Friday, April 9, 2010

San Francisco Reflections

Sooo, I was supposed to blog while I was on the trip . . . but, I never got around to it.

Er, well, you know what they say!

Here are some reflections. It was an intense and wonderful trip. Our group was great - and small - so we all got to know each other pretty well. :) San Francisco is BEAUTIFUL. I'm so thankful I got a chance to go - it was definitely an opportunity of a lifetime.

This is what our week looked like:

On Monday we went to do some community organizing. I had some issues with it because we were wading in very political waters. I'm not a hugely political person. I understand that we need politicians, and since I know I wasn't cut out to be one, I am incredibly grateful for people who do feel called into that arena. But, having said that, I didn't sign up for this trip to rep a particular partisan agenda, and I felt uncomfortable doing so.

Additionally, before that day, I'd never heard of the organization that we were supposed to be advocating for. In the past, I've found myself in sticky situations where I was selling something I wasn't necessarily buying. I felt that I didn't have enough information - and I was very wary.

I voiced my concern - and I know I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Still, I participated in the actual community organizing later in the day (my group talked to people outside a supermarket). I have to say, I was surprised and touched by how receptive people in the community were. They seemed to genuinely want and need the help that this organization was offering.

Tuesday - We went to speak with the Chief of Probation, Donald Blevins, the Probation Director, Reggie Davis and Community Network Coordinator, Tony Crear. I thought it was really interesting and informative. I was very thankful that these busy guys took so much time away from their days to come and talk to us. Mr. Crear told us a little bit about his story - how he came to work for Almeda County - it was incredibly inspiring.

Wednesday - It was a fairly intense day. We saw a parole meeting that morning. I was moved to tears more than once. I don't remember the first speaker's name - but I will always remember his speech. He said he used to sit where newly freed men were sitting - and that he'd made the decision to do something different with his life. He told of how, earlier that week, his mother had passed away and the event had proved devastating - but - he was SO thankful that she passed away knowing that her son had made something of himself. He wanted the same for these guys. And we could tell that he meant it. All the speakers were so genuine. It was hard to believe and deeply inspiring to discover that they gave these same spiels EVERY week.

After the parole meeting we toured the brand new Almeda County Juvenile Hall facility. It was immaculate, crisp, state of the art, and haunting. I really felt for the kids that found themselves there. And I was moved by the passion that exuded from the people who worked there

Thursday was a much needed free day - I did some shopping that morning for souvenirs to bring home and then in the afternoon we all went to Alcatraz. It was (surprisingly) beautiful - and haunting as well, but in a much different way.

Friday - Oh, MAN - this was definitely the hardest day. We went to San Quentin. Before we went a lot of people were expressing how nervous/excited they felt about going. Personally, I was feeling kind of indifferent. I didn't fully grasp the intensity and meaning of this last leg of our journey and I was feeling very tired - living in the hostel for the week and being away from my husband and daughter had taken it's toll on me - I was starting to feel ready to go home.

So, as you can imagine, I hadn't prepared myself mentality (or emotionally) AT ALL for what we were about to experience. But from the moment we arrived I knew it was going to be more than I had originally bargained for. We had to go through two separate security checks. As we stood outside waiting to go through the second one, Mr. Crittendon pointed out death row and explained that we would not be able to go there, for obvious reasons. We were all a little relieved, I think.

After we all made it through the second security point, we walked over to the chapel as the gates closed behind us. It was eery, to say the least. In the chapel, we sat down with the teens who were a part of Real Choices - a group of boys who may have been vulnerable to becoming involved in gang activity. Our prisoner guides introduced themselves, directing their attention to the teenagers mostly. Some of them told us how they got there. Some had been there for 20-30+ years. In his introduction, one of the prisoners, explaining that before a person gets to the point of violence or a gang - there's a kind of catalyst. He asked us all what that might be. Then he posed this question, "How many of you have a father figure in your home?"

In our pew, every college kid's hand shot up. We sat behind the teens and watched . . . as nothing happened. Almost none of the teenagers could raise their hand. The illustration was vivid, remarkable, and really really sad. I felt angry at the world - at this illustration that some people are a lot more fortunate than others - and I tried (successfully for the moment) to hold back tears.

Later I did cry. It was hard, walking through the prison. When we walked by the prisoners in their cells, our prisoner guides would walk by our side for our protection. The psychology of that alone was almost impossible to wrap my mind around.

Our guides told us about heated racial tension, and the very real possibilities of being killed or being put in a position where you're forced to kill someone else. We ate prison food, which wasn't that bad until our guides informed us that it's what they ate EVERY single day. Mr. Crittendon told us about the amazing mural in the mess halls by Santos, a former prison and an insanely talented artist, who had hidden secrets in the walls.

The word that kept coming to my mind throughout the day: dehumanizing. The whole thing, it was crazy. And sad. Like, we treat the prisoners like animals and then we're surprised when they act like animals.

Our guides were AMAZING. I was moved by their stories. And I've found myself thinking about them often since I returned.

I walked away from San Quentin feeling like I had been changed in some kind of fundamental way. Not many people can or want to say that they visited San Quentin on their spring break, but I am ridiculously thankful that I can.

Vernell Crittendon, our guide and facilitator, was AWESOME. I loved getting to know him throughout the week. He, too, was a total inspiration. I'm so thankful that we got to meet him. He is truly a remarkable man.

Ha, I think that covers everything. Thanks for reading this lengthy blog. :)

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