The goal of the job was one I could get behind: close the case.
About ten years ago, I had a social service job working with teenagers on probation in Philadelphia. It was a catch-all service where I had a good amount of freedom to do what made sense to me as long as the paperwork was getting done and the client was making progress on the court’s terms. I tried to mix it up, to entertain the teenager and myself, to keep our court-ordered weekly meetings as misery-free as possible. I don’t remember what I officially called it, but one strategy I developed was an informal circuit of “different ways to be Black” for the many young men I worked with who seemed to have never gotten off the block-- who couldn’t imagine another life for themselves-- for people, in their words, like them.
We went to the record store to meet with my DJ friends and have them try out mixing records in the booth. We went to the food co-op and the roti place to talk about different ways of eating. We went to Books Through Bars, where not only could they see how many incarcerated folks wrote asking for books, but they could talk to the kinds of people who volunteered and pick out some books for themselves. We also went to a range of arts and non-profit type events. I was open about when I thought something was BS so that they would be too. Critical thinking is a valuable, albeit often depressing, skill.
I remember taking two of my favorites, I’ll call them H and Z, to a film screening of the excellent documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes that was followed by a panel discussion about the kinds of inequalities many Black youth in Philadelphia face. Though he’d been at rapt attention during the movie, when the panel started Z promptly fell asleep. Another story, but he’d probably been up all night, and he needed sleep where he could get it. But H was engaged; curious. Turned to me, pointed at himself and said, “they’re talking about me.”
“Yeah,” they were, but it was off. We both felt it. It was a mostly Black panel speaking to a mostly white audience. It sounded like a lot of yada yada. We listened a bit more. I started to get frustrated about the symbolism. Pomp and circumstance. Simple victim narratives. Simple summaries. I kept it to myself, but H knew. Said, “Go get ‘em, Marissa,” when the panel was opened up to audience questions. But it wasn’t the time. And, yes complicated, I would’ve wanted to claim the teenagers I had brought as people who should be included in the conversation. But it was not the venue in which to do that in a genuine, decent way. And I still can’t think of anything I could’ve said into the mic that would have shifted the set-up. Plus, it was getting late, and I needed to wake Z up and take both of them home.
This job followed a series of similar jobs: street outreach, behavioral issue diagnosed children, a similar one with weekly visits to families with DHS cases... The teenagers on probation I worked with were in their homes. They’d been released from placement or lock-up and were in a state of transition or, less likely, they’d somehow avoided long term state custody. I’d explain how their homes were in every neighborhood in Philadelphia, but that wouldn’t capture the reality. Though the teens lived all over the city, I can’t recall a single one who wasn’t in a low-income neighborhood. I write that and realize they weren’t even all teens, technically. The youngest was 12. I worked with maybe three young women, but most were young Black men. This, after all, was in Philadelphia where 43% of the population is Black, which is, of course, not to say the numbers matched up: about 90% of my clients were Black. And, at just 13% of the city’s population, the second largest demographic of teens I worked with were Latino which at that point here in Philly usually meant Puerto Ricans. But then, every so often I would walk up to a house, ring the door, and do my best to hide my surprise at the white kid who answered. Oh hello. It’s true about the extent of white poverty (according to the census, 18.9 million white people in America live in poverty), but aside from the unfortunate and to date resilient old cliche of addicts in the Kensington section of the city, white poverty can seem to be somewhat hidden.
I left that job to go to grad school far away. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on Z’s 97-year-old great-grandmother’s face when I told her I was leaving. She’d stepped up to care for him and his three siblings when nobody else in the family would, and dammit if the world didn’t owe her a break. Least that’s what I read into the only cold look she ever gave me. I’d dreaded telling her because I understood the loss. Yes, on some small but consistent level I’d been helping her through Z’s ups and downs for over a year, and fierce as she was, she needed the help. But also, I’d grown to care deeply for all of them. If ever offered the impossible choice, this is the family I’d have wanted to be a part of.
There are many others I won’t forget. Teens who gave me similar looks of betrayal when I said I was leaving or who, months after their case had closed, would still call me up to say hello. Saying goodbye made me feel like a selfish, relatively privileged asshole. And I was. Sure, it’s the trouble of the “paid friend." Sure, some of you might wonder if I drew clear enough lines, while other readers might want to give me a “you did enough” pass. I’m more interested in how to be human.
But yet, one of the reasons I left that job was I knew I wouldn’t be good at it forever. It would wear me down because it should. Already I was laughing inappropriately. For example, at the client who’d gotten shot crossing the street—I promise it was funny. Kinda. In a nice way. In a laugh or cry but he didn’t die way. Already I was too jaded and judgmental and figuring any other caseworker, probation officer, teacher, administrator, program coordinator, etc. that I had to work with would be incompetent.
Eventually, post-grad school, I ended up getting a full-time teaching position at Community College of Philadelphia. In one of the final interviews for the position I joked about how I was now working with the “good cousin.” But soon I started working with the College’s REACH re-entry program, and I was in familiar territory once again. I started as a tutor and have since taught college-level English courses in men’s and women’s jails in Philadelphia and in special cohort classes on main campus. I feel lucky to do this work. And that luck comes with a sense of responsibility.
Working with students who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated is a weird thing to feel lucky to get to do. But I do. It feels like work worth doing, and I think my experiences, personality, and commitment to decency make me a good fit for it. Further, it feels like work worth talking about. I want to tell people about the people I’ve met. I want to sideswipe stereotypes and trite dismissals of both incarcerated individuals and the family and friends they are separated from. So I’m glad Philadelphia Printworks has offered me this venue. And because there is no way that this will all fit in one article, I plan to write a series on this distinctly American failure.
So what to focus on first? An article about desensitization? About the line between caring and caring too much? About the question of how to be an “effective” ally or teacher or program facilitator for the thousands of Philadelphians who return annually to their communities from jail or prison (or too often their lack of community)? Better yet, how to work to stop desensitization, societal and individual, and push for the kind of significant policy change that is long overdue? Better-better yet, how to imagine and create a whole other system of dealing with people who, at worst, might really not play well with others? Ah, see now? This is why I include a disclaimer about the limitations of this article.
I will never have enough space to catalogue the dismissals. Nor can I hold or know them all. But I know the consequences of desensitization—in our country and in our selves—are incalculable and everywhere. It is the gross number of people incarcerated in America. It is racism and classism and flawed masculinity inherent. It is false safety and profits and decreased dignity. It is investment in the thinking that any of us are different or deserving.
And these are just two examples:
A good friend is currently serving a 17-and-a-half-year sentence for a text message to a minor. There is nothing a text message can contain that warrants that kind of time. I refuse to live in a world where this can be considered justifiable.
A current student recently wrote that he has lost 23 years of his life to incarceration but that it isn’t as bad as it sounds. I can’t imagine 23 years ever sounding not that bad. And I refuse to live in a world where 23 years in prison sounds okay. I respect my student’s desire to put a positive spin on those 23 years. Hell, such reframing is likely essential to his continued survival, but for me—for those of us who this doesn’t apply to—it’s the other way around.
Philly or PA who would like to get involved or learn more: I suggest the following organizations:
Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. And though she’s also paid some sort of rent in Lawrence, Detroit, D.C., Laramie, Havana and the Mexican state of Chiapas, Philadelphia has mostly been home since 2000. Her poetry and prose has been supported by the work of The Leeway Foundation, Hedgebrook, Art Farm, Fancyland, VONA/Voices, Lambda, Make/shift, As Us, Acentos Review, Bedfellows, Solstice, APIARY, Aster(ix), Big Bell and others. She is the founder of Thread Makes Blanket press www.threadmakesblanket.com and teaches at the Community College of Philadelphia.