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Kaia Stern Discusses Her Work at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

Excerpts from NPi's May 2009 Community Dialogue

On May 7th, 2009, Kaia Stern, Director of the Prison Studies Project at Harvard University (formerly director of Pathways Home at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice), participated in NPi’s community dialogue at the Boston Public Library. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

About the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

The institute was founded and is directed by Charles Ogletree who’s an inspiring civil rights lawyer in his community and internationally, really moving mountains. Our institute is named after Charles Hamilton Houston who was Thurgood Marshall’s mentor. He laid the groundwork for the Brown v. Board of Education cases of 1954, which overturned the separate, but equal case that schools should not be segregated along racial lines. The Houston institute is devoted to honoring him and continuing his unfinished work because right now, in 2009, schools are more racially segregated than they were pre-1954.

We have a variety of initiatives that really could all be framed under the inclusion project. What are policies and practices that include people and what are those that exclude people, whether that’s from human community or from civic membership and participation? And to look at the continuum of racialized violence and how it impacts people’s lives right now. Our work focuses on opportunity, racial equity, and the crisis of mass incarceration. One project is redirecting the school to prison pipeline. Why is it that so many young people in particular neighborhoods end up behind bars? There’s a disproportionate amount of people in communities of concentrated disadvantage that end up locked up. And what’s the nexus between prisons, the military and poverty? How do we abolish capital punishment?

I direct Pathways Home, which is essentially a reentry initiative. “Reentry” is kind of the common language to talk about the crisis of approximately 700,000 people per year leaving jails and prisons returning to specific communities. One third of this population is not reincarcerated. So the recidivism rate, the rate at which people are released and then go back to prison, is really high. Much of our work is focused on how to do policy, how to connect people. I love that: “building prosperity by connecting people.” That’s a really powerful way to say what we strive to do. And given the capital of Harvard Law School as an institution and that brand, it opens up a lot of doors. It also closes a lot of doors. I believe that the service providers, the people who actually help people coming out of jail and prison who are working on the ground, are the real love warriors in this battle. We’re a research institution. We don’t provide direct services, but we are in a position to connect people and to connect various stakeholders.

On how she came to do this work

I grew up in New York City. I did an internship in college in a maximum security prison and it just completely changed my life. The program began by men inside prison saying ‘we want more relationship with people on the outside,’ and they invited a professor at Vassar College, where I was a student, to begin this internship program. And I remember the moment that I walked into this prison and there was this—it was like a holy conversation. Reverend James Lawson talks about a holy conversation where it’s like a voice inside yourself speaks to yourself and you don’t really understand maybe until later what it really means. And I saw the sunlight refract off of this man’s shackles and something blinded me, temporarily blinded me, and I knew the course of my life was altered. The juxtaposition of seeing people shackled, the most stark form of oppression I’d ever witnessed in this life—many people refer to it as the belly of the beast. And then speaking to individuals inside prison who were talking about how, through their relationship to God and their relationship to education, they were really free. So I became a student of religion and prison simultaneously, and I’ve been doing work in and out of prisons in four states for the last 15 years.

On what she’s learned from the community

I really appreciate this question [what has surprised you most about this work?] because what surprises me then becomes, oh, this is so obvious, of course. And that’s a little bit of how I track my relationship to my work and my growth around it. I can say the one thing that surprised me in working with people who are directly impacted by the crisis of mass incarceration—I kept meeting people who—those who had a loved one who was locked up also had a loved one or a family member who worked in law enforcement, who worked in corrections. And the more speaking and communication I had with various communities, I would ask, ‘how many of you all have a family member who’s locked up?’ and, ‘how many of you have someone in law enforcement?’ and those of you who said yes to the last two questions, can you rise? The way that we would fill the room was remarkable. And again, this nexus between prisons and poverty, and that oftentimes the keeper and the kept come from the same socioeconomic communities, if not the same families.

My heart is very much in the prison abolition movement… The system is so broken it’s failing everybody; we need a radical restructuring. And yet the relationships that I’ve developed with people who work in law enforcement and work in corrections and those rare ones, those love warriors who are really about healing and public safety in its true form, are allies. And so it’s interesting for me—in doing the work, which for me is very much about access and building bridges between people on the inside and the outside… working with the so-called “keeper” and learning about the communities from which they come. And understanding why is it that if you speak to young people in certain communities and ask, ‘where do you envision yourself in 10 years?’ and they say if I’m alive, I’m either going to be in the military or in prison. And whether I’m wearing the uniform and wielding the stick or I’m behind bars is yet to be told. Because oftentimes it’s who gets caught. So that was a real surprise. But now it’s just common for me, and I have a lot of examples like that. But that’s to me the most powerful right now, the relationship between the keeper and the kept.

On the prison reform movement

When I say that my heart is in the prison abolition movement it’s because I believe that institutions are made of people. We know that systemic exclusion is a web of relationships.

It’s actually people who have done time in prison. I’ve never done time myself, I’ve always come and gone as a visitor. They have been the ones who have said to me, you know, Kaia, really we need prisons for some people and there’s no way to abolish the prison system. And obviously, with my emphasis on the workforce, the massive workforce of people who are employed in corrections and law enforcement, there’s no way we could just abolish the prisons. We need to begin to slowly redirect our funding from war efforts and prison construction to education and social service provision… We need the schools working with the department of probation and parole and community based service providers so that maybe we can work on alternatives to incarceration with young people who are [in danger].

Discussing alternatives to the current system

Two thirds of people who are inside prisons are there for drug-related crimes. “Non-violent” is a slippery slope for a bunch of reasons, but crimes where there is no one injured victim… If we were to shift our emphasis to looking at substance abuse, obviously somewhat glorified and somewhat criminalized in terms of drug consumption in American capitalism… But what if we could treat drug addiction as a public health crisis? understood violence as a public health crisis? We would have a very different relationship to who should be punished and why… Sentencing reform, alternatives to incarceration, decarceration would drastically shift the prison population… Or prison abolition, putting our resources into schools and closing down prisons.

We have deeply embedded ideological assumptions about who should be punished and why that are rooted in the religio-legal framework of traditional Protestantism, of American capitalism. We really have this notion about punishment. Different cultures do it differently, but we scapegoat, we demonize. If you’re not saved, if you’re not white, if you’re not male, if you’re not straight, if you’re not Christian, that you will be real estate. That’s the slave codes in Virginia not too many centuries ago. And similarly we see penal policies where if you are convicted of a crime, even if you serve your time and get out, then you’re barred from financial aid, you can’t get Section 8 housing, you are barred from employment. We could say that the existing legislation with regard to people with criminal records serve as a modern day Jim Crow. We’re really doing the same thing in terms of targeting and excluding people from participation. And there’s a continuum from plantations to prisons… Who is considered property and who is considered human is very real and afflicts us. It afflicts our psyches, our policies. We have this “spirit of punishment” [T. Richard Snyder] as a culture that I think chokes us all.

Advice she would pass on to others who are doing social justice work

While there are forces of injustice that are within us and among us, there’s also an abundance of resources within us and among us. I’m reminded of a NPR program I heard the end of. A woman was describing being a child walking into a birthday party where they were playing musical chairs. You’re all familiar with this game? She said imagine you walk into a room and you’re a child and you’re all excited. You have your party shoes and there’s cake and your friends and you see them in a circle playing this game, and very quickly you learn the rules of the game, which are that there’s not enough and that you have to compete to win. I remember very quickly learning you have to be slick and go around the corner and sit down really fast, and you have to be aggressive. There’s not enough. And if this is the game that every child knows and plays at a birthday party, what are we teaching our children? That there’s scarcity.

Even though we’re [in an economic crisis right now], I just can’t help but believe that there is enough. And that scarcity is an illusion and that really it’s just that we’re greedy and we waste. That there is enough, there are enough resources in the community, enough resources in this room. So I think we can listen to that. And in terms of making change, I think of trusting ourselves and listening to ourselves and knowing that people make a difference in small ways all the time and it’s a process. Ella Baker reminds us that the struggle is eternal and the tribe carries on. So my lesson for anybody wanting to do social justice [work] is that you are that tribe and you have to go within and listen… How do you want to relate to the justice you see in the world? [How do] you want to be in the world?

In response to: How are you seeing things change in your organization and your field now that the Obama administration is in? Is there a tangible change happening? Is the conversation shifting? the flow of resources or collaboration? What’s happening? 

At our institute we are very, very happy [about Barack Obama’s presidency]. And given our focus on race and justice, it’s a very interesting time. Charles Ogletree actually taught both Michelle and Barack Obama and continues to be a principal advisor to Barack Obama. So that’s a direct link, and we’re very grateful to know what an ally he is. I think again the stimulus package is focused on equity and more educational opportunities.

The Obama administration has not spoken out directly about the prison crisis I think for reasons we can understand. But for example, Jim Webb—no one can say he’s soft on crime—[he is] now speaking about this broken prison system… I also think [with George W. Bush being in office for so long] it’s like crisis and opportunity are linked… It’s almost as if it got so bad with the Bush administration that now people are talking about reform in new ways.

It’s one of these moments where [people are thinking]… oh, we’re in a colorblind society. People are echoing this because we’ve got a family of color in the White House. Well, now suddenly racial disparities are neutralized? Well, that’s not real. How do we hold ourselves accountable as U.S. citizens to reckon with what we are doing in the world, what we have done, where we have come from? And the actual people and the communities and the neighborhoods—how do we hold ourselves accountable so that the people on the ground are really accessing the resources that we’re talking about when we say there’s this reform happening in this country.

In response to: How does each organization evaluate its impact, its progress toward its vision? How do you capture your impact?

I think as a research institute the dry answer would be policy change is the real measure of success. But it’s hard to measure sharing knowledge. It’s hard to measure what it looks like to identify and fill gaps in research. It’s hard to measure the partnerships and the value of “building prosperity by connecting people.” What does that look like? That’s a web of influence and power that may not be realized for generations yet to be born.

What is success? It’s when a student comes to me in tears because he realizes how many people are suffering, or a student comes to me and is speechless because she feels like there’s so much work to be done in the world. I think transformation, transformative justice, is what I feel passionate about. That’s hard to measure because it happens in so many forms.

In response to: Is racism the root of the problem in a lot of the systems and a lot of the battles that you guys are trying to fight?

Like religion, race is one of these paradoxes; it’s a biological illusion and it’s a social reality. It’s very real violence on too many black and brown bodies in particular communities. And while there is a continuum of racialized violence in this country… You said what’s the root—and I like to remember that radical means root. How do we be radicals, and what are really the roots of this suffering, of this injustice, this inequity, this poverty in the face of abundance?

Before “race” as we know it to be [today] in the United States, notions of who was “other” and who should be excluded were relevant and informed our relationship to law, institutions and people on this soil. I think that the human tendency to define oneself in relationship to that which is other is as old as the human community itself and precedes race as we know it.

The crisis of mass incarceration is an institutionalized apartheid, a racial apartheid, a political apartheid. We’re not talking about it in those terms, but they are very real. Yet to come from a spiritual place—and much of my relationship to this work is not just as an academic—I dropped out of law school actually to go to divinity school because I’m inspired by laws that cannot be written. And as an interfaith minister I have faith that we are more each other’s reflections than not.

I feel compelled to share Thandeka’s work… She was a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. She’s an African American woman, and she wrote her thesis on whiteness. “Learning To Be White.” And she interviewed white people, [and asked the question], when did you realize that you were white? And without fail each of the stories was one of pain. It was the archetypical story for her: I invited Susie over and Susie was Asian or brown skinned or something, and that the child very quickly realized from his or her parents that their love was conditional upon realizing their whiteness in opposition to this other. So shame was very much a part of their white identity.

She invited white people in her audience to do the exercise, the oftentimes painful exercise of bringing attention to their own whiteness in a different way. Because you can say functionally in this country we have two races: white and non-white. So whether you’re Ecuadorian or Ghanaian or Vietnamese, you’re going to get maybe different treatment by the cops depending on what the political atmosphere is… So let’s say we’re talking, and I’m like, I have this friend, she’s white, and she said to me… You’d be like, why you gotta to talk about her whiteness? We are the norm over here with white skin privilege. And she said it was very uncomfortable. And I think that given the amount of white people in this room and my own complexion in society, we need to reckon with really painful ideas about what our racial identities mean. How do they cripple us? How do they open up doors?

I think that new language around shame, personal accounting for our way in the world—there’s a lot of work that white people need to do. But similarly I was just visiting Rikers [Island, the largest penal colony in world history]… and 90% of the corrections officers are people of color, many of whom may have, one could say, internalized generations of racism and are instruments of very deep racism. So I think it raises more questions than answers, questions about the roots of racism… and sometimes that serves us.

In response to: [Media] has always been a way for nonprofits in social change to get their message out… Where do you see media going?

I would caution along those lines of this technology that we have. I see my nieces and nephews texting with the IDK and LOL and everything’s abbreviated and instant and we’re always in touch. Students cite Wikipedia before they would ever step into a library. I’m so glad you’re having this talk here, at a public library, because we forget what it’s like to go and hold the book. The syllabi are online now and we never hold the pages, and we don’t write each other letters… [Media-making and social justice work] is also talking to people and listening and being present and not checking your iPhone every five seconds. It’s really about communication, community, and being present.

In response to: What is a major challenge or opportunity your organization is facing right now?

I would say that a real challenge is to not embody what we seek to destroy, and I say that as a lesson. My last class in graduate school I thought I gave this incredible presentation kind of indicting the Catholic church and penal policy and violence and on and on and on. My mentor, when I was finished, was just silent and looks in my eyes… And then he said, “Kaia, you embody the same tone of moral condemnation that you seek to destroy.” And I was—that cut deep. It’s so true, and I feel like we do it all the time at the breakfast table and also in terms of policy.

Just to give you an example, with hate crimes, let’s say we’re trying to advocate against hate crimes… I’m starting to call it progressive fundamentalism. But even real liberal folks, the response is usually, “Prosecute!” Prosecute the people who committed this hate crime. Or the torturers at Abu Ghraib or Guantanomo Bay… we need to torture them… With the division between the red states and the blue states, it’s like we embody the same thing we’re trying to destroy, which is the way we don’t work together in our communities. I think that’s a challenge for us individually and collectively.

In terms of getting involved there’s so much work to be done and there’s so much work in the community that we [at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice] invite you to be involved in. I see the real fruits of connecting individual people to projects they care about and building networks that can really make change. Let’s say there’s a community that’s doing advocacy for fair housing—let’s link with them. That’s the social capital. That’s the connecting people that we love to do.

In response to: You all are facing such difficult circumstances. I don’t just mean financially, but just doing what you do. You’re looking really difficult situations in the eye and trying to heal them. So, a two part question: how do you stay present when so much of what has led to these situations is historic and some of your hopes are future-oriented? And how do you not own all of the problems that you see? How do you prevent yourself from taking them on, carrying this weight of the world on your shoulders?

I’ll say I think I stay present by really making eye contact with people. A real love of mine and the seed of much of my work, and I’ve yet to really develop it, is a constructive theology about eye contact. Eye contact is so powerful that human beings really don’t maintain eye contact without words for more than 10 seconds unless they’re going to make love or fight each other. I think the exception to this norm, cross-cultural variables aside, is an infant and a primary caregiver. But there’s something very powerful about eye contact. And certainly theologically, if we claim that we’re made in the image of God, or we use a human rights paradigm, there’s an integrity to each individual person that’s inalienable. What happens when we look into each other’s eyes? I really learned this waiting tables far more than in any seminar at Harvard Divinity School. How do we look at each other and not look at each other and what does it mean and what’s at stake and what’s reflected? So I would say that really looking in each other’s eyes. That’s the way that I try to stay present.

How do you carry the weight of it? I think you do and you don’t. It’s like [Hilary Allen] said, opportunity is everywhere and it’s heartbreaking and it’s uplifting at the same time. I feel like witnessing the dehumanization inside prisons… and I’m just going to end with what I think is a really powerful example. I was taking some students into a tour of a maximum security prison in LA County and they showed us—the euphemisms never cease to amaze me—but they call it the safety cell. This is a small padded room with nothing but a grate on the floor for people to go to the bathroom. And people are locked in there naked. The officer said ‘this is our safety cell for people who are at risk to other people and to themselves.’ When he opened up the door, the smell was overwhelming. There was just feces streaked all over the wall. And what struck me is that to be human is to resist and even in the most dehumanizing [situations]… You can’t imagine anything more dehumanizing than being locked in a room naked with padded walls and nothing but a grate in the floor to relieve yourself, and yet humanity asserts itself. People resist with whatever resources they have. There’s something about that. As it breaks my heart, it inspires me that humanity can be revealed even in the most stark practices of dehumanization.

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