Over the decades of a long career, I’ve attended countless professional conferences, and more often than not, I’ve come away reinvigorated with a briefcase filled with new research and business cards of experts I will contact later.
The recent annual Coalition for Juvenile Justice Conference in Washington, District of Columbia, did not disappoint and, in fact, had the added joy of seeing Rob Vickery, a friend and one of the new generation of rising stars, win the National Juvenile Justice Specialist Award. It is especially encouraging to see Rob and so many other young professionals bringing change and achieving results.
Occasionally, these conferences surprise. And for me, this year’s surprise came from some even younger voices.
Robert Listenbee, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, introduced three young artists of the spoken and written word. They represented Split this Rock, a group of poets who represent the diversity of American poetry today.
All three, two males and a female, had written excellent poems, in formal structure and meter and each had a compelling content and tone. The audience was moved. They knew the role of gifted poets — to describe and speak of events and feelings that evoke strong emotional response from the reader and listener. They all succeeded.
The youth with a James Earl Jones voice was angry — with an understandable rage at being labeled a black teenager who was likely headed to prison, labeled without knowing who he really is. He recognized that most black teens are often seen in stereotypical terms — poor, uneducated, out of step with acceptable society perhaps because of his clothes, his music, his friends, his hair, his color.
The second young man had a softer edge but told of similar experiences of being stopped by police without cause, treated roughly for no reason. He described feeling both feared as a young black man and fearful of what his life might become in a dominant white society. The young woman’s voice and words kept the audience in rapt silence as she related the facts and feelings of being young, black and female — a different stereotype than the males — but no less moving.
I can neither repeat nor explain the truth in these young voices — you need to read or, better yet, to hear their poems yourselves — but I can tell you that they all felt victimized by living in a society that must change in order — to borrow a current phrase — to “Make America Great.” After the presentation, someone said that it was “sobering.” That seems accurate if we consider both the drunkenness and the hangover that follows.
White America can be seen as drunk on power, privilege and money, things that too many people of color do not have. Being drunk brings a certain blindness to what goes on around you, an inability to see the reality of racism and institutionalized poverty and the hopelessness that results.
Drunkenness makes us stumble — to trip over matters of public policy and legislation like the War on Drugs that contributed to the appearance of a War on African Americans and to the siege state of mind brought on by a neighborhood police state.
What this country needs is a hangover — a post-party opportunity for reflection, a quiet time for sober thought about what we have done right and what we have done wrong. Feelings of guilt and shame usually accompany the search for an antidote to the headache. During such an interlude, we need to learn, think and feel what it is like to be a person of color in America — to be poor, to have fewer opportunities because of a lack of power, privilege and money.
Hangovers often lead to resolutions — to drink less, to do better, to be kind — to use our heads to make a better life. In public policy, we need to step back from the loud crowd in politics and the media and to listen to the good in us all. Our resolutions must be to improve the experience of people of color in our country.
Step one: Listen to those young poets about their experience in our nation. Their message is about much more than teen angst. It is the truth about being young and black in America. That is the sort of youth engagement needed for juvenile justice reform.