How Do We Love Concretely?
DAY 21: Radically Reintegrate the Formerly Incarcerated
When I sat down to think about what it meant to reach out with radical love to formerly incarcerated people, I realized I didn't have many personal experiences to draw on. But I did immediately think of a friend of mine, Aviva Tevah, who works to bring transformative education to individuals and communities affected by mass incarceration in New York City. She agreed to write a guest post for me, and these are her reflections on what it means to reach out with radical love to those who have been incarcerated. – Annie.by Aviva Tevah
As scholars like Michelle Alexander remind us, mass incarceration is a serious threat to any chance we have at an equitable, just society. We might see better funding for reentry initiatives and criminal justice reform policies and believe the pendulum is swinging back towards less draconian criminal justice norms, but it isn’t swinging fast enough. In the meantime, mass incarceration and extreme poverty are devastating entire communities of poor people and people of color. Angela Davis suggests that we must question why “criminals “ have been constituted as a class [of] human beings undeserving of the civil and human rights accorded to others.”[i]
Even when they are well-meaning, discussions of our criminal justice system tend to reinforce a false distinction between “us” and “them.” In this dichotomy the “us” is good and needs to be protected from a “them” that is bad and threatening. As Angela Davis and others have noted, the lines between “us” and “them” are not incidental; they reflect the American racial hierarchy and they function to maintain the status quo. Arthur Waskow writes that “we need to learn how to “face [those who do something illegal] not as objects—‘criminals’—but as people who have committed illegal acts, as have almost all of us.”[ii] And yet while most of us have committed illegal acts, plenty of affluent New Yorkers (“us”) don’t even know where Rikers Island is, while people in NYC’s poorest communities (“them”) know not only which public bus to take to get there, but the names of specific jail buildings within the sprawling city corrections complex.
With this “us” and “them” mentality, mass incarceration is shaping our reality: as Dean Spade writes, “criminalization and imprisonment filter through every aspect of how we live and understand ourselves and the world.”[iii] The criminalization of poor people and people of color (including other marginalized communities such as immigrants, LGB and especially trans people, indigenous people) reinforces social understandings of who is deserving of resources, opportunities, and ultimately full humanity. Mass incarceration directly affects our budgets, our schools, and the layout of our cities, but the less direct impacts are perhaps even more dangerous. In 1963, Martin Luther King famously wrote that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.”[iv]
Working against the system of mass incarceration is not charity. Ending mass incarceration is as much for me as it is for those who are currently incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, the children whose parents are currently incarcerated, and their children’s children. I want to live in a world with no prisons, where all people can flourish in healthy, self- sustaining communities, where education is a human right, restorative justice is employed when transgressions do happen, and violence and racism are no longer normalized characteristics of our public institutions. Like Audre Lorde writes, “When I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and my sons. It is thinking for survival of the species—thinking for life.”[v]
Although ending mass incarceration is good for all of us, we can’t ignore the differences between those of us who’ve never been incarcerated and those of us who have experienced the trauma associated with criminal justice system involvement and carry the social stigma and legal discrimination that accompany a criminal record. It is because of those differences that people like me (upper-middle class, white, well-connected) are only going to be a part of the change we wish to see if we acknowledge that our understanding is limited by our experience. Currently and formerly incarcerated people must be at the forefront of our efforts to end mass incarceration, or it will not happen. People who have had this experience will be the most effective leaders because they know what their communities need to flourish, so any of us who are committed to ending mass incarceration must welcome that leadership and foster it any chance we get.
Because we are taught to devalue formerly incarcerated people, this work will be challenging. It will require what bell hooks calls “ a love ethic,” which “presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.”[vi] I often think of Arundhati Roy’s Love Laws, [which] “lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.”[vii] If everyone has the right to be free, we must rewrite our Love Laws. Rewriting our Love Laws to be radically inclusive will put into question everything we think we know. But if we believe strongly enough in the urgency and possibility of our collective liberation, we will have the strength to work for it. bell hooks writes that “Generous sharing of all resources is one concrete way to express love… it is one way for us to understand that there is truly enough of everything for everyone.”[viii] May each of us dare to love beyond “us” and “them,” to work for our collective liberation, and to share our resources generously in acts of concrete love!
Aviva Tevah provides support and coordination to the New York Reentry Education Network (NYREN), a cross-sector network of 30 organizations devoted to making education central for people and communities who are most deeply impacted by the criminal justice system, based on the conviction that education has a transformative role in reentry. Prior to this role, Aviva was the Reentry Education Transition Specialist for the Transition to Post-secondary or Vocational Education for Formerly Incarcerated Adults Initiative. Aviva graduated from Wesleyan University in 2009 with a BA in African American Studies.