In an average-sized kindergarten classroom in the U.S., at least one child may have a parent behind bars. But most Americans still struggle to imagine what it's like to have an incarcerated father or mother. A new short film tries to make it clearer: strap on a virtual reality headset, and the film puts you in the place of an eight-year-old girl watching her mom go to prison, and ending up in foster care.
The short, Left Behind, is the first in a series of virtual reality films called Project Empathy. The first films start with the prison system, letting viewers experience re-entry into society, what it's like to be a child tried as an adult, and what it's like to have a family member in prison.
"Virtual reality is being referred to as the empathy machine, and there's really no bigger empathy gap than the one that exists between people who live in overly policed and overly incarcerated communities and those who do not," says Van Jones, who worked with filmmaker Jamie Wong on the first films. "We just want to do everything that we can to give people more of a felt sense of what it's like to live in a situation where law enforcement is not always friendly, and where the stakes for any mistake are incredibly high."
My work is an extension of my life. I'm the youngest of eleven kids, born to a refugee family that fled war-torn Vietnam. I didn’t initially understand that there was anything abnormal about my upbringing: spending my first few years on my mother’s back as she picked strawberries and snow peas in the pesticide-ridden fields of Oregon, and then later on watching - and eventually helping - as my parents labored away in the sweatshops in West Oakland, one of the poorest and most polluted communities in California.
It wasn’t until I was able to travel and live in other parts of the United States that I began understanding that these conditions were abnormal. I decided to dedicate my life to alleviating poverty and building the beloved communities that Dr. Martin Luther King envisioned.
One of the proudest moments of my life was helping to pass a landmark community reinvestment bill in California that created a polluters pay fund, which has created the largest fund in history for low-income communities to green up and to create economic revitalization for residents. In the last two years, it directed over $900 million into the poorest and most polluted communities in California. Now, I’m privileged to be leading Green For All to create national programs that will prioritize low-income communities and communities of color in the crafting of policy across the country.
Vien Truong leads Green For All, a national initiative that puts communities of color at the forefront of the climate movement and equality at the center of environmental solutions. She lives in East Oakland, California with her husband and twin three-year-old boys.
By Roger Leu
My family still calls me by my Chinese-given name, roughly translated to “little winter melon.” Though partially attributed to my gratuitous baby fat, the nickname also aptly describes my still and observant nature. I have always found people, culture, and human behavior fascinating. Why do people do the things they do? Why did Tom Cruise jump uncontrollably on The Oprah Show some years ago? Why do people find Keeping up with the Kardashians so compelling? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
I grew up in Berkeley, California, a relatively small town in the San Francisco Bay Area known for tie-dyed shirts, colorful protests, and subversive thinking. My parents are first generation immigrants who emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in search of a better future. My dad first worked as a dishwasher and a gas attendant to pay the bills. My mom briefly worked on a fiber optics assembly line. They are quintessential pragmatists that would rather have me put on five layers of clothing than turn on the heater, unplug the idle power strip rather than pay for electricity, and shop at swap meets instead of department stores.
The look on their faces when I told them I wanted to pursue a career in social work was one of sheer confusion and terror (think Edvard Munch’s The Scream). “Is that like depression?” they asked in an English-Chinese improvisation. I simply responded, “It’s like having a big heart and helping people for a living.”
Social workers are so often misrepresented in pop culture as villains that invade your home and steal your children on behalf of the government. This is a terrific example to not believe everything you see on television! A social worker is the shoulder you lean on when you have a bad day. We are the extra ear that listens when you need to vent. We fight for the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. We are your advocates, your confidants, your strongest supporters, your champions of social justice.
The #cut50, #YesWeCode, and Green For All initiatives here at The Dream Corps are united under the umbrella of social justice. We continue the fight for a brighter future that includes all communities regardless of race, gender, color, or creed. We are agents of change that support closing prison doors and opening the doors of opportunity.
The #cut50 team has been advocating tirelessly for 2.2 million people remaining behind prison doors. As a social worker and a member of the #cut50 team, I am proud to work toward intelligently reducing the prison population in 10 years, and to engage in a bipartisan effort that rises above politics. Individuals in prison are often suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; we must remember to arm ourselves with kindness, compassion, and empathy to combat arguably one of the biggest moral crises in our time.
As I look at the road ahead, I cannot help but think of what the great Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words are as true today as the day they were written. Indeed, there is still injustice in the world, and we must continue to fight for equality, justice, and the inherent worth of all beings.
I am inspired by the small acts of kindness I see every day. When I leave the BART station and see a passing stranger hand a homeless man a dollar, I am inspired. When I see a group of friends organizing their waste into trash, recycle, and compost bins, I am hopeful. When I see Buzzfeed articles that combat the stigma of mental illness, I am filled with confidence about the future of humanity.
We are still reeling from an amazing week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. For the first time in history, both political parties are making a bold statement against the incarceration industry with the Democrats’ Platform calling for an “end to the era of mass incarceration.”Read more
Van spent hours on air last week -- reacting to tragedy after tragedy live. His words speak for themselves:
"We need to reach down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancé but you didn't cry this morning for those police officers, it is time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers but have a hard time taking seriously all these videos coming out with these African-Americans dying, it is time to do a heart check. Because a country -- we are either going to come together or come apart now. There is enough pain on both sides there should be some empathy starting to kick in."
For the full playlist of discussions from last week, click below.
"Even though we are incarcerated, we still care about the community.”
A group of incarcerated men at the Oregon State Penitentiary raised $800 for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Inspired by their efforts, Dream Corps raised a matching donation in support of the organization's work in Flint. Thank you to all who helped raise a matching donation in support of the incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
When a group of incarcerated men at the Oregon State Penitentiary learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that had exposed thousands of residents to contamination, they were shocked and impacted by the stories of families subjected to using polluted water.
From left to right: D’Angelo Turner, Jeremy Hays, Troy Ramsey, Grover Clegg
"I was sitting on my bunk in my cell watching TV. Flipping channels. I saw people on the Steve Harvey show talking about how they couldn’t shower with the tap water," said Troy Ramsey who initiated the fundraiser. "I thought, ‘What can I do from where I’m at to help the Flint community?”
With the necessary approvals needed to begin collecting donations, a group convened to devise a plan to raise money to the Flint community. Hoping to raise $500, the group was able to raise $800 for Flint with the generous $1, $2, and $5 donations from inmates.
“These are not small donations,” explained Ramsey. “ The average income for inmates is about $49 per month, and we have to use that for all our hygiene items, foods, etc. A lot of the guys also have obligations to kids and families.”
In an interview with the Dream Corps, Kosal So, who helped Ramsey organize the Flint fundraising efforts, reflected on his own journey and how his experiences influence the work he does from within the prison.
“I was kicked out of school. I didn’t learn to read. We lose confidence and get wrapped up in the streets. I was in and out of the juvenile system. Once you are in that, you are stuck. Now I work to raise money for kids to go to college.”
Like So, other incarcerated men also use the examples of their own lives as a vehicle for change in their communities and society.
“Just because I’m incarcerated doesn’t change morals and values. I used to deliver food to the homeless on Thanksgiving,” said Grover Clegg who helped lead fundraising efforts. “I drove a truck for a freight company and would use that to drive around on Thanksgiving to deliver food”
Though making donations may not be easy for inmates, fundraising is not new to this group who frequently engage in efforts that contribute to a variety of issues.
“I have been involved in a number of efforts,” said D’Angelo Turner another leader in the Flint fundraiser. “ I have written a re-entry program. I raised money for Missus Harris who was diagnosed with orphans disease – cancer – back in 2005 or 2007.”
Incarcerated men involved with the fundraiser noted that it is these efforts that cross racial groups bringing together groups typically segregated based on race.
“Our effort cut across racial groups,” said fundraiser leader Eric Nitschke. “ There are cliques in prison. This fundraiser was also helping people unite across groups and begin to break this down.”
Nitschke added, “I couldn’t believe that we in America could do this to our people. I learned about the change [of drinking water source] from the lake to the river. They knew it was polluted. It shocked me that someone who wasn’t drinking the water made that decision.”
This story of incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary organizing a fundraiser to benefit victims of the Flint water crisis lives at the intersection of environmental and criminal justice, which hits close to home for the Dream Corps and our initiatives.
Here at the Dream Corps, we support economic, environmental and criminal justice innovators. We serve to uplift powerful voices of those impacted by the criminal justice system--like this group of incarcerated men--and ensure that we are working towards an inclusive green economy.
We are deeply inspired by this effort. To support the efforts of the incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary, the Dream Corps has committed to raising a matching donation of $800 for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Help us raise matching funds for every child, family, and business in the community of Flint affected by the water crisis.
“Every once in awhile a book comes around that changes the conversation,” said Van Jones, President of Dream Corps and co-founder of #cut50. He was introducing Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs and director of strategy and innovation at #cut50, to a house full of friends and allies on a rainy night in Los Angeles.
That evening, music executive Russell Simmons, who has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform, hosted stars like Alicia Silverstone, Aloe Blacc, and Harrison Barnes to learn more about the fight for reform in 2016 and hear Shaka’s story of redemption and transformation.
“We need criminal justice reform now because there are far too many men and women being locked up and not given a second chance,” said Shaka, who gave one of the top 10 TED talks of 2014. Members of his audience had tears in their eyes as he recounted his 7 years in solitary confinement and the difficulty of watching his children grow up while he was incarcerated.
Shaka Senghor and Russell Simmons
“There are far too many children growing up without parents. My parents had to drive for 12 hours just so I could touch my own children for a moment, before they were taken away again.”
Shaka is co-founder of #BeyondPrisons, a new initiative of #cut50 and Dream Corps.
Shaka is set to become a household name in 2016. His soon-to-be-released memoir traces his journey from childhood to the streets of Detroit, where he sold drugs and lived a life of crime that resulted in a 19-year-prison sentence.
Note: Pre-order your copy of Writing My Wrongs and receive an exclusive excerpt from the book: http://bit.ly/1SI51tR
Shaka Senghor and Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors
“Incarceration destroys individuals, families, and communities,” said #cut50 National Director Jessica Jackson Sloan, whose husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a non-violent crime, leaving her with a small daughter who asked everyday to see her dad. Sloan talked about the inhumane hardships their family faced, like not even knowing which facilities he was being moved to, or not being able to afford the weekly $21 phone call.
#cut50’s Jessica Jackson Sloan
“The idea we can all get behind is the economics,” said former BET President Reggie Hudlin. “It costs so much more to send a person to prison than to college. As a nation we are hurting ourselves putting so many resources into warehousing people, where they arguably become worse criminals. The tragedy of the prison system is no one is talking about breaking the cycle, rehabilitation, and reducing crime in a meaningful way.”
#cut50 urged everyone to sign the petition asking Congress and the President to end the culture of punishment run amuck.
#cut50 team directors Shaka Senghor, Van Jones, and Jessica Jackson Sloan
Written by Richard Branson and Van Jones, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.
From the perspective of philanthropic institutions and individuals, criminal justice is not a distant problem that primarily concerns governments. The failures of the criminal justice system, from mass incarceration to egregious racial inequalities, have had such profound corrosive impacts that they can no longer be ignored.
With 2.3 million people in the US prison system, 7 million on parole or probation, and 1 in 3 African-American men expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime, we are facing a crisis of dramatic proportions. The system is so fundamentally broken that its very capacity to deliver justice has to be called into question. Equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and due process are frequently and often quite deliberately violated, tipping the scales to a point that conviction or acquittal are no longer a question of guilt or innocence, but rather a matter of socio-economic status and race. If you can’t pay for a good defence, the odds are stacked against you. If you are black or Hispanic and can’t pay for your defence, you are screwed.
It’s an unacceptable status quo that also weakens America’s moral authority abroad. Indefinite solitary confinement, life without parole for minors and the fact that one in nine death row inmates will eventually be exonerated do not exactly strengthen our negotiating position when trying to stand up for human rights elsewhere.
Beyond the staggering facts, the broader consequences are quite clear: this crisis threatens to roll back and undo years, if not decades, of social progress, much of which was accomplished with passionate support from the philanthropic community. Public health goals are undermined by everything from stress related-illnesses to high HIV transmission rates within prisons. Family formation is interrupted; children lose contact with incarcerated parents. Economic development is undercut when large numbers of African-Americans have felony convictions that lock them out of the job market. No question, if the legacies of the civil rights movement, of the fight for equality and of the war against poverty are to endure, we are all called upon to join forces and help restore justice, dignity, fairness and equality – the bedrock principles of healthy, equitable and prosperous societies.
To be frank, this is a momentous challenge many philanthropic organisations have to come to terms with as they seek to find their own role in the 21st century. Much of philanthropy still prefers to treat symptoms, rather than pushing for systemic change. It’s time to shift our priorities.
How can this be done? First of all, reform needs champions and resources. Modern philanthropy should be prepared to provide both.
Part of the exercise is to listen to the voices of the criminal justice reform movement. The wider public, as well as mainstream media, are only slowly beginning to understand the extent of the problem. As advocates, champions and thought leaders, philanthropies can help amplify awareness of the causal relationships between a broken system and its devastating impacts. There is enormous room for positive and meaningful programmatic work to highlight best practices, vocally support reform efforts and grassroots initiatives.
The good news is that change is happening. Ballot initiatives and legislative proposals seek to undo years of injustice. Unlikely alliances are forming across party lines and ideological positions, recognizing that the human and economic cost of these continued injustices, estimated as in excess of $80 billion a year, is not just unsustainable, but also deeply un-American
While the window for change is open -- with so much at stake for so many -- philanthropy needs to continue working open doors of opportunity, while doing everything possible to close prison doors. Both are necessary.
In a city that has come to symbolize the growing inequality gap, The Nation magazine hosted a conversation about the country’s inequality crisis with a panel of experts. San Francisco was the city, and Less Equal than Ever was the theme, and the occasion was the 150th birthday of the magazine begun by anti-slavery abolitionists in 1856.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Dream Corps Founder Van Jones, National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo and The Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel talked about “the greatest threat to the world,” according to a 2014 Pew survey. It’s a core issue on which The Nation has long been sounding the alarm. The event was co-presented by the Commonwealth Club November 17 at the packed Herbst Theater.
Moderator Judge LaDoris Cordell opened with a trick question: “Who said this? ‘‘Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.’”
The answer surprised the crowd. It was Mitt Romney, earlier this year, just one example of how Republicans are now incorporating this message along with Democrats.
“The wealth controlled by the top tenth of the top 1 percent has more than doubled over the past 30 years in the United States, approaching unprecedented levels,” said Cardell. “Are we about to tip?” she queried the panel.
“No,” said Robert Reich with finality, then dramatic silence that brought a laugh from the audience. Then he continued, “The good news is inequality is something people are talking about. For Republicans, this is fashionable to talk about now.”
For Ai-jen Poo, a conversation about inequality starts with wages. “Low wage workers are organizing now, fighting for $15. Starbucks baristas. Walmart workers--they’re organizing with the same vibrance of Black Lives Matter. We are in the early stages of next great social movement,” said Poo.
“From an African American perspective, the conversation about inequality starts with mass incarceration. It is, in fact, the most significant defining issue of the African American community,” said Van Jones, founder of #Cut50, a national initiative to cut prison population by 50% in 10 years. “The incarceration rate of African Americans is six times that of their peers, though their white counterparts are doing drugs at the same rate. You can’t give African Americans a fair shot at equality in this society if you’re making them felons for doing the same thing as young kids in college or some of you are doing this weekend.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has been Editor of The Nation since 1995 and a frequent commentator on inequality, said, “Cynicism about government is the wrong way to go. Blaming people is dead politics on arrival. Show how you can improve the conditions of people’s lives.”
Poo jumped in to give concrete ideas for improving 27 million lives in the upcoming “silver tsunami”: The senior (85+) population is the fastest growing and soon to be the largest demographic ever. Homecare is such a fast-growing occupation that the average median income is still just $13,000. By 2050, 27 million people will need care. “If we could connect the dots, we could invest in an infrastructure now,” said Poo. “This is the kind of inequality agenda that connects people across race and ideology.”
Cordell concluded the evening asking each panel member, “What would you do about inequality if you were elected President?” Poo said she would create a new system to support caregiving for families. Jones said end mass incarceration. Vanden Heuvel said end America’s endless engagement in wars. Reich had the last word. “Get big money out of politics,” he said. Reich underscored his optimism to close out the evening. “I’ve been teaching for 35 years,” said Reich, a professor at University of California, Berkeley. “I’ve never seen a more idealistic group of young people than the current one. We can build a coalition working toward equality based on interconnectedness. As the market tilts and the wealthy have even more power, grassroots organizations will be the countervailing power in working for equality.”
Alicia Keys took to a different stage this week to ask Congressional members to sign a petition for justice reform that she will deliver to President Obama once it reaches 1 million signatures.
Alicia Keys speaks to lawmakers.
"I am a mother," said Keys. "My heart is breaking for mothers left behind by incarceration, struggling to hold it all together. There are 1.1 million fathers in prison and 5 million children with a parent in prison. Is that our America? Is this who we are now?"
Keys began the day in East Baltimore with #Cut50's Van Jones. Her organization We Are Here joined forces Monday with #Cut50, which aims to reduce prison sentences by 50 percent in 10 years.
In the same community where unarmed black man Freddie Gray died earlier this year in police custody, Keys talked to children and mothers forced to support their children alone, stigmatized. "Their lives are full of stress and they do their best not to lose hope. In a way they have been imprisoned too," said Keys.
Van Jones, Alicia Keys and U.S. Senator Cory Booker.
She spoke to children affected and mothers whose children were tried as adults when they were as young as 14. “We can no longer afford to be this cruel to our young," said Keys. “These are just regular boys and girls trying to find their way."
Felicia "Snoop" Pearson of the HBO series "The Wire" gave Keys and Jones a tour of the street where she grew up, of boarded-up row houses and a funeral home where many of her friends ended up way too young. Snoop was born a premature crack baby to a mother who was in and out of prison and a father she never knew but who was believed to be a local stick up artist. She was convicted of second-degree murder at age 14, sentenced to 16 years, and released after 6½. Snoop spoke of the difficulty of re-entry into society, a subject Keys addressed later that day on Capitol Hill.
Snoop gives Jones a tour of the street she grew up on.
"Currently, when released, ex offenders are forced into a life in the shadows," said Keys. "They can’t vote, they’re ineligible for public housing, food stamps, and often barred from formal employment due to their status as convicted felons. We need to ban the box on job applications. It's up to the private sector. Starbucks and Facebook have no box to tick, showing us the power in believing in second chances."
In less than 30 years, since the "war on drugs" began, the penal population has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million. It costs between $30,000 and $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders could save $40 billion a year. "Can you imagine the good a mother could do with that money?" Keys asked Congressional lawmakers, urging them to sign the petition.
"Moments of opportunity like this come along once in a generation," said Jones, who also spoke to the packed room about letting judges judge and providing alternatives to prison like rehab and job training.
Jones introduced one of the most vocal leaders of criminal justice reform, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who spoke of the progress in introducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. It would be the most significant federal action in decades and has the backing of the White House, where Obama has made criminal justice reform a pillar of his second-term agenda.
Keys meets with Baltimore kids affected by incarceration.
Keys' deep, rich voice filled the room as she spoke of an extraordinary moment to change the country, and her performer's instincts crept in as she punctuated her words with expressive hands and measured each word musically: "You have the ability to change things. Not them. You. Us. We."
As this is our first This Week in Dream Corps blog, let me explain how it is here. At our Dream Corps office in downtown Oakland, you could be talking about ending mass incarceration one minute, training disadvantaged youth to code the next, then getting dirty energy to invest in the communities they pollute. You have to think fast because there’s breaking news in each of our three arenas all week long. It’s kind of fun to try to keep up, and to see all the connections from our Oakland office to current events--for example:
Oprah recently bought the movie rights to our own #cut50 Director of Strategy Shaka Senghor’s memoir.
Or there was the time last week that a police officer assaulted a non-violent student in South Carolina, and our #Cut50 Director of Policy Matt Haney quickly responded in the press because he happens to be VP of the San Francisco School Board and championed an innovative alternative to student discipline that avoids herding kids into the legal system.
Twitter, eBay, Yelp, Pinterest, Square and dozens of other tech leaders recently announced they are teaming with #YesWeCode to hire non-traditional candidates over the next 5 years in light of a million-worker shortage coming by 2020.
And when the EPA added the Clean Power Plan to the Federal Registry in late October and 26 states immediately sued to block it, our #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong took to the road to bust the myths and share the success stories of real Californians whose energy bills did not in fact go up as the naysayers predicted--like Maria Zavala, whose bill went from $200 a year to $1.50.
Maria Zavala & family, photo courtesy of The Greenlining Institute and UpLiftCA
This week brought the usual whirlwind of interesting developments, and as usual our Dream Corps team was traveling all over the place.
Wednesday #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong and Dream Corps President Van Jones were speaking to a Hollywood crowd hosted by Mark Ruffalo that included Normal Lear and Alicia Silverstone. The event was called Hollywood United for a Healthy California, and the point, says Vien Truong, was “to tell Governor Brown to leave oil in the ground.” She talked to the entertainment industry crowd about the lies being told about how the green movement hurts low-income people. Van Jones said, "Good people got together and said let's take dollars out of polluters pockets and use those dollars to green up poor communities. It went from being a fantasy that people like me wrote bestsellers about but didn't know how to make happen to a fact today in California. California has invested $1 billion dollars in a clean power economy for poor folks in the last two years."
#GreenForAll's Vien Truong and Mark Ruffalo
Another cool conversation occurred in San Jose at the Verge sustainability conference between Van Jones and Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and founder of Farallon Capital Management. Their keynote was called “The Business Opportunity Hiding in Plain Sight,” which was about getting the business crowd to engage all communities in the sustainability movement.
Van Jones, who is a CNN Political Commentator, appeared on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday as a panelist, and offered this meaty bone to chew on, “What’s so weird is that we’re in this moment where we have a white female who’s a front-runner for the Democrats. We don’t even notice that anymore. We now have an African-American man, front-runner for the Republicans. Ben Carson bewilders, I think most black Democrats. I mean, he certainly is professionally impressive. Personally, he can be somewhat impressive. Usually politically he’s probably the least impressive on that stage and yet, this morning, he was great.”
Finally, this week #YesWeCode got to pick the brains of the best in the business when they were selected out of 100 nonprofits to come to the Schwab Pro Bono Challenge in San Francisco and sit down the Charles Schwab’s CFO, two VPs, and a senior manager and discuss how to beginning thinking about the scholarships they will offer to 100,000 low-opportunity youth. The lightbulb moment for the #YesWeCode team was learning from the experts that when you go to a corporation to get money, fit yourself into their models--take advantage of H.R., because that’s where the money is, so instead of asking for donations, #YesWeCode should consider themselves a placement service thereby getting a fee for bringing in talent from an untraditional pipeline. It was a very practical conversation, which is exactly what the team was looking for.
Oh boy, next week we’ve got a lot more coming down the pike to tell you about...