In My Write Mind
3.09.2005

Tennessee William Presents...An Empowerment Tale

Shelby County, Memphis, Tennessee.

That's where we were the last week in February, part of a week that also saw me in Houston, Texas. That's where we were on a crisp, cold, clear Friday near the end of winter; there on a mission from our president to spread a message of empowerment to a community that would actually settle for some engagement.

It seemed like a long ride, but it really wasn't. What it turned out to be was a long time coming, an overdue ride to address an overwhelmed audience. As we headed down the highway, we got a chance to focus our thoughts, collectively steel ourselves for the unknown. We probably approached this visit with reasonably open minds, save a few misconceptions and stereotypes that rested on our backs like a proverbial monkey.

We had to get rid of those at the gate. We had to make sure that our preconceived pets stayed at the front door, check it like baggage on a full flight. We had to focus on our reason for being there, make sure that the message we brought with us--an empowerment message--was delivered unfiltered, straight with no chaser. We had to make sure we brought it, if for no other reason than to not lose another young soul to the system.

That's why we were there. To talk to those who needed a listening ear; to listen to those who got caught up in the game, messed up by illegal substances, locked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were in Tennessee, in Memphis, on our way to the Shelby County Correctional Facility, to address a group of inmates.

We were on our way to jail.

We were there to encapsule the thoughts of black male inmates, finding out from them what their biggest problems were, to listen to their ideas for solutions, for ways to avoid getting caught up again. We went there on a fact-finding mission, attempting to build momentum for a commission on the black male, attempting to build on the meetings we'd held on the campus of Morehouse College in November and in Washington, DC in October.

We went to jail because sadly, that's where more and more of our black males are. We went to reach out to them to see what was on their minds and in their hearts. We went there because they couldn't come to us.

They came in single file, about 100, all of them adorned with denim jackets with the letters SCDC emblazoned in yellow on the back. Some wore jumpsuits, while most wore blue collared shirts with blue jeans. Most were cleanly shaven, most had tattoos. It was a silent march, an orderly march. Just like they knew why we were there, they knew why they were there. To have a conversation. To vent. To hopefully empower themselves.

In came the women, about 50 total. Theirs was not a token inclusion to balance out the ratio. No, their concerns were of as valid as those of their male counterparts, their voices in need of being heard. They, too, had on their jumpsuits and denim ensembles, all focused on what they came there for...to talk about and, with the breadth of their stories, more than likely bring about change.

They filled the Shelby County Correctional Facility chapel that Friday afternoon, all of them focused. They all sat, grateful for the opportunity to speak. In front of them was a panel carefully assembled to make the greatest impact. Talking heads weren't necessary for this meeting. We need substance.

In front of them sat both the presidents of the National Urban League and the local Urban League, a local circuit judge, the Shelby County Department of Corrections warden, and a former prosecutor and current administrator for Shelby County. We wanted to bring people who could listen and act; not listen and critique, not listen and leave. We wanted to bring an audience for that audience, people who carried weight in the community; people who could hopefully empower those we were engaging.

That panel--for that group--was the right group of people.

Introductions were made, taking up no more than fifteen minutes of a scheduled two-hour event. Then, the floor was open to the inmates, none of them hardened criminals in jail for life (in fact, the harshest sentence seemed to be no more than seven years). The floor was open to hear what was on their minds and hearts. A line that snaked from the front of the chapel to the back formed quickly. And throughout those two hours, everyone who was standing--and many who were not--got their chance.

They all spoke, some of those incarcerated being master carpenters and licensed barbers. they spoke of the hopelessness that awaits them when they are finally released; they spoke of the ease of getting caught up, and once again locked up.

They wanted help. They asked about transitional housing and drug after-care programs. They wanted classes that extended past the general GED courses that the facility provided. They wanted help finding steady employment. Some even offered to serve as lecturers to those who were on a wayward path, hoping those could learn from their bad examples. While they spoke, it became clear that none of them were looking for a way out; they were looking for a way in...to the mainstream. A way back...to a productive life. A way up...the social ladder that has them relegated to the bottom rung.

They were appreciative of the session; both a male and female gave praise to our group through song. We, too, were appreciative for their insight, their questions, their attention, their presence. That time spent with those who lost their way empowered us, gave us reason to believe that the problems that exist in our communities could all be solved, or at least lessened, if we took more time to gather and come up with solutions.

That day in jail, there were no promises made by the panel. They made suggestions and made themselves available. But no promises. And you know what? It didn't matter. All this audience wanted was an audience that would listen, that would engage them.

Hopefully, what was discussed that day will help the National Urban League move forward in establishing a commission that will positively impact communities, and especially the black male. Hopefully, through our affiliate network that serves these communities, we will help deter these young men and women from losing their way, through programs that accentuate and encourage success. Hopefully, we will help in the process of rehabilitating those who found themselves incarcerated and now need a second chance.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky when we arrived, and when we left, everything was just as clear. Something good happened on that last Friday of the month. Something changed. Our perceptions and misconceptions. Everything changed. Their spirit and their hope for the future. Us and them. All of us.

This week, I go back to Memphis. This time to visit an HBCU that resides just outside of Shelby County. There we will speak to young men and women and prepare them for the world of corporate America. They, too, will listen and ask questions and, if all goes well, be better off for the experience. Just like we all were on that clear, cold, crisp Friday in February.

The day we went to Shelby County, Memphis, Tennessee.

The day we went to jail.

scribbled by Will at 3/09/2005 11:27:00 AM
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Mind Droppings

I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. (Joan Didion)



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