The Finale: Other Voices
I don't think I have ever had the injustice of racism and poverty slap me in the face the way this experience did.
(This is the final post of our now 9-week long series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account.)
Using my voice here these past two months has more accurately been an exercise in witnessing, recalling, and reporting. I hope the most compelling voices coming through have been those of the people I encountered. To better ensure this is the case, I’m closing the blog series with other voices besides mine.
The first voice I’d like to share is from a fellow grand jurist, Valerie Barlow, who’s been following this blog from the start. I introduced Val in the second posting as “Violet, always taking care of us with notes and goodies, an informal leader.” Val experienced what I did, but through a more powerful lens.
"This piece is amazing. Thank you so much for summing up our experience so truthfully. You understand how painful it was for some of us of African heritage to walk in there every day. I don't think I have ever had the injustice of racism and poverty slap me in the face the way this experience did. My stomach still knots when I think of it. And so we used humor and supported each other, and we were patient sometimes and turned on each other a little at others. This has been a lesson I shall never forget.
I witnessed strength that I could never have in the stories of some of those victims and witnesses. At times, I was ashamed of the passive role that I play in holding this system that could do this to people. I could never write as you do, and I thank God for your insight and courage. I will keep doing what I can with every person I meet, every day. Thank you for being an example to me of a truly wonderful and outstanding human being."
The second voice I’d like to share is from my best friend and a lifetime resident of my hometown. I touched on Central Islip (CI) in the fifth posting. Roland Hampson is the son of a lifetime social worker, who is himself managing a social work office close to where we both grew up. His comments here tell a first-hand story of the strengths and challenges of “the same people from the same neighborhoods.”
"Thinking back… we as kids were pretty responsive to our parents, we generally did what was expected. The things that I see changing on East Chestnut, the parents seem to have a wider community spirit than our parents did. And the kids are expected to do more. In other words, it takes more to be a good kid now than it did when we were kids. Will they go to Harvard…who knows? But these kids seem to be on their way to securing a lot of better adult choices for college and/or employment. As their neighbor, this really works for me. And it makes me better too! Who wants to be the dope that doesn’t support community involvement?
I keep track of my old C.I. Little Leaguers, several are graduating from schools such as the US Merchant Marine Academy, Oneonta, Binghamton, Stony Brook, Oswego and so forth. I even had a kid who is attending St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota. St. Olaf’s was the college that Betty White attended as the fictional character in the Golden Girls (in C.I. we celebrate everything, even St. Olaf’s)! There was one guy, DJ Hennie, who had the grades to get into most Ivy League schools but chose Binghamton. When he made the choice, I told his parents about the Phil Basso story. Go to a great SUNY school, spend the bare minimum on a BA, and get the Ivy graduate degree.
Eight years ago, I was invited to a brief C.I. chorus show during school hours and while watching the performance, all I did was cry. It was that good! And one of my ball players was performing. The kid, Andrew, went to George Mason University on a music scholarship. And this light skinned kid is now teaching music in a public inner city Philly school.
But I also have a friend whose high school aged brother was killed in a marijuana sale a few years back. (My brother) Steve’s son went to school with the kid and he was a really good guy. There is that balance in C.I.—you do or die. There are still issues in C.I., impoverished neighborhoods always have a certain amount of crime. There are also a small number of adult gang members recruiting the young teens who seem to get left behind in school.
And, of course… drugs. However, the opiate problem seems to be just as prevalent in the middle and upper-middle class communities—maybe more so. No one ever consciously said Opiates, Cocaine, or LSD are good… I want some. They cautiously step into that world with a trusted ally and they try it. Most wake up feeling pretty miserable and they walk away from it at some early point. But for others, it is the door to relief from another pain and they continue to use it. Until that is, the pain from using is greater than the pain they were escaping. Those who are left using will, unfortunately, die an early, painful death by a thousand cuts.
So, when you’re writing about the lost potential of folks from poor communities, I’m a true believer!!! Outside of NYC, C.I. is in the bottom 1 to 2% of all New York State school districts in academic testing. Our graduation rates are among the lowest… yet, we still have a fair number of kids thriving beyond all expectations!"
Whether we’re talking about lost potential and suffering, the same people from the same neighborhoods, or structural inequities as a whole, let’s keep thinking about what we can do. I believe the first step to doing is often knowing. I hope this blog series helped shed some light on something we should all know well, given that it's hiding in plain sight.
If you have ideas or strategies you’d like to put into action, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at PBasso@aphsa.org.