Ignorant to Inspired – Mass Incarceration and Me
Last week, I got to see Professor and Human Rights Activist Michelle Alexander speak about the racist caste system being created by mass incarceration and the war on drugs. She was speaking specifically about her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness, which was designated the Unitarian Universalist 2013 Common Read, as well as the Yale Divinity School common read this year. I am currently a student at Yale Divinity School and they hosted Professor Alexander’s lecture, so I was honored to be able to attend and watch her speak live. If you missed it, you can still watch online.
It was inspiring and motivating to hear her speak so passionately and prophetically about this issue that I have been marginally aware of but not involved in. I often feel overwhelmed with ignorance and all that must be done when first learning about and delving into such a huge issue of injustice. Professor Alexander eloquently explained how everyone can and needs to play a role in this, and talked specifically about what faith communities can do.
We are not all lawyers like herself, but we can all advocate for legal reform and speak to our elected representatives. We can also make sure our communities are welcoming and affirming places to people who have been behind bars or families who have a member in prison. She said that many families who have a parent or child in prison tell her they stop going to church because it becomes a place where they sense people talking about them, not supporting them. Are our congregations and communities like this? If so, let’s work on changing our culture to one of love that is truly for all.
She also talked about how many prison ministries focus on providing support to people who are in prison or have recently been released. She praised and thanked this work, while also pointing out that we need to begin doing more work to join together and advocate for a change of the policies that cause this problem. If we have prison ministries, let’s add this to what we do. If we don’t, let’s make sure this is part of the work we take on.
The audience at Yale Divinity School last week was a mix of students and community members from New Haven, some who were just becoming more aware of this issue like myself, and others who had this as the issue they’ve dedicated their life to. Although Michelle Alexander was amazing, the best part was having conversations with others who were there to watch her speak. Sitting next to me was a student who I had only spoken to once before, who just happens to be an education consultant for a prison reform group. I learned as much from him as I did from Michelle Alexander, and I realized the importance of why we do a common read and don’t just read on our own.
When we read together, we can learn from one another and share, and what we learn grows and deepens our mutually accountable community. We can help one another do the work we feel called to do, and discuss how these issues affect our own communities. It is vital that in addition to talking about the racism in the prison industrial complex and war on drugs, that I also talk with my school and religions communities about the racism in our own institutions.
May we learn and grow together, holding one another accountable in covenantal community.
Join me and our faith community in learning more about how race affects economics, drug policies, incarceration, and the lives of individuals:
- Read a review of The New Jim Crow on Blue Boat, by my colleague Ted Resnikoff.
- Watch Michelle Alexander‘s talk at Yale Divinity School online
- Listen to or read these short reports from NPR:
- Join the UUA’s Common Read: order the book, download the discussion guide for your small group, and learn about other resources and ways to connect.