Builders Wanted

I asked how long she’d been incarcerated.

“20 years, 3 months,” she said. “Those 3 months were hard.”

She was in seg, the hole.

Name: Sarah Stadtfeld

Work: Chi-Fresh Kitchen

Persona: Womanizer

“I wouldn’t say I was a bad person back then, I just had no guidance, you know what I’m saying? I would say I was pretty reckless but still respectful to other people at the same time.”

Nobody is entirely one thing, it’s complex. I read a book once by some famous lawyer guy who made a name for himself by struggling in Alabama to help people on death row not end up dead at the hand of a system designed as a trap. I remember he said something like this: you are more than the worst thing you have ever done.

I think about that when I’m having a bad day, or when a memory of something I got wrong makes its way to the front of my thoughts or when I’m lucky enough to be interviewing someone who’s been incarcerated. 

I go out of my way not to bring up the crime which led to their incarceration.

I get feeling they’ve had plenty of time to think about it and wonder quietly how many times should they have to explain themselves, it’s like trapping someone forever in a moment and life isn’t supposed to work that way, we all need momentum to move forward, to take the next wobbly step toward something new in our lives, to let go of shame like a shifty childhood friend we miss but know in our heart is best left behind.

I was helping Parole Illinois, managing their website newsfeed, encouraging them to tell stories about people who’d gotten out of prison so we could see them as a full person instead of the static mugshot they’d be running from for the rest of their lives. I heard that Parole Illinois had been selected by Dill Pickle for their “Round Up Program.” At the time, I thought Dill Pickle was a kosher pickle and round ups were for cowboys.

I like pickles.

I like cowboys.

But neither was true.

Dill Pickle is a food co-op in Logan Square. The Round Up program is how they help to raise money for the community. Let’s say your grocery bill comes to a total of $35.49. You can round up to $40.00. The $4.51 goes to the organization Dill Pickle has selected to help support that month. It could be Chi-Fresh Kitchen, it could be The Night Ministry, or in this particular case, it could be Parole Illinois.

They’re all worthy in their own way. Chi-Fresh Kitchen is an up and coming food business run by men and women who were formerly incarcerated. The Night Ministry helps to feed and clothe the homeless. Parole Illinois is committed to ending life without parole in Illinois. 

We’re all part of the same community but doing very different things with our time. It’s tempting to talk about the greater good, but for some reason I can’t quite explain, the greater good sounds loftier than it is in real life. In real life, the greater good is people showing up to work, putting together meals for delivery, loading up an RV with food and clothes, activists making pesky phone calls to legislators who like to pretend they’re busy, when in fact, it’s the legislator’s job to take the calls and get the bill passed or go back to being a civilian and let somebody else take a crack at getting the job done.

Name: Jessico Dickerson

Work: Dill Pickle

Persona: Truth Teller

Pronoun: They

“Once you become woke you realize that the world is not meant for you, the world is not designed for you to benefit, to grow, to advance, to be who you really are. Now there seems to be an opening for change, for dialog, more people are becoming aware of the injustices Black and Brown People face around the world, not just in The United States.”

I asked Jessico what it meant to be woke, a word I hear more and more but feel like it’s already becoming an eye-roll before anyone has the chance to slow down and ask what it really means. This is what they said…

“Being conscious of power dynamics and privilege and using your privilege to advance those less privileged, challenging the powers that be, speaking up.”

I asked Jessico when was the last time they spoke up.

“Probably yesterday,” they laughed.

“Did it get you in trouble?” I asked.

“Not yet,” they said. “I sent a message asking about accountability for The Abolitionist Challenge. On our end we were supposed to perform one activity that helped challenge oppression in the workplace. The management never held one another accountable to that and so this is a 6 month program, it started in August and ended in February, and not once were we ever asked to present what our activity was for each month and it is now Black History Month and we’re talking about all that we’re doing on Social Media without having an internal conversation about power dynamics between leadership and hourly staff.”

The guts. To recognize how Social Media is a performance and all too often it gives us a pass from having the internal conversation, where life actually happens. We curate our lives but we’re not a retrospective, we’re actually groping our way through the darkness, making all kinds of mistakes but it seems like all anyone wants to do is celebrate who has the most thumbs up or likes or followers. It’s tempting to call it a sick game but I play the game too. Calling it sick doesn’t solve the problem, it really just lets me off the hook without having to do anything about it.

I asked Jessico if they were inspired by The Abolitionist Challenge to actually do anything or if the end result was performative.

“Teresa and I were attempting to organize a training around anti-oppression in the workplace with a local group called Cross Roads and we had a meeting with one of the facilitators to gather more information and we presented that to the management team and it just, I don’t know, it just never manifested.”

Between working and living and finding time to see friends and maybe riding your bike not for the commute to work but for the joy of living in Chicago, it’s funny how actually holding on to making something happen almost always falls through the cracks and I don’t know for sure because I have yet to have the honor of meeting LaDonna Redmond, who runs The Abolitionist Challenge, but maybe she expects the attempt to fail so everyone understands just how easy it is to let go of a good intention. Maybe LaDonna Redmond is secretly training the muscles you will need to build the kind of stamina that makes it possible to actively challenge oppression. I hope to meet her one day. Oh, and I apologize in advance if the correct pronoun isn’t her. That ain’t me being woke, that’s just me being courteous.

“I come across unapologetic,” they said.

Name: Teresa Meza

Work: Dill Pickle

Persona: Boss

“We had readings and trainings around what it means to be an abolitionist. One of the things we talked about is how everything to do with mass incarceration is part of the same process, it’s all connected to slavery, it’s all connected to the same oppression and anything that works on reducing mass incarceration is abolitionist work.”

It’s such a scary word, abolitionist.

It makes people think we want to wave a magic wand and poof – all prisons are gone – but it begs the question: aren’t there bad people who belong there, like Derek Chauvin, what about them, do they go free? Don’t we need prisons?

It’s like Black Lives Matter, there was all this blowback from people who said All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, as if God forbid we slowed down long enough to admit Black Lives have never mattered, not in America.

Name: Kimberly Britt

Work: Chi-Fresh Kitchen

Persona: Team Quarterback

“Grace House was a good resource and it helped me to transition because they offer a lot of different programs as far as therapy, anger management, to help you integrate back into society. Even though I really didn’t think I needed therapy, or had anger inside of me, I found out once I started going through the therapy sessions that I had feelings detrimental to my integration back into society.”

Once you’ve been kicked out, how do you get back in? Once you’ve been labeled, how do you decode the google search? Once the power of stigma has been weaponized to steal your identity, how do you not spend the rest of your life at war with the Stigma Trolls? You have to let go or you’re trapped in their idea of you, constantly explaining yourself instead of living in the forward thrust of collaboration.

We need community.

Name: Edrinna Bryant

Work: Chi-Fresh Kitchen

Persona: Preacher

“Do not never let no officer, no warden, no parole agent, nobody tell you what you cannot do once you walk up out those doors cuz you have the choice.”

Amen!

Name: Burke Patten

Work: Night Ministry

Persona: The Lamb

“Mondays and Wednesdays we only have one stop. We’re out every day. The reason we only have one stop on Mondays and Wednesdays is because later in the evening we do our outreach at The CTA. So we’re at the 95th Street Station on the Red Line and The Forest Park Station on the Blue Line from 9PM until 1AM, offering the same type of services to folks who are riding the trains.”

Funny thing about momentum, it’s a fundamental desire. Of course there’s warmth in the winter months, but the feeling of going somewhere is built into the irrational nature of this moment in time, as though our DNA has been shaped by the speed of everything, how fast a text message gets to your iPhone, how quickly we get frustrated when the internet signal is slow, how we’re competing with each other to see who gets to the finish line first when life isn’t built to be a race, it’s built to be shared, we’re built to be noticed and have you ever stopped long enough to notice how easy it is to pretend the homeless guy isn’t really there, standing on the corner with a cardboard sign while you’re in a hurry to get to your colonoscopy. What’s the hurry? You know what you’re full of.

Name: Renee Taylor

Work: Chi-Fresh Chicago

Persona: The Brave Loner

“I started in Dwight, from Dwight I went to Logan, from Logan I went back to Dwight, from Dwight I went to Lincoln, and then Lincoln switched with the men in Logan, Lincoln is right across the street from Logan, so they switched and all the women in Lincoln went across the street to Logan and all the men in Logan came across the street to Lincoln. So I paroled from Logan.”

It’s all so clear in her mind, each prison, where she was, where she was transferred, where she was paroled. Don’t know how she does it, wish I could remember who I dated in my 20’s and how I can find them to apologize.

“When I came home I was overwhelmed. I felt like it was too much for me to be out here and I cried a lot. I cried a lot when I first came home because I didn’t know what to do and the people that I was accustomed to being around, I was no longer around. I just felt alone. So I really felt alone and I cried a lot and then I called a few people that was in there with me, you know, on the inside. I had their numbers, so I called them to talk to them about it because my family would not have understood what I was going through.”

There’s a mechanism of control which seeks to separate us from those who understand the circumstances of our humiliation so we’re left hopelessly looking into the eyes of oppression for the illusion of understanding.

“Going in I was never a bad person, you know, you just be a victim of circumstances, so you get caught up in some things and it lands you in prison. It’s easy to get in there, it’s hard to get out.”

Name: David Nobel

Work: Dill Pickle

Persona: Professor, HBCU

“My father, he was an entrepreneur, he had his own carpet business, my mom was a teacher. I went to Morgan Park Academy for high school, my sisters went to University of Chicago Lab School. It was all about diversity and inclusion for us. My parents were part of The Great Migration.”

Call me trendy but at the exact minute in time this conversation went down, I happened to be reading “The Devil You Know,” so The Great Migration was something I could pretend to understand; when in fact, I’d only just heard about it in the 5th decade of my spoiled asshole life. It begs the question: who in the Hell kept it out of the school books I read and why were they called school books when they should have been called idiot manifestos?

“It’s actually reversing, a lot of people are going back. And it’ll reverse again. Things go in cycles.”

Name: Camille Kerr

Work: Chi-Fresh Kitchen

Persona: Builder

Camille went to law school.

“I was interested in human rights stuff but it felt a little paternalistic, a lot paternalistic, and I went to civil rights. Civil rights felt less like the west telling the world how to act when we’re shooting folks in our own communities. Civil rights appealed to me but honestly, I was going to get burned out. The fight! The fight! And just trying to claw back what had been taken, it wasn’t the right fight for me but trying to build something new, I’m a builder, you know, I’m a builder and trying to build something new felt like the right fit.”

My 8 year old nephew likes to play with Legos but he doesn’t consider it playing with Legos, he considers himself a builder. When we’re on the floor together, gathering parts and pieces and ideas for the next project, it’s easily the most thrilling part of my life. I know this sounds like I’m turning a little thing into a big thing to score points, and maybe that’s the truth, but so what? I never met a lawyer I couldn’t wait to pay and walk away from, I never met a builder I didn’t want to invite out for drinks.

“Everybody said if you wanted to do rights work, you needed to understand the legal foundation behind it, so I went and did it, and the human rights work specifically, but then what I learned was I didn’t fit with what they were trying to do. But the legal degree is helpful, it helps to see the context.”

What is context besides building tension for a punchline and how can you possibly laugh at a joke without recognizing the biggest joke of all is the way we’re letting those who seem to be at the top treat those of us who’ve accepted our place at the bottom. Screw that! I’m done with that! I refuse to accept my place! So get on board, get with me or get the Hell out of my way!

“You gotta fight the fight. You gotta build a different narrative. You gotta train people on the skills for what’s new. Honestly, the reason I’m doing this work is this is killing all of us, the way that we structure society is stopping all of us from being free. You can’t enjoy life when you know what’s on the backs of people, deep down you can’t enjoy a nice house when you know it’s being cleaned by people who don’t have access to their basic needs, when the people who serve your food don’t have access to their basic needs. We need to re-think what we’re doing. And reset. It really is hurting the soul of our entire nation, not to re-think, not to repair from where we’ve been.”

I asked Camille how we repair from where we’ve been. This is what she said and I haven’t been able to stop thinking that her idea might very well be the blueprint for something beautiful we could all share.

“One, you redistribute some money. Step one is you give back the money you took, you know? If you just talk alone about the labor during the years of slavery, or if you just talk alone about red lining, or if you just talk alone about how much art and cultural genius was stolen. But you also have to make sure it doesn’t go back to where it was, you have to build structures that are equitable, build businesses that are just and equitable on the other side, right? If you’re looking, it’s easy to see what’s wrong, it’s easy to articulate, if you’re looking – what’s wrong – but I think a lot of people have difficulty envisioning what else could be and that’s what we’re trying to build: what else could be.”

Name: Greg Morelli

Work: Writer

Persona: Lego Master Sidekick

My whole life, I’ve been looking for my community.

I didn’t fit in with the jocks, I was a great swimmer but I couldn’t go back-and-forth in the pool one more time without losing my mind. I didn’t fit in with the theater geeks, I loved acting but shopping around my headshot felt needy. I didn’t fit in with the stoners, they accepted me as long as I took a hit off the joint but I soon found out that smoking pot trapped the words inside my head and the very first time I passed the joint without taking a hit, I was out.

I love music but it’s a world of addicts living their lives in extended adolescence. I love comedy but it’s a coping mechanism, not a career. I love writing but I just don’t see myself hawking books on daytime talk shows dressed like I’m on the way to a bris.

I’d rather date Vladimir Putin than go to law school. I’d rather tie a bungee cord to my dick and jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than spend one second at Mar-a-Lago. I’d rather die than golf.

So where’s my community? It turns out, my community is made up of all the people on the outside looking in, only we’re not looking in for acceptance, not anymore, we’re looking in for a glimpse of those who are sick of the bullshit, sick of the double-talk, sick of the laws built to support a system of racist insanity. We used to be the outsiders, the outlaws, the fools and while we’re happy to be thought of as fools, make no mistake, we’re not fooling around. We’re taking this country but we’re not taking it back, we’re taking it over the heads of the founding fathers, to a place where the Lego Masters dream.

Acknowledgements…

I’d like to thank Parole Illinois for including me in the fight to end life without parole. I’d like to thank The Grace House and Chi-Fresh Kitchen for their redemptive work and delicious food. I’d like to thank The Night Ministry for opening the doors of their RV at the South Shore bus stop on the corner of Jeffrey & 70th Street. I’d like to thank Dill Pickle for connecting all of us to each other, for taking The Abolitionist Challenge, for having the grace to continue The Round Up Program in the middle of a global pandemic while juggling inventory and payroll on the tightrope wire of a 1% profit margin.

Dedicated to what else could be.

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