Day: July 13, 2013

The Power of Creative Writing

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A writing workshop in Arkansas is teaching kids about diversity and acceptance.
Teaching kids how to express themselves through writing is invaluable.

Jontesha wants to start her own business, Aaliyah plans to attend law school, and Marla hopes to become a Broadway actress.

These goals are written on the teenage girls’ coat of arms in a summer program called “In Our Own Voices.”

Sponsored by Just Communities of Arkansas, a nonprofit that seeks to bring people together to achieve inclusion, equity, and justice, the workshop aims to teach students about themselves and others through creative writing projects.


“From our work with young people, we know that they need to be encouraged to find their own voices, and to be confident that what they think and feel is important,” Ruth Shepherd, executive director of Just Communities of Arkansas.

“Giving these youngsters an opportunity to explore the themes of diversity, identity, neighborhood, parents, and other important adults and institutions in their lives makes it possible for them to become more introspective, more thoughtful about how they present themselves, and how they interact with others.”

The class is based on a curriculum to foster social justice created by Kelly Ford, a graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service.

Ford writes in her curriculum paper: “Young people can benefit from a structure that encourages them to think, share and listen face to face. And if, in the doing of these things, they find their voice, improve their communication skills and self-esteem, or develop an affinity for reading and writing, wouldn’t we call that impact?”

On a recent Wednesday at the newly opened Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center in Little Rock, neighborhood is the topic. Students are asked to close their eyes and imagine their house and its surroundings. When prompted by the moderator, the students share what they see.

“A garden with colorful flowers,” a child says.

Another one says, “A brown house that needs to be cleaned.”

“A big, loud dog,” says one girl.

From there, the students write about their neighborhoods on bright, yellow pieces of paper. They are timed as a way to work quickly. After a few minutes, they are asked to share their work with others at their table.

They then take their thoughts and write a poem that will be placed in their binder. Students are asked to read their poems, and after a reading, everyone snaps their fingers for positive feedback.

Other daily projects include creating a coat of arms about what makes each student unique, writing an ode to something they like and a writing exercise about who raised them. The latter project’s goal is to teach “diversity, self-esteem, acceptance and understanding,” according to the curriculum.

At the end of the two-week class, the students will host a party to “share their voices” with family and friends and read their best piece of writing. They will also have a book with their writing in it to keep.

Just Communities of Arkansas plans to share the curriculum with its affiliate organizations around the country. Ford says she believes the power of the arts—literary, performing and visual—can effect change.

“Writing is a way for students to discover how they really think and feel about some things. It’s an opportunity for them to dream, to mourn, to explore situations (hypothetical or real), and more,” Ford said.

“I think we learn empathy from reading and writing. Hopefully, this curriculum is structured in such a way that the students find much within themselves of which to be proud.”

Is sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole constitutional?

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We’ve all done something bad. But imagine doing something bad, so bad that you go to jail for the rest of your life, with no chance of parole. Would this be considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects us from “cruel and unusual punishment”?

That is the heart of the issue of the Supreme Court cases Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. In both cases, the juveniles were found guilty of offenses in which no one was killed, and they received life sentences without the chance of release. These two are among the over one hundred cases across the country in which a juvenile was sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses.
In Sullivan, Joe Sullivan was sent away for life for raping an elderly woman when he was 13. The case of Graham focuses on Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. In both cases, the judge ruled against the advice of the Department of Corrections and gave the stiffest punishment allowable by law.

In Sullivan, the judge said that he was “beyond help,” and the judge who sentenced Graham to life without parole stated during sentencing: “If I can’t do anything to help you, then I have to . . . protect the community from your actions.”

These cases come after the 2005 Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, where the court ruled 5 to 4 that it is unconstitutional to execute anyone convicted of a crime when he or she was a juvenile.

Now the issue is whether letting a juvenile spend the rest of his or her life in prison is constitutional. Furthermore, the issue of whether prisons are meant to rehabilitate criminals or keep them away from society is being raised.

Bryan Stevenson, who represents Joe Sullivan, concedes that there is a difference between the death penalty and life without parole. But he says that a life term is different from other prison sentences because it denies the prisoner any hope for a future. “They’re just two different kinds of death sentences,” he said before the court. “One is death by execution, the other death by incarceration.”

Nineteen states, including Louisiana, have filed a brief supporting life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases. “I disagree that the juvenile crimes are any less culpable than the adult crimes,” said Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell in an NPR interview. “These are young criminals. That’s what they are, and the ones who are getting these sentences are the worst of those.”

The court seemed divided on the issue. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said, “The confusion and uncertainty about the moral responsibility of a 13-year-old is such that it is a cruel thing to do to remove from that individual his entire life. You see, we are at the extreme.”

Justice Samuel Alito disagreed with Breyer, remarking, “You are saying that, no matter what this person does, commits the most horrible series of non-homicide offenses that you can imagine, a whole series of brutal rapes, assaults that render the victim paraplegic but not dead, no matter what, the person is sentenced, shows no remorse whatsoever, the worst case you can possibly imagine, that person must at some point be made eligible for parole?”

In a victory for the rights for juveniles, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that a sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional for anyone under 18. The majority opinion, which follows a 2005 ruling that executing minors is unconstitutional, said the punishment must be interpreted in light of the country’s “evolving standards of decency.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, went on to say, “By denying the defendant the right to enter the community, the state makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in society.” Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote a dissenting opinion, said that interpreting the Eighth Amendment with the changing societal standards is “entirely the court’s creation.” He argued that the “question of what acts are ‘deserving’ of what punishments is bound so tightly with questions of morality and social conditions as to make it, almost by definition, a question for legislative resolution.”

Please let me hear from you on what you think about this issue. I have two young adults sentenced to life one in Maryland and one in California. I lost my daughter at the age of 18 and my son at the age of 19 and it haunts me every day. I can’t Imagine losing a younger child at the age of 13 to 14 years old.

‘Fruitvale Station’: The Angry Life and Death of Young, Black Oscar Grant

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A man stands next to a photo of Oscar Grant during a protest against Grant’s killing in Oakland, California, June 12, 2011.

Ryan Coogler’s film ‘Fruitvale Station’ strips the polemics from the news story of Oscar Grant, a man shot to death by police while handcuffed, and presents the victim’s 22-year struggle warts and all.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, 22-year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant was handcuffed and shot in the back at point blank range on a subway platform by Bay Area Transit Police officer Johannes Mehserle.

Shocked onlookers captured the entire incident on video. Oscar Grant, who is African-American, succumbed to his injuries the next day at a local hospital, and the video of his killing went viral. The images of the cuffed young man being shot set off a wake of protests and riots in Oakland—and drew a degree of national attention to the issue of police brutality that hadn’t been as intense since the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers in 1992.

In the days and weeks that followed, Grant’s story devolved into a shouting match in the national media. To some he became a saint who died standing up against police mistreatment. To others, the victim was a scourge whose previous crimes (Oscar Grant served multiple prison stints) somehow justified his killing.

The reality of Oscar Grant’s life and the tragic shooting that ended it is far more complicated than either polarized view—and is the subject of a new feature film, Fruitvale Station, by rookie director Ryan Coogler. The winner of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and opening in select theaters July 12, Fruitvale Station strips Grant’s story of its polemics and focuses on the man himself.

“I wanted to take all the politics out of this film,” Coogler recently told an audience gathered to see a screening of Fruitvale Station at the University of Southern California. “He was 22 when he was shot. I was 22. His friends could have been my friends. That could have been me.”

In 2009, Coogler was a USC film-school student spending his winter break back in Oakland. Oscar Grant’s shooting, he says, was a “gut punch” for both him and his community. Coogler immediately knew he wanted to tackle the issue in some capacity. Through a friend, he was able to land a job with the lawyers in Grant’s civil trial. He worked as an archivist for the cell phone footage taken the night police shot Grant.

Coogler’s access to the specific details of Grant’s case allowed him to piece together the moment-to-moment details of Grant’s last day on Earth—and fleshed out his feelings for Grant as a human being, beyond the black-and-white sketches he’d seen in the media.

After penning an initial script for Fruitvale Station, Coogler, through the lawyers he worked for, convinced Oscar Grant’s family to participate in the film. They provided the filmmaker with achingly intimate memories of Grant, including some they might have choosen to forget if they could.

The result, instead of a hagiography, or a trumped up ode to a soldier martyred in the struggle for social justice, is that Coogler’s film plays like a meditation on the consequences of anger.

Despite a well-intentioned attempt to reboot his life in the wake of a prison sentence, Oscar Grant on the screen in Fruitvale Station is an angry man. His short trigger alienates him from his family, compromises his job prospects and, ultimately, paves the way for the incident that left him dead at the hands of police.

No, he did not deserve the fate he was dealt on that subway platform, but when you put as much anger into the world as Grant did, Coogler seems to be saying, it shouldn’t be suprising when something comes back.

The man who most of us have seen bleeding on a subway platform on YouTube is human. He is neither a martyr, nor a scourge, and he was far from being an aberration.

Oscar Grant was not alone in his anger, and his anger did not emanate from a vacuum. The world has no shortage of young people whose furious dissatisfaction is fueled by and based upon the circumstances they have been born into.

The fact that American audiences cannot help but identify with Oscar Grant is the deep reality that gives this movie its award-winning power, a “gut punch” that is felt long after the screening has finished.