Last week, I was privileged to lead a class in an innovative program, the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University, facilitating a conversation with inmates in a DC jail. I was asked to attend by the program’s founder, Dr. Marc Howard, Professor of Government and Law at Georgetown. The program brings together, for credit, scholars, practitioners and students to combat the problem of mass incarceration. Dr. Howard dedicated this program to a high school classmate who had been wrongly accused of murdering his parents.
I met Marc at a Convergence meeting where I serve on the Leadership Council and Marc was a keynote speaker. Convergence is a smart and innovative NGO based in Washington that seeks to form bipartisan initiatives to tackle some of the most pressing issues in our country today. During his presentation, I discovered two connections. We had gone to the same high school on Long Island and I, too, became close friends with a man wrongly accused of murdering his family. While Marc became a lawyer and professor at Georgetown, I wrote a book about the struggle of Wesley Diggs, a Harlem tavern owner living in a New Jersey suburb, to prove his innocence to law enforcement, the media and even his friends. Marc has devoted his professional career to rebuilding the lives of incarcerated men and women through education accompanied by a healthy dose of acknowledgement and affirmation (Marc often referred to his students as “scholars”).
In the conversation I was facilitating, entitled “Locked Up, Inside and Out,” we explored how one doesn’t have to be behind bars to be in prison. We can find ourselves enslaved by others (bosses, bullies), the systemic racism rampant in our society, addiction, abuse or even through what we have come to believe about ourselves. It was a rich and far-ranging dialogue that featured the sharing of many personal stories.
One topic that particularly resonated was the value of connections and how it is important to realize that even seemingly fleeting contacts can have unexpected and lasting impact. We talked about the importance of paying attention, even to mundane interactions, and the need to treat everyone with respect and dignity. It was obvious that Professor Howard had created an environment in which affirmation flourished. It was humbling to be in the presence of people who valued human integrity, especially given the less-than-ideal conditions in which they spent their days.
Toward the end of our 90 minute session, one member of the class spoke about the value of his legacy. He said, “my sentence is longer than my life expectancy, so all I have to give is my legacy, marked by how I treat others while I am in here.” Touched by his insights, I was moved to share that ten days earlier I had buried my mom and how during her funeral, I was reminded again and again of the legacy she left behind.
I had not intended to talk about this experience, but I was so moved by their sharing and by the connections we had made during our brief time inside the prison, that I felt compelled to tell my story. Maybe it was just my imagination or the power of the moment, but it seemed to me that in the mention of my mom’s recent passing, the connection with these incarcerated men and women moved to an even deeper level–a bond that knows no boundaries of race or class or circumstance. We were but human beings bound by the simple act of sharing our stories.
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3 thoughts on “Surprising Connections”
I love this for so many reasons.
You truly change the world! Be it diplomats or prisoners, family or strangers…. Grandma is smiling down… I know she is so proud of you and the awesomeness you bring to this world.
Thanks for this, Bob. I found this commentary not only sensitive and thoughtful, but helpful as I reflect on how easy it seems for our country to “lock ’em up” rather than consider carefully the initial claims and to discover alternatives to confinement.