Hope Amid the Ruins

Before I get to the hope part, the part where I talk about Echoes of Incarceration, the new program that puts film cameras in the hands of young people with parents in prison, let me tell you about what depresses me, what has driven me to blog about this in the first place.

Whenever I want to feel miserable, I look at a bunch of statistics about the state of the criminal-justice system in America and its impact on our most vulnerable citizens, our children:

• We imprison more people than any other country; 2.2 million Americans are currently in prison or jail, a 500 percent increase in the last three decades.
• An estimated that 2.7 million children, one in 28 kids, have an incarcerated parent.
• An estimated one in nine black children has an incarcerated parent.

Numb yet? Here's another one: Parental incarceration has been linked to a wide array of emotional and health problems, and a recent study by the University of California at Irvine found that parental incarceration more detrimental to children than the death of a parent.

Just as depressing, but less easy to explain, is the way we continue to talk about these kids, as if they're the suspicious "other" rather than real members of the communities in which we live. Just a recent example: the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was on, and my son and I were watching it on television, from the comfort of our couch in our heated apartment (yes, I am thankful for having a home and being safe and warm), and a marching band of young people from an underprivileged kids program marched by on the screen. One of the network announcers hastily reassured viewers that the most important aspect of the marching band was that these children must first agree to a strict code of conduct before they can perform. That was all that was said about these kids: Next performer -- hey, is Nick Jonas on that float?

It's a small thing, but think about that. Discipline is important for every child, mine as well as yours, not just for some child born into terrible circumstances (no doubt some of the kids had an incarcerated parent -- they're underprivileged, aren't they?). Why didn't the network, instead of using those eight seconds to point out how important it was for them to behave, emphasize how the kids in the parade were as proud as anyone else to be there, and were probably receiving some much-needed love and attention in their program? The moment reminded me of the time I learned that sports announcers tended to describe black athletes as "natural" but white athletes as "smart," a situation that still, apparently, persists. That description of the marching band was put there for a reason: Middle America wanted to be reassured that these kids were not a threat, and mainstream media unthinkingly obliged that want.

These problems go deeper than the latest news cycles, of course, these are systemic problems that we have barely started to address -- some say we are still in denial of. The drug war is a failure, our gun culture raises the stakes for violence for everyone in this country, every day, and these kids get unfairly labeled as bad kids through absolutely no fault of their own -- it's their parents who have been convicted of a crime, not them, but the kids are still labeled and judged.

If we are to start somewhere, it probably should start with how we talk about these issues. Change can't come if we don't change about how we talk about the problems. So I'm trying to focus on the positive, though (for starters, I'm getting my fat bum off the couch). Right now I'm doing whatever I can for Echoes for Incarceration, a non-profit run by filmmaker and producer Jeremy Robins that teaches young people with incarcerated parents how to make films, and then works with them to tell their own stories.

Why like a project like this? For starters, it's packed with the great themes: self-empowerment, education, and activism. With Echoes, ultimately, it's the young people who educate us. For another, it doesn't teach these kids to leave behind where they came from, but instead helps them to come to terms with it, on their own terms, even as they learn a marketable skill in today's tough economic market.

Echoes is already a five-year-old group, and have screened their projects thousands of times in universities, prisons, and national conferences. They've partnered with Sesame Street, Upworthy, and just last month screened their work at the White House. Their latest Kickstarter is here, please check it out, because traditional media seems to be failing us. Social media campaigns like "It Gets Better," #yesallwomen and #blacklivesmatter are giving voice to people who are underrepresented. But we still need to do the slow, hard work of educating people, so perhaps Echoes of Incarceration will be ultimately able to combine the best of both of these new-media ideas.