one right answer for everyone. The only element that needs to be consistent is being present. Being awake to your child. Tapped in. When we make a conscious effort to make ALL of our decisions (even the hard ones) from a place of Love, then we are doing the best we can in every situation. It takes longer to accomplish the goal of helping our children learn how to make decisions, learn that negative actions have consequences, learn how to cope. These are the ultimate life skills we want our children to have as they evolve into adulthood. And they are skills we can’t dictate to them, they are life skills that we teach through action, inaction and interaction.
Ninja parenting….wisdom, patience and love (and a little bit of trust that it all works out in the end).
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.
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.
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.
I never felt comfortable identifying as a “survivor”. The survivors whom I have had the privilege of walking with for 18 years, have endured an unimaginable kind of violence. I didn’t think mine was relevant. Mine was the silent kind, the one with no visible wounds or scars. The kind people flip their nose at because “I made a choice”…Privilege over self-respect.
I have often felt guilty for feeling like I endured something because I had access to experiences and “things” that few people ever get to have. I lived a life of profound privilege for more than a decade. On the surface, I had it all….and really, I had nothing. I convinced myself I had love. He convinced me I had love. I owned nothing. I lived in isolation in front of millions of people. I endured silently with a smile and a lot of luxurious “things”…until I couldn’t any longer. I had to choose privilege or self-respect…I finally chose self-respect. But it didn’t come from me, it came from my son. Becoming a mom brought out a fearlessness in me, a recognition that I had better be everything I claimed to be because I now had someone who relied on me to learn it all. I tried to become all of that within our relationship, but that wasn’t the person he wanted. So after 15 years I left with my child, my clothes, my rocking chair and crib. No movers came because I wasn’t allowed to take anything. Not a spoon (although I did sneak some silverware and a blender from one of our guest houses). By myself, I packed up and drove away from our home and to my apartment.
I had to be punished for leaving; I wasn’t supposed to make life altering decisions like that. He was. I bought a bed and refrigerator before my credit card was shut down. And then the fun began. We camped out in our apartment with little furniture, but we had each other…and freedom. I remember one night lying next to my toddler as he slept, taking a deep breath and thinking that if my life never gets better than this, if this is my “it” and I just ride life out from here…what do I have to complain about. I have been blessed with this beautiful human who was born out of love, and I don’t want to miss a moment of his life looking for something else. Looking for a new man, a better life, a new brass ring to chase. And at that moment, I let go of my fears and breathed in gratitude for my life, his life, our life.
I felt guilty identifying as a “single mom” because I had funds, albeit comparatively few, to put a roof over my son’s head in California, which was more than many single parents. I made decisions every step of the way, to maximize my time with my son when he was with me, honoring his relationship with his dad, and always holding out hope that his dad would be a better father than he was a partner. Our son deserved the best of both of us, and I knew in my soul that the only way for that to be possible, was for me to create space from him, to allow me to be free to be the mom I was capable of being. I made that decision out of love for all of us. I was afraid to rock the boat for fear the support for my son would disappear. The only reminder of the debilitating control I accepted for so many years, was that support. I needed it. I wanted nothing more than to never need anything from him again, but I needed that money to give my child the kind of life he deserved.
We lived month to month for a long time. There were times when I had $10 and 4 days left in the month, but we made it work. We built forts in our house and walked to the park and ate dinner at friends’ houses…I’d be damned if I was gonna break under the pressure. That was what he wanted. I had no where near that privileged lifestyle that his dad had to offer, but I had more love than anyone could ever give. I learned that growing up.
Sometimes I was irrationally determined. I had moved us from a rented apartment next door to a stripper and into a rented home. I bought a basketball hoop for the driveway. Loaded and unloaded it myself. Grabbed my toolbox and sat in the driveway with all of the pieces laid out. The beginning of the instructions read: “You will need two people to assemble”. My response to the written instructions was: “Fuck you, I don’t have two people. I have one, and I’m putting this thing together.” . . .and so I did. Until I got to the part where I had to put the 50lb. backboard on the 10 foot long pole and stand. I tried everything I could, holding the stand off the ground with one foot while leaning to pick up the backboard and trying to shimmy it onto the pole. Propping the pole up off the ground with cinder blocks and trying to lift the backboard onto it. I turned red, and frustrated and disappointed in myself. Eventually I gave up and asked a neighbor for help. Because the goal was more important than my pride.
I had great successes too. I made sure that my son knew love. I made sure that he had great men around him in all areas of his life: basketball, school and friends. My family was unquestionably my foundation throughout this time, but there was only so much they could do given the miles between us. My girlfriends and their husbands were also a critical part of our lives. I relied on both family and friends to be a strong presence in my son’s life and felt comfortable asking them for help getting a Christmas tree or cleaning out the gutters, or even talking to my son when I knew he needed a man’s ear.
Some of the hardest times were during middle school and high school when I was working long hours and not home after school. Times when my son left his basketball bag in the trunk of my car and I had to drive 35 miles from downtown to school to get it to him in time for practice…and then back to work. I sat in the bleachers of basketball games writing work proposals on my computer while waiting for his game to start. And some days came home completely tapped out and realizing I had left no energy or patience for my own child.
I did all that. And I wouldn’t trade a single sleepless, bawling night of tears and fears and disappointment. I never took a breath to think about what I had been through or was going through, there was no time. High school graduation, college acceptance, and raising a thoughtful, happy young man…those were the goals. And we got there: my son, my village and me.
The child support is gone. I am completely free. I am a survivor.