Two years ago, I traveled to Nigeria to do a short documentary on my friend Dena’s organization The Nigerian School Project.
With Dena, I visited the public schools she built on an island of 350,000 people that is not labeled on maps. It has no running water or electricity.
Now, we are growing the film, “From Jersey, With Love” into a full length doc.
In order to complete it, we plan to bring a crew to film the island’s first high school graduation in June.
Last summer, I stayed on the island to get to know the students, teachers and the community better. And, I had the privilege to co-teach the students with a young Nigerian woman who Dena had sponsored through college.
The community embraced us. And, the relationships I built In Nigeria are a source of joy for me and an inspiration for the film.
In a couple of months we are going to start a Kickstarter (crowdfunding) campaign to fund the upcoming filming in Nigeria for the graduation and to capture stronger interview footage.
Please share our project, “From Jersey, With Love.”
Text by K. Cecchini/Production Stills and Series Image Courtesy of Think Ten Media Group
After spending a total of 18 months in solitary confinement during multiple prison stays, William Brown – who has been a free man for five years – willingly reentered the ‘hole’ last summer.
This time, though, he went in with cameras.
Brown plays the fictional role of prisoner Marcus Williams in the scripted web series “The wHOLE.” Think Ten Media Group filmed the first episode in the inactive Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon during August 2014 and released it in March. The 15-minute pilot episode focuses entirely on Brown’s character contendng with solitary confinement.
In order to provoke the intense emotions of being trapped in solitary, Brown said Director Ramon Hamilton asked him to “go to a dark place.” Brown went there; he said he recalled the day he was last released for parole on June 24, 2010 and his aunt told him his good friend had been murdered a couple of weeks prior on June 9 when he was sitting in solitary.
“It really tore” at him when he originally heard the news, Brown said. And when he recounted the story to Hamilton, he said he cried.
For Brown it was healing. For Hamilton, the effect was authentic. Hamilton said from that exercise, Brown improvised something “nobody can write.”
Hamilton, co-founder of Think Ten Media Group with partner Jennifer Fischer, was on tour for their 2012 film “Smuggled” when he heard about the 2013 Pelican Bay Prison hunger strikes in California. He wanted to understand the conditions that the inmates were protesting.
However, Hamilton’s research on prisons quickly led him down a “proverbial rabbit hole,” he said. Therefore he said he and Fischer felt that a single movie could not adequately address the issues. Hamilton said they decided to create a web series and pattern it after HBO’s “The Wire” (2002-8) by dividing it into “parts of the machine” or focusing on different aspects of the prison setting.
Brown inadvertently started to prepare for his role in “The wHOLE” less than two months after his 18th birthday when he was sent to a federal penitentiary for bank robbery in 1995.
For the next 15 years, Brown was in and out of prison -and the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU).
“You’re in jail, but you’re in jail again,” Brown said about his time in solitary. With only one hour a day outside of the cell to shower and exercise, “You lose your mind; it’s like a 23-hour-hell-hold.”
Brown said, “you got to stay real sharp” because with little other stimulation, the soundtrack of the SHU can get to you. The guards’ keys jingling and prisoners screaming and banging are part of the incessant noise.
Sometimes, Brown said, the library would come around with a book. But once you returned it, he said, “you were left alone.”
To stay sane in the SHU, Brown said he would play songs in his head and mentally write beats. The other thing that kept him lucid he said is “knowing that someone on the other side of that wall loves you.”
His time in the real SHU informed Brown’s performance in “The wHOLE.” As Marcus Williams, Brown contends with social isolation within the space. For example, he improvises ‘playing’ piano at the edge of the bed. But he eventually starts to bang on the walls and the commode in response to the guard ignoring his plea and sounds like a persistent faucet drip and buzzing lights.
“How perverse is it that we put people deeper into prison?” Glenn Martin, founder of the justice advocacy organization JustLeadershipUSA, asked.
Martin reflected on his own experiences in the SHU with Tonight at Dawn; he said, “The first day you start reading every scratch on the wall, and by the second day you start talking to yourself” because you are so isolated.
And by the third day? Martin said you can’t tell the difference between ”which voice is yours and which is the one in your head.”
Martin, who will be a co-producer on the second episode of “The wHOLE,” feels like the series compliments his organization’s model because it “amplifies (the) voices” of people who have been in the criminal justice system.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BARS
From Brown’s perspective, “The guards don’t look at (prison) as rehab, they look at it as ‘fuck you,’” because, to them, “you’re just a number on the door”.
Brown said, it’s “eight (hours) and the gate” for the officers.
Dasha Lisitsina wrote about the experiences of correctional officers for The Guardian. The article, published on May 20, has a telling title; “‘Prison guards can never be weak’: the hidden PTSD crisis in America’s jails”.
In the article, Lisitsina writes about how Correctional Officers handle the stress of their job, “Corrections wisdom dictates that you deal with trauma by not dealing with it at all.” According to Lisitsina’s reporting, “‘Eight and the gate’ is the unofficial motto.”
Lisitsina also wrote about the results of an anonymous 2011 survey of correctional officers conducted by Caterina Spinaris founder of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a nonprofit based in Colorado, “Corrections officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at more than double the rate of military veterans in the US.”
Reflecting on this study, Hamilton told Tonight at Dawn, “Our prison systems are no good to anyone involved.” He said future episodes of “The wHOLE” will explore perspectives of other people involved in prisons such as the guards.
‘I GET TO BE WILLIAM’
Sometimes, though, there is something positive to be found in prison.
During Brown’s last prison sentence at the California’s Men’s Colony San Luis Obispo, he learned of the Arts in Correction program and approached the prison’s facilitator Deborah Tobola in 2007 about creating music.
At the time, Tobola needed to replace one of the actors and she had Brown read for the role in a play written by inmates, “Yesterday’s New Arrival.”
Brown was not an actor, but Tobola said she insisted that he had significant talent.
Happy he took the role, Brown still works with Tobola who has since resigned from her government job in 2007 and developed “Poetic Justice Project” in 2008 in Santa Maria for formerly incarcerated youth and adults.
If it weren’t for Tobola, Brown said, “I would not be acting, she saw something in me I did not see.” In fact, it was also Tobola that recommended Hamilton audition him for “The wHOLE” in 2014.
And now, thanks to acting and fatherhood, Brown said he is focused on doing the right thing. He said, “I won’t even jaywalk.”
Since his early teens, William Brown has been called by a lot of names: he was nicknamed Day Day on the street in his early teens and in prison he was called by just his last name or his inmate number. But as an actor today, he is called to stage by his full name.
“The difference for me now,” Brown said, “is I get to be William.”
Mike Huckabee responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage with this gem; he said, “The Supreme Court can no more repeal the laws of nature and nature’s God on marriage than it can the law of gravity.”
Whether you believe in a creator or not, it is fantastical to equate the laws of physics with an institution that serves humans.
If I recall correctly, podcaster Dan Carlin, has actually made the point that the idea of gay marriage should be irrelevant because he does not believe that marriage should be a government institution. If anything, he has argued, governments should provide a notary public to protect legal rights of a couple but that marriage should not be its business.
But, as long as marriage is a governmental institution for heterosexuals, homosexuals should be entitled to it. The worst and the best heterosexual marriages do not impact my own, so why would a homosexual marriage impact it?
Beautiful! In our world, it does not happen often, but LOVE WON today.
The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can marry in ALL 50 STATES!!! As one celebrant on the steps today said, it will bring happiness to not only same-sex couples but straight couples as well. Congratulations to my nation and fellow citizens!
Taking shelter from a downpour on Sunday, I happened upon an interview with New York Times writer Charles M. Blow on his 2014 memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Montclair Public Library. He told the audience that he views the book as an extension of his op-ed column in which he discusses politics, public opinion and social justice issues.
The youngest child of a single mother, “Fire Shut up in My Bones”chronicles Blow’s experiences growing up in a segregated Louisiana town and an incident that drove him from home to the HBCU Grambling State University. His interviewer, James Johnson, pointed out that the title was derived from the Bible (Jeremiah 20:9).
During their conversation, Blow spoke about his family’s roots, social justice and crafting his memoir. He said that being that his last name is uncommon, it was easy to trace his family’s roots and he found Dred Scott to be among his ancestors. He also provided an illustration of how black families are often not able to transfer wealth intergenerationally due to historic blocks. He shared the story of how his sharecropper great great grandfather had to forfeit his land after his wife moved away when they were shot at in their home.
In addition, Blow elaborated on a excerpt from his book in which he tells a story of being threatened by police officers while he was in college. He said, today, he uses the news as impetus to talk to his own sons about how to minimize potentially dangerous misunderstandings with the police. He said, in the few moments of an interaction, there is no time to share your resume – you don’t have time to explain that you have never had trouble with the law, are an academic, etc. All of that can be explained afterwards if a reason arises.
Yet, Blow shared his optimism. He said we are in the midst of a “second civil rights era” and that the issues are beyond race; the young are also bringing up issues on sexuality and the environment. He sees it as a move to practice direct democracy. As happy as he is that there are much discussion today about race, he is not interested in starting a conversation with folks who just think it’s all about pulling the race card. It’s like trying to discuss sexuality with someone who doesn’t think bisexuality is real, he said with a laugh.
Although his book addresses these important themes, it wasn’t his goal in writing it. In fact, he was quite concerned about how he crafted his story. And, by the sound of the excerpts Blow read yesterday, he is a master of the craft. I am looking forward to reading my freshly autographed copy.
It’s been 12 years since the US invasion. “For Iraqis,” Vivian Salama reported last month for the Associated Press, “the various conflicts feel like one long war…”. And, for Americans? Iraq looks like the sum of ISIS, Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction that the United Nations never found.
But, Salama believes she is “privileged” with a different point-of-view; “Iraq is such an incredible place, rich with history and culture,” the Baghdad correspondent told our Rutgers alum magazine, “The people are among the kindest and most misunderstood in the world because of a handful of extremists who have cast a negative light on the society”.
I reached out to Salama for her unique insight on Iraq and its people. For one, she paints a charming picture of the capital’s old quarters; Mutannabbi and Rasheed Streets are “lined with gorgeous old Ottoman-era buildings that truly give visitors a window into another time”. In the “relatively” safe district, men discuss politics and culture in long-established coffee shops, parents bring children to play on the banks of the Tigris River, and, on Fridays, vendors sell books and freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice at the fair. “It’s truly wonderful.”
However, Iraq’s “one long war” is still ever-present in the “true concrete jungle” that is Baghdad. To shield its structures from combat, the streets are lined with expansive concrete walls. Residents “always have to be vigilant”; they factor the ongoing conflicts into every decision and action. Most recently, of course, ISIS’s actions have ricocheted throughout society and citizens are often “horrified at how vulnerable their country was to this threat,” Salama affirms, “and yet not surprised after a decade of war”.
Nonetheless, there are many ways in which Americans can identify with Iraqis, particularly in their vision for life. Most Iraqis desire peace, freedom to move about and worship as they please, and, in the middle of an economic slump, they wish for “the right to earn a living and support their families”.
Although Iraqis convey nuanced views on the United States, Salama feels they are “extremely warm to foreigners” and like to inquire about people’s lives in their home countries and their perspectives on Iraq. Still, many Iraqis are “understandably angry with Americans and,” Salama stresses, “verbalize that in a peaceful way.”
So, by Salama’s calculations, what is the sum of lots of hope, 12 years of war and a history that extends back to the first civilizations? An “incredible” people.
The big 3 Western faiths are a trilogy; they worship different interpretations of the same god and prophets. Ultimately, Allah is God is Yahweh. Depending on perspective, Jesus is a Jew, the Christian son of God or a predecessor to Islam’s Muhammed.
But many Americans prefer to disown Islam.
CBS conducted 3 surveys over the previous decade for impressions on Western religions. Of all them, Christian sects and Judaism were viewed in the most favorable light. Islam? With a favorability rating of 20%, it was wedged between two minor religions that are often flippantly dismissed or demonized as part of America’s pop culture, Mormonism and Scientology.
Even more telling is the near symmetry between the unfavorable views of Islam held by just under half the respondents and the same number who declared Islam encourages “more” violence than the other faiths.
People are typically fearful of the unknown and many Americans have little understanding of Islam. In addition, what people do know about Muslims is that they are frequently linked to extremism in our media and therefore many respondents are likely to be speaking from an emotionally charged framework. There are “…a lot of Americans who don’t or who are unwilling to differentiate or don’t know how to differentiate,” Terry Gross asserted on NPR’s Fresh Air, “between the radical Islam that was behind 9-11 and the rest of the world’s Muslims.”.
While Judeo-Christian Americans are not likely to swap God or Yahweh for Allah, with a more nuanced understanding of Islam perhaps more would develop a greater tolerance for a sister faith.